Collin van der Sluijs Elevates Graffiti to New Heights

Collin van der Sluijs's latest wall in Laon, France, 2024



I caught up with Collin van der Sluijs as he put the finishing touches on a four-story-tall rooster in a small town in France. "I'm baking from the heat, so it's a good time for a break," he tells me.

While some artists shy away from graffiti, dismissing it as a mere teenage fling with urban art, Collin van der Sluijs raises it to new heights, literally. His style blends formal academic art training with illustrative boldness. Drawing inspiration from unexpected sources like Michelangelo and Da Vinci (yes, the cartoon characters), he has spearheaded a graffiti renaissance. On July 5th, he returns to Vertical Gallery in Chicago for his fifth solo show, Observer.


CGN: Observer is a clever title for the exhibit - it tows the line between perception and attention to something or someone, and surveillance. What prompted this show? Did you build it with a question in mind?

Collin van der Sluijs: I’m always asking questions. Who am I, what am I doing here?  I am always looking around for answers, observing my surroundings. 

When I’m walking through a city or cycling through the landscape, I’m also looking at walls. I think, “That would be a nice one to paint.”  I will stop and paint watercolors en plein air. I try to make an interpretation of whatever it is I’m looking at. When I’m in the studio – my studio is in my hometown in Maastricht. I can just go there by bike like a typical Dutch guy and in ten minutes I'm there – I’m working on paintings about things that I’ve experienced or things I’ve seen. We are all observers.


CGN: Yet not all of us are equipped with that ability to pay attention, especially to something as familiar as a wall on our commute. Maybe this sounds basic, but what makes a wall interesting to you?  

CvdS: The wall doesn’t have to be downtown. The building itself can be along an interesting route. It’s almost always a portrait, not a landscape wall. I don’t know why. If it's a tall surface, I see it and think, “That’s a pretty good spot for a painting. It's a feeling of sport, too, in a way."


Collin van der Sluijs, a Maastricht, Netherlands wall in progress, summer 2024


CGN: Sounds challenging. Can you tell me more about how graffiti ended up in your art practice?

CvdS: “When I was about 10 or 11, I went grocery shopping with my mom and dad. I saw a group of guys in the city painting graffiti. I thought, “Wow, this is like drawing outside your little bedroom and into the wild. Before that I was always drawing the classics, like the Ninja Turtles and cartoons. When I came back home from that I started sketching – and to be honest it looked like shit. But I always stuck with it.

My parents sent me to art school because they thought it would be better for me to learn something there. They were always supportive.

While being in the art academy I tried to find a way to get that graffiti feeling into my art. I combined spray paint with oils and acrylics, which they didn’t like. It took some time to master that combination. I still haven't mastered it, but that’s fine because otherwise it would be boring. 


CGN: It used to be a sort of unspoken rule to not get caught tagging buildings, etc. but it seems like graffiti is picking up in the mainstream art world – I’m thinking of a certain famously anonymous graffiti artist, for example -- but you embrace it and make it a part of your gallery work, which is refreshing. Did you ever get caught? 

CvdS: No, never. I also never would cover people’s houses or whatever. If it’s an abandoned building that’s about to get torn down anyway, that’s ok.

In art, there is – or maybe was -- a tendency to hide it. Some artists will say “I’m not 16 anymore.” There were times when I tried to hide it, but it didn’t work out. For me it is how everything started. It’s a thing from the past that will always haunt me in a positive way. Now I travel everywhere because of it. 


Collin van der Sluijs


CGN: This is your 5th show at Vertical. How is this show different from the others to you?

How did you scale-down? 

Collin van der Sluijs


CvdS: The way I work hasn’t changed over the years, but what I observe. I started with gallery work around 1990—growing from small shows to bigger shows. I see how things change. Like murals going mainstream. More artists working out of the box.


Growing as an artist doesn't necessarily mean 'growing up' from the things that fascinated us as children. Sometimes, it just means finding a bigger wall to scale. 

“If I were to give my younger self advice, I'd say to believe in yourself. It won't be easy; there will be unsafe and crazy situations, but when the project is completed, you'll often leave with a laugh. If you don't take a risk, you'll never know."




Collin van der Sluijs
July 5 - 27, 2024
Opening reception: Friday July 5th, 5:00-8:00pm
Vertical Gallery – 2006 W Chicago Ave #1R



Collin van der Sluijs