Street art was on Dutch painter Marleen’s bucket list for years, but she kept finding a reason to postpone it. When a trip to Bali with a friend got cancelled, however, she knew it was time to make the leap. A VAWAA in Buenos Aires with renowned street artist Pum Pum would give her the opportunity to learn the entire mural process from start to finish and create her own piece of street art. And even though she was traveling alone for the first time, something she was nervous about, Marleen realized that spending her days with a local artist who had friends throughout the city would enable her to meet new people during her trip.
Sure enough, Marleen did more than check an item off her bucket list in Buenos Aires. After creating her first mural with Pum Pum, she was offered the chance to make a second at one of the most prestigious street art galleries in the city. She learned new artistic approaches that she’s brought back to her painting practice in the Netherlands. And, perhaps most memorably, she made new friends with the warm and welcoming people of Buenos Aires, which she says was her favorite part of the trip.*
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I live in the Hague, Netherlands. I have a desk job during the day, and I paint part-time. I’ve been painting not for so long. I think I picked up drawing a couple of years ago, and now I’m renting a studio for painting. I like to do stuff and to be active. I’m more of a doer than a philosopher. I like to explore new things, new adventures, people I can do that with.
What drew you to painting?
I was drawing a lot as a kid, and my mom was a painter. And my brother is a designer. My grandpa also used to paint. So I think it’s like a genetic thing, where we’re super visual focused or something. When I was bored I just started drawing something with graphite pencil and posted it online, had some nice feedback, and I was like, “Okay, I can try this again.”
And then of course, you challenge yourself, you want to improve and you want to try new things. To keep it exciting. I think once you’re doing it, it triggers something, so it’s constantly in the back of your mind. Thinking of new ways, or you see something and you’re like “Wow, that would be so cool to paint.”
What’s a dream you have for your future?
I’d like to do painting with my job 50-50. Because right now I’ve got a full-time job, and I think just painting for me would be too boring. So I’d like to do something 50-50. Also I think it’s cool to do something you’re super passionate about. There’s a natural life-work balance, and if you’re super passionate about the things you do, then you don’t mind putting in some extra time and stuff. And then location wise, I’d like to spend a couple of years living on the west coast of the US. It seems to be super busy with the arts. I think second on the list actually would be somewhere in Japan. Live in a super cool tiny house on the hill or something. Not forever, just for a couple of years.
Marleen working on her first mural, a depiction of Japanese cranes. Courtesy of Marleen De Graaf.
What drew you to a VAWAA with Pum Pum?
Making wall art was on my bucket list for over two years. And I thought it would be a cool thing, but I was always postponing it. So I thought I needed to improve more before starting a mural or something. I was supposed to go to Bali with a friend, but then she couldn’t go. And then when I saw Pum Pum I was like, “Yes. Okay, I’m going to do this.”
Had you traveled solo before?
Not a full trip, but I like to go a couple of days to do my own thing, to go to museums, and do stuff that I found online or on Pinterest that I’m pretty sure my friends are not so excited about. But never a full vacation on my own. This was the first time.
How did that go?
I was so lucky with Pum Pum, because she was so nice. She recommended that I do a graffiti tour with friends of hers. It was called Graffitimundo, so then I met a friend of hers, super nice, and she invited me to the gallery, so I met some people there. And then of course, I met some other people as well. So I was very happy meeting so many nice people.
Tell us about when you arrived and first met Pum Pum.
We first met for coffee. We exchanged experiences and backgrounds, just really got to know each other. It was very nice, because you’re going to spend three days together. And also for her, I think, to know what kind of person I am, what experience I have. And also, for me, to get to know her a bit. It was cool to learn that she has this big group of friends, and they’ve been doing these wall art works for many, many, many years. It was really cool, like the history of all her pieces were throughout Buenos Aires.
She said we needed to make a plan, and she asked if I had ideas about what I wanted to make. I showed her some sketches, and she was super excited about some of them. So I think we agreed on some homework. Because you know, the next day we had to start, so there had to be a final design and she had to know what the plan was, so I had to make this drawing.
And what was it like working with Pum Pum?
She’s super chill, super friendly. Everything was good. It was super nice, and it was a really good experience. Pum Pum showed me all these techniques, like how to make perfect circles, what kind of paint to use, all the steps and preparations. And just all these steps. It was very nice to have somebody who just shows you the full process.
Tell us a little more about the process of actually creating a mural.
First is the design, super important. Which is a challenge for me, because actually I do not like sketching. This was super good for me, because you learn to be very efficient with your time, because you cannot dabble on a wall. Of course, we also had three days and it had to be finished. So I think once the design was ready, the next day we started measuring. It was done in layers. First it’s the gray wall. The second layer we did with crayon, and I did the outline. Then we did the birds in white on the base layer. Then I think we put some black, and then some yellow. And the next day we came back to clean it and to make the edges a little tighter. And to put some little 3D effects there.
The completed mural. Courtesy of Marleen De Graaf.
What was your routine like while you were there?
We’d meet every day around 11am. So I would get up, get some coffee and breakfast, go to Pum Pum, and she would have coffee and cookies and mate tea. Then we would go to the wall. And then paint. And when you’re painting, the time goes by so quickly, and you don’t do anything else. And before you know it, five hours have passed, and it’s time to wrap it up and go. We painted until around 6pm. I was renting an Airbnb, so I would go back there. But Argentina is so chill. Because everything’s open so late. So you know, until 10pm or something you can still get coffee and croissants and pastries. Of course, if it’s 10pm it’s like dinner time. It took some time getting used to that. It was very nice. So I would just go back, and maybe do some shopping and have dinner and do my homework for the mural.
Tell us the story of your second mural and how that came to be.
I was at the Graffitimundo gallery, one of the best urban art galleries in Buenos Aires. I met this lady through the graffiti tour, and I was telling her about Pum Pum, and it turns out they were friends. And I told her that I was actually looking for a spot to do another mural. I had this idea to make a super small one, inspired by the breakfast in Argentina, which is a strong coffee with these two medialunas (Argentine croissants). But then she actually offered a big piece of wall in the Graffitimundo gallery. She told me there was plenty of space, and I could do whatever I wanted. So I changed my design because I had more space. And I just love pink, and there was no pink in the first mural, and these were all ladies anyway, so I thought it’d be nice to make the mural pink. When I was on Pinterest I stumbled across this giant peacock. And I changed it in color and design, obviously. But that’s how the second one was created.
Marleen's completed second mural. Courtesy of Marleen De Graaf.
What did you enjoy about painting murals?
Because I’m such an indoor artist, you’re alone all the time. And I feel like it’s a bit of a boring hobby to have sometimes. Until you show your work to other people, of course, and you see how excited they get. I think with the mural, you have this interaction quicker. So you will get this response from people. Even though you’re not there to show it, anybody can pass by and say “Hey, I saw what you did.”
This was your first time in Buenos Aires. What was your favorite thing about the city?
I was super lucky with the neighborhood I chose, which was Palermo. Even though it was winter, everybody would be outside in the parks, enjoying the little bit of sun. I think the vibe and the way they live is really nice. And I super enjoyed that everything was open so late and people are really outside and enjoying each other’s company. And they’re much more open to connecting with people. I was so welcomed, and I couldn’t be happier. Because it was quite scary, just to go there by myself. But in Buenos Aires they’re so nice and so welcoming. So I think the people would be the best thing about the trip.
What was your favorite memory from your experience?
It’s hard to pick just one thing. I think just in general, everything was nice about it. At the end you’re super proud, and at the beginning you’re super excited. You can do anything you like, anything is possible. It’s a nice feeling to have. And then in the middle things start to take shape, which is also interesting. And I really loved drinking coffee and eating cookies. I was a bit sad to leave, because the vibe was so nice. I did some nice things there, because I had never done a mural before, and then I did two there. I was also a little bit proud. And I was a little bit sad to leave all these people behind that I’d just met.
How did making your own murals impact your painting back home?
The preparation phase. I have one wall piece that I’m going to do here in the next two months. I’m going to make this giant squid in somebody’s home. It’s not going to be the main thing I’m going to do, but I’d like to do a couple of them a year, because for me it’s hard to plan ahead and do the sketches and be super productive. I tend to be too relaxed, because it’s not my main source of income. Sometimes I chill too much. I mean, Pum Pum and I were so productive. In like three days, spending just a couple of hours each day, we created this thing. I really took home the vision of what it’s worth to plan ahead, to make a good sketch, and to just go for it. So I hope to be more productive in the future, also with my other canvas paintings.
*Comments have been lightly edited for clarity and length