The Awesome Graffiti of Belgium's Doomed Ghost Town

  • It’s eerie feeling: walking down the streets of a modern town where no one – or almost no one – lives. The roads are still usable, many of the houses look habitable, yet there is barely a car to be seen, certainly not moving, and the rooms behind the windows are all but empty. This is the abandoned village of Doel, in Belgium, a place one recent visitor described as “the most spooky place I have ever been; real shiver down the spine stuff.”

  • Despite the town’s virtually deserted state, there is life in Doel – beyond the scattering of people who remain. The life forms include giant animals, weird looking human figures and aliens, alongside robots and strange, disconnected body parts. They’re all here in the form of huge graffiti art pieces that cover many of the walls and buildings in this abandoned settlement. And they’re as colorful and varied as anything found in nature.

  • In this piece by graffiti artist Roa, a giant crow stands waiting for a worm to show. Does this somehow resonate with Doel’s fate?

    Sadly, though, like the reverse graffiti and moss graffiti covered previously by EG, this street art is not expected to last forever. This isn’t simply the transience associated with all graffiti, either. Soon, when the authorities have their way, the art will find itself at the bottom of a harbor; incredible graffiti pieces, as doomed as bricks on which they are painted.

  • Doel has been in existence for hundreds of years, dating back to at least 1267, when it was known as ‘The Doolen’. Because of its heritage, there are many historical buildings in the village, including the oldest stone windmill in Belgium, constructed in 1611, and a house built by famous 17th-century painter Peter Paul Rubens. To the north lies the Doel Nuclear Power Station (whose cooling towers you can see in this photo), which produces electricity for Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

  • Yet it was not only such noteworthy landmarks that lured photographer and filmmaker Romany WG – real name Jeremy Gibbs – to Doel. An urban explorer interested in the decay of our built environments, and the beauty that lies therein, Romany WG came to take pictures of the abandoned village and the awesome graffiti pieces that have sprung up there since its residents began to leave in 1999.

  • Despite having stood for over seven centuries, Doel is slated to be demolished in order to make way for the widening of Antwerp’s harbor. The government has been attempting to seize the land for this purpose since the 1970s, but it didn’t succeed in passing the demolition order until 1999.

  • Graffiti has always been a way for artists to make political statements; here’s an image of Barack Obama as the joker, in a piece by Ives.

    The government’s decision to raze Doel to the ground has not been without controversy. Unsurprisingly, many of the residents protested the planned demolition of their beloved village. However, the government would not budge on the issue, and in 2008 a squad of 100 riot police were sent in to make sure the officials’ orders were carried out.

  • These two cute birds, attributed to Pinwin, seem to chirp obliviously on the wall of this partially demolished building.

    The aftermath of the government’s aggressive approach wasn’t pretty. A local press release set the scene, saying, “The streets are strewn with rubble, big ugly gaps appeared in between the houses. The village now looks like a war torn zone.” The move prompted widespread indignation, criticism and media interest. Still, plans to expand the harbor at the expense of the village remain firmly in place.

  • The graffiti piece on this building is by multiple street artists; the pink gorilla by Resto, the flowers by Santos, the bird by Roa, and the strange buckled egg by Yen. Apart from visitors like these artists, who have come to decorate the walls of Doel with their giant works, there are said to be no more 200 people left in the town, perhaps even less. This includes many who may be squatting in the vacant properties.

  • In what looks like a statement about the fate of the village, a giant with bulging eyes grabs at buildings; this piece is by Resto.

    In 2009, Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto wrote a heartfelt plea to the Flemish president to try and change his mind about the demolition. “Minister President,” he wrote. “I was deeply struck by the esthetical power of this place. Watching over the surrounding landscape from the riverbank, I felt as if I was standing on a metaphysical axis where different time ages intersect.”

  • Pistoletto’s letter went on to describe this intersection of ages: “Right before me, the quiet village with the picturesque dock; behind me the river and the bustling port of Antwerp; to the right, the ancient windmill overshadowed by the two colossal cooling towers of the nuclear power plant; and to the right the gigantic cranes of the Deurganck Dock.”

    Perhaps Pistoletto could have added, “And all around, street art by some of Europe’s leading contemporary graffiti artists.” He certainly saw the creative potential of the place, stating, “I am sure it could become a prestigious artistic and tourist venue with international fame,” and that “the village could become an ideal and highly original venue to stage fabulous open-air productions and international art exhibits.”

  • Still, as with the pleas of the villagers, Pistoletto’s letter did not change the government’s mind. The completion of the demolition is supposed to happen any time now, as it has been several years since residents were given their final notice. One feels this fate is the inspiration behind this beautiful tearful work by street artists Steaz and Wacks.

  • Here’s another shot that shows one of the cooling towers in the nuclear power station near Doel. The Doel Nuclear Power Plant is one of two stations in Belgium, and both of its cooling towers can be seen from the Port of Antwerp. Presently, the plant is offline for inspection, at least until December 2012.

  • An interesting piece signed by the artist Eyes.B.

    Photographer Jeremy Gibbs has been interested in street art since 2005. “As with punk and now urbex [urban exploration], subcultures have always been an interest to me,” he has said. “I saw a piece by James Cauty in Nude magazine of the Houses of Parliament being blown up and I searched and bought a print of that. That was the first of probably 150 prints of Cauty’s work I bought and then branched out more with other ‘street/urban artists’.”

  • Gibbs started out photographing street art exhibitions but soon moved more towards art in actual urban environments – like this giant rooster by Mayb. “I am more into the art on the street and if it’s illegal even better,” he says. “I am more interested in the vandalism of painting or pasting a piece illegally on a wall for everyone to see. Unfortunately there’s not so much of that about anymore.”

  • In what looks like another reference to Doel, painted by Anton, a lady sits mournfully behind a group of houses. On the left, black birds by the artist known as 0331c fly against a white background. Judging by the state of wall belonging to the house on the right, it looks like some demolition has already been done here.

  • These painted eyes add to the creepy atmosphere of the abandoned village. A stark contrast is also created between the art pieces and the ordinary looking brick buildings on which they’re painted. The little love hearts on the doors may be an original detail though.

  • Here, a rat lies sprawled across some garage doors. The colorful planks of wood sticking out of the rodent’s body could be the reason it doesn’t look happy, if it’s alive at all. This particular piece is a combination of work by Roa and Santos, and it somehow seems to be an appropriate symbol for an abandoned town doomed to die.

  • Can you spot the green monster?

    This looks like a scene from any town, anywhere – except for the eerie lack of people. You can see why it must have been difficult for the residents to leave behind what seem like perfectly good homes. Looking at this scene, it’s hard to imagine that all this will soon be gone.

  • You never know what you’re going to see on Doel’s walls. How about a headless pig? “I am obsessed by animals!” Belgian street artist Roa has said. “For me they tell so much more about this world than any other creature, but maybe in a year I’ll only paint landscapes…’

  • Giant animals, alive or dead, certainly are Roa’s favorite subjects, at least for now. Here’s another one – this time a dead bunny. The image goes well with the derelict state of the building on which it’s emblazoned. “It’s nice to paint in a restful and left behind place,” the artist says of his work in abandoned sites. “It’s like an oasis [within] ‘civilization’.”

  • Here’s a house lots of kids (and probably quite a few adults) would love to live in; it’s decorated with cute cartoon characters by street artist Blue.

    You may have noticed the HDR look to some of Gibbs’s photographs. “HDR is like Marmite [a yeast extract spread on bread and toast], you either like it or you don’t,” he says. “In urbex it can really bring out the details in the decay and with good processing can really transform the shots. I love Marmite and HDR.”

  • According to Roa, painting in Doel was an experience all of its own. Some of the residents thought of the graffiti artists as allies, their “act of rebellion” helping their cause by drawing attention to the town. Others saw them as vandals and even formed “neighborhood watch” groups to “hunt down graffiti painters.”

  • A Roa crow lies claws-up on a wall in this desolate looking street. Yet although the weeds are overgrown, the trees in this photograph still seem surprisingly well manicured. And of you look carefully, you can see a bicycle leaning against one of the walls.

  • A giant black and white clown holds up a fish. Of course, once the village is no more, fish in the expanded harbor may be the only audience for the graffiti.

    “I tend to try to get over to Europe every three months and do a road trip taking in as many places as I can,” said Gibbs in 2011. “There’s much more beauty in the decay over there, especially Italy where you can find amazing frescoes and stunning architecture just left to the elements. Such a shame, but it is our job/hobby to document for posterity.”

  • Here’s another collaborative effort, this time between Roa and 0331c. Roa’s crow looks a little annoyed at being shot by those pesky arrows. “Because I am showing someone’s art and not showcasing my photography it is important that the art is not compromised by the photograph,” Gibbs elaborates on his style. “So as far as techniques go I keep the colours exactly as they come out of the camera, and the D700/800 is perfect in that respect.”

  • “I think we are all secretly explorers,” says Gibbs, offering an insight into the attraction of urbex. “Everyone remembers the vacant old house on the corner of the street when we were kids and the stories we all used to make up to scare one another. I still have very vivid memories of my first explore when I was still in shorts. There’s not so much danger out there if you are careful but all it would take is one nasty accident, some bad press and things will change.”

    We thank Jeremy Gibbs, a.k.a. Romany WG, for sharing his photographs of Doel and the doomed ghost town’s amazing graffiti art. He’s clearly created an incredible record of something that, sadly, will soon be gone forever.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Art and Design