UP6 - A Portrait of the Dutch Graffiti Queen: Mick La Rock

Written by Giulia 'BLocal' Riva

In the bustling world of European graffiti art, few names carry as much weight as Mick La Rock’s. Born Aileen Middel in 1970, Mick La Rock began her journey as a graffiti writer in the early ’80s, a time when the culture was still in its infancy. In the male-dominated realm of graffiti, she stood out as one of Europe’s first and most well-known female graffiti writers. But her influence extends beyond her gender. While staying true to the original New York style throughout the decades, she developed a studio practice that pushed the boundaries of what was possible with graffiti art, growing from an act of lettering into something far more personal and abstract. Today, she remains revered and respected, while her legacy continues to inspire a new generation of artists.

1990 Den Haag Silver Style – Art by Mick La Rock

HERE COME THE DUTCHIES

By the time the New York graffiti tradition took hold in Europe, Amsterdam had already developed a thriving punk graffiti scene. Back in the 1970s, writing on walls using broad-tipped markers became highly popular among Dutch punks. They would leave their mark by showcasing slogans, band names, and personal nicknames, using typography inspired by UK band albums.

Meanwhile, in other Dutch cities like Den Haag and Groningen – the latter of which was Mick La Rock’s hometown – hooligans were also leaving their names on walls. This was the kind of graffiti that first caught Mick La Rock’s eye as a child.

“The first time I saw graffiti on a wall I was immediately attracted to it. Those names would trigger my imagination. I would read “BARRACUDA” and think “wow, that’s dangerous” and then “HUNTER” and wonder “what type of guy is that? Is he hunting?” These names were all around Den Haag, while in Groningen we had “PINOX82”, whose tag was literally everywhere I looked, and “GIANT82”, which would make me wonder: is he really tall… or dangerous?”

In 1984, Dutch national TV aired the ground-breaking documentary Style Wars, which offered a rare glimpse into the world of New York City graffiti art. For creative youngsters like Mick La Rock, it was a revelation. But it wasn’t just the film that changed things in The Netherlands – another major event took place. In 1983, gallery owner Yaki Kornblit organized the city’s first solo exhibition of New York City graffiti art, featuring the work of Dondi. The show was a huge success and Kornblit went on to organize nine more exhibitions featuring other big-name NYC artists like Futura2000 and Blade.

The arrival of the Americans subverted the local scene. When the writers from NYC landed in Amsterdam for their shows at the Yaki Kornblit’s gallery, they not only exhibited their art but also hit the streets, showcasing their iconic style. This display of American graffiti style inspired Mick La Rock and her peers to imitate the wildstyle popularized overseas.

1995 Groningen Boterdiep – Art by Mick La Rock

MICKEY

At the time when Yaki Kornblit was introducing American graffiti art to a Dutch audience, Mick La Rock was 13 years old and living in Groningen, a small city in the north of the country. Too young to be attending Yaki’s exhibitions in the capital, Mick was looking at graffiti in the streets of Groningen and trying her first sketches out.

“I remember when I sketched the outline of my first piece ever: I took the W from the famous Wild Style piece that we all know, the wall that appeared on the poster of the movie. I had no idea how New Yorkers would do graffiti letters, so I took the W from that poster and turned it upside down to have a M. Then I copied the I, and created a C by taking away the small piece that makes the E a E. Then tried to make my own K, and then of course I took the E and the Y from Wild Style. And just like that, it said MICKEY. When I knew the outline from the top of my head, I got a couple of tiny cans from the miniature train store – I had a silver and a black – and I went to the basement of my high school, where I did a silver outline with black highlights.”

Since this first piece inspired from the iconic Wild Style wall, her name has always been MICKEY. On the origins of her name, she explained:

“In 1982, the biggest fashion trend for teenagers was the t-shirt with Mickey Mouse on it. I was just a young teenage girl, I had a couple of them and was wearing them all the time, so everybody in my neighborhood started to call me ‘Mickey’. When I decided to try graffiti, I knew I couldn’t use my real name, so I started writing MICKEY because people already called me that.”

1993 NYC Traditional Style – Art by Mick La Rock

LETTERS

Mick La Rock’s journey as a graffiti artist is rooted in style writing, the study of letters that characterized the early New York scene. Mick La Rock honed her craft and became one of Europe’s earliest graffiti artists by drawing inspiration from old-school writers. She made her mark not only in Amsterdam and throughout the Netherlands, but also in the epicenter of graffiti culture: New York City.

During the 90’s and 00’s, her talent knew no bounds. She lived between Amsterdam and New York, where she painted alongside her role models from the New York subway scene.

“The first time I went to New York was in 1993. I was picked up at the airport by Iz The Wiz and SACH, they drove me straight to the New Lots Train Yard. The place was huge and there was nobody around, we could have easily painted a piece, but we had no cans. Anyway, I was so overwhelmed with finally being in New York that it didn’t matter, I was just so happy to be there. We checked the trains out, walked around the yard and took nice photos of the three of us in front of the parked trains.”

“Eventually, that summer I painted my first New York train: it was just a night throw-up, but it was also a dream coming true. Most of all, I remember just being in New York: experiencing the different sounds of the city, the smell of the city, and the taste of the city. My first slice of New York pizza, for example, or that Chinese restaurant in Queens where we used to go. It was fantastic.”

Mick La Rock moved to Amsterdam at the age of 26 to work as a kindergarten teacher. Every vacation break, she would go to the school with her suitcase and, after class, head straight to New York. That’s how she stayed true to the roots of the graffiti movement: while her fellow Dutch writers were experimenting with new European trends, she kept going back to the New York playground every time she could.

“The New York I found when I first got there was already different from the New York I saw in Wild Style. I arrived one decade later, so the city had moved on, but I still caught up a little bit of the golden years. Obviously, hip hop had gone much further: I witnessed a different hip hop era (that of Wu-Tang Clan, the Lords of the Underground, and Snoop Dogg) but I think that was still quite a good era for hip hop in New York. But yes, many things were different: less painted cars, less abandoned buildings, and no more people going around with graffiti drawings on the back of their jeans jackets as in the Wild Style movie. That was over, but I found a New York that I’m glad I was able to experience. Today, with gentrification, the city has changed and I hear from everybody that it isn’t fun anymore. But when I was there, it was still one big playground.”

Despite being the Queen of the Dutch graffiti scene, Mick La Rock never had a typical European style. Rather, she has always been inspired by old-school New York writers.

“My style is 100% New York, nobody ever said to me “Wow, you have such a European style.” I kept my style very much to the New York basics, unlike – for example – certain famous German writers who would come to New York with the most refined techniques: those, you could immediately spot that they weren’t from there. I even painted my name in such a way that people did not understand I was a girl. Male writers would come up to me at the yard, while I was painting, and say things like “Yo, did you do that?” and “That’s not possible, you are a girl”, or “Oh, I never realized MICKEY was a girl.” And I liked that, I wanted my style to be no different from what a man would do.”

2001 Fort Greene, Brooklyn – Art by Mick La Rock

LINES

As much as Mick La Rock loved the world of style writing, she eventually found herself craving a new artistic challenge. Fueled by a desire to explore new territories, in the early 2000s she began to experiment with abstract shapes and forms, transforming the letters of her graffiti name into something entirely new.

Intrigued by the idea of what a letter could become when it was no longer bound by readability, Mick La Rock began to create minimalistic two-dimensional pieces that showcased her unique perspective. She was inspired by the brutalist architecture of the mid-20th century and the abstract art movements of early 20th century Russia, which allowed her work to take on a new life of its own.

Although her paintings are abstract, they still reference her graffiti roots through the writing of her name, even though she is the only one who can read it. She has challenged herself with questions like “What happens to a letter when it no longer needs to be read?” This curiosity has led her to create breathtaking paintings that radiate a sense of stillness and contemplation, a far cry from the kinetic energy of graffiti.

“Going from graffiti letters to abstract lines was a very natural development. I got there through my quest to do the most straight line with my hand. I always had the urge to draw a line that makes people say “Hey, is it printed or is it hand drawn?” and when I started abstracting my graffiti name to reach for the perfect line, or the perfect circle, I found out that I actually do feel more zen in my head when I do straight lines and perfect circles. It’s a challenge to be able to do that, and when I accomplish the challenge I set for myself, it gives me my peace of mind.”

Mick La Rock has taken her artistic exploration to new heights in recent years, expanding from her signature two-dimensional paintings to create stunning three-dimensional sculptures. Her latest works involve wooden structures suspended from the ceiling, still inspired by the bold lines and forms of brutalist architecture. As for her paintings, she is now working on a provocative series featuring unicorns in an attempt to challenge traditional notions of femininity.

2018 Helsinki – Art by Mick La Rock

UNICORNS

Mick La Rock’s latest series featuring unicorns and pink letters is an ironic statement on her identity as a woman in the male-dominated world of graffiti. From the very beginning of her career, Mick La Rock has defied gender norms with a style that is unapologetically bold and un-girly. However, she can no longer ignore her gender and the broader conversation surrounding it.

“I’ve always painted like I was not a girl, and kind of never accepted me doing girly things. But now, with the whole discussion about diversity and inclusivity in the arts, I’m constantly reminded about my gender. So I started to do girly things like painting unicorns as an act of protest, because I feel like, all of a sudden, I have to be a woman and paint like one. Today everybody looks at me because I’m the woman in graffiti, but I’ve never thought that being a woman was relevant for my art.”

2021 Amsterdam Holendrecht – Art by Mick La Rock

GRAFFITI AS FOLK ART

Alongside her studio practice, Mick La Rock remains an active member in the graffiti scene. Her dedication to upholding the traditions for over four decades has kept her respected amongst the community. In her eyes, the art form’s enduring appeal lies in the structure and discipline that comes with following these guidelines.

“Style writing is still very popular because what it should look like stayed the same over the years, much like folk art. In folk art, people have made the same kind of artworks through generations. Folk art has rules, and so does graffiti: there should be an outline, a filling, a highlights and a background. Writers can play with these four elements, even add a puppet here and there, but it will only be style writing when it complies to these four elements. It’s the same with folk art.”

“Think of women making quilts: they create each piece within boundaries that have existed for centuries and, at the same time, they develop their own style. Everybody who is into clothing knows exactly who made a certain quilt while, to outsiders, they all look the same. That happens with graffiti too: there are many rules and writers play within them to develop their own style but, to outsiders, it’s all graffiti.”

The parallels between graffiti and folk art go far beyond this. They both are about community, identity, and the need for self-expression outside the confines of the traditional art world. Both movements were born from the ground up, created by regular people who refused to be held back by elitist gatekeepers. There’s a sense of passion and authenticity in both that speaks to the power of art to bring people together, the same passion and authenticity that have pushed Mick La Rock forward for over 40 years of graffiti career.

2023 Amsterdam Center Mural – Art by Mick La Rock
Giulia ‘BLocal’ Riva is a writer and content creator on a mission to unveil the artistic and rebellious heart of cities. She creates content for creative enterprises and museums, and her writing was published in street art catalogs and art publications. Since 2011, she has run the independent street art blog “BLocal”, which has become the media partner of important street art festivals around Europe. Rooted in the ethos of “Be Local,” she spends long periods in different cities around Europe, narrating their tales from the perspective of the locals on her blog. Over the years, she has worked and written for museums, art galleries, tour operators, street art festivals, magazines, websites, travel guidebooks, publishers, urban art blogs, and DMOs.