Exploring the "Red Mice District" of Amsterdam street art

"It's a funny, playful project and not meant to be a statement," artist Luis Risi says of his street art project, "The Red Mice District. The pieces feature mice made to look like pin-up girls in risqué outfits, each mounted in a white frame with a bright red light shining upon them. He had no intention of making a moral judgment or proclamation about prostitution when he started hanging his street art pictures around De Wallen, Amsterdam’s most famous Red Light District.

“A lot of them are gone, some are replaced, sometimes a bit smaller,” Risi tells the NL Times in his first interview about the project. “Actually, when somebody steals them, it’s a compliment to me. I really don’t mind,” the artist says with pride, while also remarking he prefers people leave them mounted on the walls of Amsterdam buildings. Residents and workers based in De Wallen say they started noticing the artwork series, dubbed the "Red Mice District," as they mysteriously began popping up over the last two years. Even as many are ripped off by fans of the artist, Risi makes sure more go up from time to time. “People respect it a lot. Some pieces stay there for almost a year,” he continues. “When they steal them, I’m totally cool about it, but when it stays, I’m surprised that it stays. They’re quite easy to remove, and I think they will be gone after a few hours, but if they steal it, it means they really love it,” he states.

“I’m surprised they respect it so much in Amsterdam.” The project started when the artist received a commission from Café Belgique, a bar five minutes away from De Wallen, a bit closer to the Nieuwe Kerk. “I got a commission from them, and I made a big cat-woman in Amsterdam, called, “The City of Lost Mice.” The drawing hangs low and prominently over the biggest booth at the tiny café. “There are all of these famous mice,” he says of the artwork’s foreground. “Behind, there’s a kind-of Red Light District.” He printed sixty copies, only a few of which are still available. “Once a day, there’s somebody who talks about it,” says Café Belgique bartender Juliana Patiño. “This one is really nice, because it’s a painting with a story behind it. You have every kind of mouse, doing everything,” she says, adding that adults and kids alike love the piece. “Everybody always see something different.” “I already wanted to do a collection of street art characters, so I decided to do the whole story of the Red Mice District,” he notes. “It was an evolution from the one print. It’s a very busy drawing, a very big one,” Risi points out. It is a fun, playful project, Risi reiterates. “I’m not trying to make a political statement about the hookers. It’s almost like creating a sub-world, an outer layer in the neighborhood itself.”

  “I’m a big fan of street art and pop art; stuff like that. I haven’t seen many works on the streets based on their location. Usually the idea of the street art is to spread as much as you can in every possible place so you can attract attention, and my strategy was the opposite: Just use one specific place, and do it about that place,” Risi says.

“I wanted to tell more of a story, and [figure out] how to use the neighborhood.” Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Risi has lived in several European capitals over the last decade, including several years in Amsterdam. Though he left the Netherlands this past November, he still speaks passionately of Amsterdam and returns often, both because he likes it here, and to mount more of the Red Mice District pieces. “I’ve been four times to Amsterdam this year,” he says. “Every time I go, I refresh it. As soon as you start, you cannot break it,” he explains. Each piece is first handmade with graphite pencil on paper, before they are colorized, printed, and pasted inside frames. A red light is then affixed to the top, and they are epoxied to De Wallen.

The drawings play an important role in two short films Risi is working on. Each about three to four minutes in length, they showcase the guerrilla artwork with a Disney-esque “British policeman looking for these mice in the Red Light District,” he said. “I have the pieces on the street now, and I get a lot of emails from people who want to buy them, but they’re not really for sale yet,” he says. “I feel like giving them away, to be honest.”