Mick Johan takes a seat, legs crossed, on the contorted framework of a fallen street lamp.
It gives slightly under his weight, its silver neck slouching. The ground, littered with leaves and sticks and the dismembered limbs of toppled trees, glistens with rain. The sky glows gray and the air is still – but only briefly. “Welcome to Noord!” says Mick, whose voice, time and again, seems on the verge of a laugh. He continues walking.
The lamp and its neighboring trees – several of many strewn in waterlogged heaps all over Amsterdam – are casualties of the worst July storm in recorded Dutch history, which ripped through the Netherlands throughout the month.There are signs of it everywhere, and residents are quick to recall its force, its monumental gusts, its crippling effects on the city’s public transport.
But for Mick, today’s topic of conversation is the Northern borough of Amsterdam he and his young family have called home for two years. “Noord is the Jersey of Amsterdam,” he says, speaking fondly of its working-class history, its industrial aesthetic and its charming, small-town atmosphere. Noord is a district seldom visited by tourists but one that’s seen a steady influx over the past few years of immigrants and young creatives priced out of more popular neighborhoods in Amsterdam – himself included.
Once the Editor in Chief of VICE Netherlands and one-half of the artistic duo known as Miktor & Molf, Mick is now a writer and a steadfast presence in Noord’s growing artistic community. Among his contributions is a makeshift skate park built under the bright pink canopy of a deserted gas station, an homage to a cherished pastime. This is Noord, it seems, in a nutshell: raw; unpretentious; evolving, however gradually, in ways impossible to ignore. Still, one gets the sense it remains relatively unruffled, even by gale-force winds. “Noord,” Mick says, kicking aside debris, “will always be Noord.”
Are you from the Netherlands originally?
I was born in Germany. My dad’s in the army, so I grew up moving around. I moved to Noord about two years ago. My girl and I have two kids who are three and one, and before, we were living in the city in 40 square meters. It was too small; we had to get out. So we came here, where we have a cute little house with a garden.
Why did you choose Amsterdam to begin with?
When it comes down to it, this is the best place for my work. There are a lot of advertising agencies here, brands, events. It’s easy to tap into the creative community. It’s a great place for art.
Tell us more about your personal history in Noord. What drew you to it, besides the affordability?
Noord doesn’t feel like a city. I was raised in small villages mainly, and here, we have neighbors with families, and outdoor space so the kids can go out and play. If you go for a walk, people greet you in the streets. I like that stuff – I like Noord’s raw edge, too, and the way it looks. Bigger cities are great, but here, the city’s still five minutes away.
At the moment, Noord is evolving really quickly. I think you could compare it to New York – I’ve never been, but I can imagine how some of the rougher neighborhoods are changing there, too. They’re building a subway here, from the north to the south, which they’ve been working on for the past 15 years. 2017 is when they say it’ll be done. I believe them.
“Noord doesn’t feel like a city. I was raised in small villages mainly, and here, we have neighbors with families and outdoor space so the kids can go out and play. If you go for a walk, people greet you in the streets.”
How did the idea for the skate park come about?
It started when I moved here. I live across the way, and when I arrived, I thought, it would be nice to have a little park around the corner for my kid. There was this old gas station that was being used as a creative space – yoga classes, community events. It’s also a Nigerian church on Sundays, filled with people singing. But there were problems with the local youth there, drinking, using drugs. So I thought we’d start building some skate stuff and see what happened. Give them something else to do. What was nice was that normally, it takes ages to get things done, to find money – but because of the economic situation at the time, people were open to our ideas.
Did you grow up skating?
I started when I was ten or so. Skating is what’s kept me connected to the world. Anywhere you go, you can always find a skating magazine. I used to buy them and cut out the little ads for bands and whatnot. I’d go to a new city and look for the magazines, and that’s how I’d meet people. In those days, in the early 90s, you could recognize fellow skaters. You’d be on the train, see another skater, and you’d walk over and say, what’s up? Then maybe you’d hang out together. It’s not that way anymore. Skate culture is huge now.
“I was destined to be a skateboarder. But the kids who live here may never have come across skateboarding in their lives if it wasn’t for this.”
Given your background, how does it feel to see a younger generation of skaters using the park you built?
It feels great. I was hoping for a new generation of skaters to come out of this and it’s not quite as big as I thought – but maybe it’s growing. The kids who come here, they’re young, they’re skating every day. They’re practicing hard.
The thing is: for me, personally, I was destined to be a skateboarder. But the kids who live here may never have come across skateboarding in their lives if it wasn’t for this. There’s one kid in particular who comes to the park. He’s 19. He’s a father already. He’s always getting kicked out of jobs, always in trouble. But since he’s started skating, he has a new place to channel his energy. He’s really going for it. And he’s meeting different people, which is helping get him out of the cycle he’s in.
When you Google ‘Mick Johan’, a long list of occupations comes up in the search results. Would you mind taking us through a rough trajectory of your career? Where did you start?
Well, for a while I was a mailman. But in terms of creative work: I went to art school, where I studied graphic design. Then I became Editor in Chief of VICE Netherlands here in Amsterdam. It’s a funny story, how that came together. I wrote an open letter to the publisher, saying, I heard you guys are coming and I want to work with you. I put together a sample issue, and then I had an interview. They asked me two questions: whether I like French hip-hop, and whether I was up for it. And I said, yes.
I learned so much at VICE. I worked ten hours each day, but that was where I built the network around me that allowed me to begin other projects, and to start Miktor & Molf.
How did you meet Matthijs Booij, your partner in Miktor & Molf?
We met in art school. We were in class together, we both skated and that was that. I quit early, and he finished. I was working at VICE in the meantime, and when he was done with school, we began working together. Our aim was to divide our work 50/50. 50 percent would be for money, and the other 50 would be free work. It never quite works out exactly like that, but we did a lot of work we loved. Those were exciting times. But it didn’t last. The money was terrible and our friendship suffered. I learned a lot: when you collaborate with a partner, you can’t hold on to your ideas too tightly because you’re always influencing each other. It’s a little like skating, in a way. You’re always falling. You have to learn to let go.
Are there any projects on the horizon you’re especially excited for?
Right now, I’m working on a short film with a friend. And I’m writing a book. It’s taking me ages, but it’s been a cool experience. I’m also working on another book with a friend about fatherhood, but that’s still all very secret.
Let’s end by coming full circle, back to Noord. You mentioned it’s a place that’s steadily evolving – do you think the changes you’re seeing are positive ones?
Ten years ago, people like me wouldn’t have lived here. Now the area’s really developing. Just here, where we’re standing, there was once a soccer field. Soon it’ll be a shopping center. But the changes are positive for the most part. And, in a few years, people will move somewhere else. That’s how it happens all the time.