What a World

Graffiti Saved This Belgian Ghost Town from Government Bulldozers

In the mid-’90s, Doel’s population drop was giving the Belgian government ideas about demolishing the village. So the locals came up with a survival plan: turn their city into a museum.

Yves Herman/Reuters

The small Belgian village of Doel gives every appearance of being a ghost town: structures are reduced to rubble, still-standing shops are boarded up, and massive, surreal graffiti covers every abandoned building. But rather than being a sign of neglect, this "vandalism” has turned the otherwise derelict streets into a colorful brick canvas and is, in fact, seen as the hope for resurrecting this ancient town.

Across Doel, traditional facades are painted with bright, modern art. There’s a man with a birdcage for a head shooting arrows into a blackbird; Obama with the Joker’s face paint decorates a corner house; a giant, sniffing rat stretches across two facades. The scenes that cover the walls of the dystopian town are actually a last-ditch campaign launched by the 25 surviving inhabitants to keep the village alive—and for years it has succeeded.

Doel’s population declined from 1,700 residents in the 1970s, to 350 around five years ago, to the current two-dozen. During the late ’90s, in the midst of this steady decline, the government deemed the vibrant town, sandwiched between a nuclear power plant and a port, ripe for the bulldozer and inclusion in a massive dock and nature reserve project. The transformation would form one of the continent’s largest ports.

Though many took the above-market buyouts, some stayed put, refusing to depart from the 400-year-old Doel, where families had lived for generations. As the state sent imminent demolition notices, determined residents launched a campaign to save the town, a project called Doel 2020, with an unusual survival strategy. The village marketed itself as an open-air museum, calling on artists to show off their outdoor painting prowess, using the city’s abandoned buildings as their canvas.

And they came: from Belgium, Europe, and abroad, including big names like Belgian painter Luc Tuymans and Italian experimentalist Michelangelo Pistoletto. Today, only the 11 homes of Doel’s remaining residents, a church, and a cemetery remain untouched by the colorful graffiti. Those still occupied are draped with determined signs: “Doel Must Stay!” “We’re Not Leaving Until We Die.” The well-organized inhabitants of Doel are sure that becoming an outdoor art mecca will save it from bulldozers.

Photographer Virginia Mayo has been documenting the town for more than a decade. “Doel feels like Chernobyl without the accident,” she writes in the forward to her book on the town, This House is Inhabited, homage to a sign posted in one of the resident’s windows. “It’s haunted by the living instead of the dead.”

And the living are a lively bunch; in 2008, backlash against industrial plans was so strong, the government sent in 100 riot police to ensure the first demolitions weren’t stopped by the town’s then-200 residents.

The battle has made its way to the courts. Non-home-owning residents have been allowed to ignore notices to vacate thanks to a court order blocking termination of their rental contracts. And in 2012, the country’s top court overturned a blueprint to include the village in the port, but the government swiftly revised its plans to work around the ruling.

In the meantime, the Belgian graffiti mecca has become a haven for tourists, art aficionados, and, to the residents’ chagrin, squatters. Doel 2020 claims that 50,000 visitors come every year via ferry to the town. Perhaps, Doel 2020’s website suggests, there’s a happy medium between preservation and compliance with the government.

On their website in a section titled “Our Goal for Tomorrow,” project organizers write, “The village is not an enemy of the harbor. It may, on the contrary [be] one of the pearls in the crown of a world port.”