It started at night on the backroads of Belgium. A loosely formed band of street artists calling themselves Puncheur wanted to honor some of their favorite champions by painting their faces on the roads of the great northern classics. But they also understood that their working methods, inspired by Banksy or other street artists, may be misunderstood by the local inhabitants or authorities.
This time the results were not only more successful but longer-lasting. And, quite literally, Puncheur was born as this cycling street art collective and attracted attention as the Boonen portrait slapped on the road at the tops of the Koppenberg, Eikenberg, Paterberb, and Taaienberg was seen throughout the race
“The next week we went over to France to paint a couple of sections of the upcoming Paris-Roubaix,” remembers Stefaan Temmerman, a documentary photographer and another founding member. “We found this spot on the main road just after the long section. But the police were making regular rounds and they soon stopped.”
While the local authorities were troubled that the group was working without proper authorization, Temmerman also remembers that they were sympathetic to this burgeoning creative cause. “They took the time to look at what we were doing and finally they just said, ‘Well it looks like you have put a lot of work into this so go ahead. It’s cool.’”
Once completed, they then went to the end of the legendary Arenberg section of cobbles to do another work at the end. Once again they fell upon sympathetic eyes as the security guards already on hand actually turned their car around and turned on their headlights so that the group could work better. “The guy actually said that he had seen the Boonen portraits in Flanders the week before so he was only too happy to help.”
If Puncheur met with so much initial success it was perhaps because it was immediately evident that their project was quite time-intensive. Each work, in fact, took dozens of hours to produce. First, they had to conceive, design and cut out several large-scale cut-out cardboard stencils. Then, once created, they had to go on-site and start the painting process. Each site and each silhouette were constructed by layering several stencils upon each other. The stencil cutouts were applied in layers, with the largest board being applied first. Once dry, a second, third, and fourth stencil were applied.
“People were always surprised just how long it took to produce one stencil. Our Bradley Wiggins one took nearly 50 hours just to do all of the cutouts,” explained Daem. “There were maybe five layers to it. It’s quite detailed.”
“Our paintings faded into the roads over time, kind of like the cyclists who faded in our memories over time.”
“I have always loved stencils,” Daem continued “I love that with just two colors you can create a really cool abstract picture. I was always doing them in school and then when we started Puncheur I was spreading them out in the kitchen.
Today the town of Aalst, about 30 minutes east of Ghent, provided the group with a spacious workspace downtown. And while they have grown, their working methods are in many ways similar to when they first started.
In the space of little more than five years, Puncheur created a distinctive name for themselves, and today, their stencils simply are part of the classics landscape as they are strategically placed and are often highlighted in helicopter shots.
Over time Puncheur has generated increased interest and has received commissions in bike shops or at events like the 2021 world championships, in Belgium.
But clearly, the collective spirit remained strong and their main focus was simply to celebrate cycling in a unique way.
Large-scale stencils quickly became their work of choice, a process that can take hours to produce but can then be applied on the road surface faster than more traditional forms of painting.
“We were so stressed the first time we went out. We were afraid we would get caught. We painted the first Boonen portraits at the Tour of Flanders that year. But the first one we did was chalk because we could work faster. The only problem was that we painted it on Friday, and the next day there was the Flanders Gran Fondo. Thousands of cyclists rode over it that day and it was gone. So Saturday night we went back with paint.”
This stencil adorns a wall of the Bataia bike shop, in Ghent.
“It started back in 2017, when Tom Boonen was going for his fifth Paris-Roubaix victory,” said Thomas Daem, one of the founding members of the Puncheur collective.
“We wanted to do something more than just paint Tom’s name on the road, and that is how the first installation came about.”
This one is from atop the Paterberg.
This one is at the foot of the Kemelberg.
“Placement is important,” explained Temmerman. “We are careful never to paint on the cobbles themselves as that could make the cobbles even more slippery in certain conditions.”
“Are we street artists? Firstly, is it art? Perhaps it is just painting on the streets. One thing was for sure, what we did was literally street art. So much of what we called street art was actually on walls. But what we did was actually on the streets!” said Daem, who also added that he loves the ephemeral nature of the work.
Stefaan Temmerman of Puncheur.
Stefaan Temmerman (left) and Thomas Daem are Puncheur.
“Mostly it is about the fun and friendship we have together and then the people we meet,” insisted Daem. “You know when we went to the top of the Kopenberg or Paterberg the local people came out to see us. They were always happy to see us and see what we [planned] this year. We were not the first to do the stencils. They have been done for ages. But we are maybe the first to bring the idea to cycling.”