Gijs Vanhee’s Free Birds


Gijs Vanhee is an illustrator who became passionate about street art in his teenage years. Now he is a popular artist from the street art scene in Europe, who with his interesting types tells whole stories on the walls of the urban space, paper, canvas and digital.

A native of Belgium, Gijs  has a diverse background in both painting and organizing large-scale murals. In 2014 and 2015, he was named an honorary artist of Mechelen – a small town in Belgium, where he grew up and now lives and works. During these two years he created a series of 10 contemporary murals and invited the artists Milu Correch (Argentina), Smates (Belgium), Dzia (Belgium), Krea Shit (Belgium), Shamisa Debroey (Belgium), Mark Goss (UK), Sam Scarpulla (Belgium), Samuel Vanderveken (Belgium) and Strook (Belgium). He himself also joins the series and paints the last of the 10 walls in the city.

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At the end of December 2021, Gijs contacted Visionary with a desire to travel around Bulgaria and paint a wall in Sofia. It took several months to secure the full funding of the idea and here it is: on 18.07 the artist arrived in the capital and began work on the author's mural, located at 23 Han Asparuh St. - near the pedestrian area of ​​Vitosha Blvd.

We talked with Gijs about his background and creative concept for the mural.


 You work in cooperation with artists in Belgium the so-called co-operative – how does this work, and what are the benefits for freelance and independent artists like you? 

I work with Smart, it is a very big co-operative of artists and craftmanships. The main benefit is that since we are so many associates, we can put pressure on government to defend the interests of artists. But we are so many, we do not really know all artists and it is more representational thing. They also help a lot with the administrative and financial part for artists, something I at least am not so good at…

 What is your story – how did you get keen on street and mural art? What is your experience?

That’s a long one. I was passionated by drawing as a form of expression already since I was a kid. I think it must be around the age of 15 that I discovered tagging when hanging around local skatespots. Soon after I had my first encounter with spraycans. At that age it is really something amazing. It was very direct, which gives you a very fast and inviting tool for expressing yourself. Later I learned it is not about the tools, and it is not enough to just express yourself.  It’s the story you want to tell that is most important. And also I think that the early graffiti and the first street artists paved a way to open up art in public for all artists. At this moment you don’t need to have a background in this scene to get away with it. Most important, again, is what you want to tell and how this story is universal. 

You have a signature type of characters you draw/ paint – what is the main message you want the observer to see when looking at your art pieces?

My characters have a human body with the head of a bird. I call them freebirds. They symbolize the contradictory of freedom in them. On one hand they are bird that can not fly, but as a human they can be free in their heads. As human beings we are able to imagine everything. On the other hand we are living in a dense society, which makes actual freedom almost non existing. I try always to put up an image that takes the viewer on a little trip, a short vacation, a snap out of their daily conserns.

When working in public spaces what do you take into consideration when preparing your sketch? How do you make it fit the context around?

My works follow up on each other, the freebirds grow with the expansion of my work, it is like a huge graphic novel that is still writing itself over walls, ink drawings, linocut prints, canvasses.. So mostly I start with sketches that I’ve came up in my studio searching for new work that follows my timeline. Then when I am starting on the actual wallpainting, I add little or even bigger details on the concept that directly refer to the place or to events that happen while I am there.

Your latest mural is in Sofia, Bulgaria and it speaks loudly about the neglect of the current situation with the environmental changes taking place on Earth in recent years. Do you think a mural high of almost 21 m. will do?

To talk about the neglect of the current situation with environmental changes, I think not any size of mural will do enough. I mean, at this very moment there are temperature risings nobody had seen before in my own country , there are huge fires burning on places in france, spain and portugal that I ve known very wel.. And yet, nothing big change when it comes to political responsibilities, quite the opposite even. 

But my work in Sofia isn’t just about that. I don’t want it to be a dark pessimistic view on reality. My freebirds try to find peace in every situation and take it from the bright side. In this case using a pile of abandoned cars, that is slowly taken back by nature, as a home or a safe haven.

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You recently also work a lot in your atelier – painting canvases and creating silk prints and lithography. Do you prefer the quiet work in the studio compared to the big-scale painting of murals in the noisy public space? How do you separate both (outdoor and studio work) and what are the pros and cons in your opinion?

I like both a lot. When I am on the street painting, I really love the direct contact with people. It is mostly very honest and it always inspires me on one way or another. It is a mission, and to really feel the street you need to be open yourself a lot. I really get energy out of it. But I also need the time to fold myself back into my studio, to let the experiences and encounters find its place. To be left alone to think, to experiment different techniques and to develop new concepts to come out to the street with. 



The opening of the Parked Life mural will take place on 22.07. from 18:00 at 23 Khan Asparuh St.


The project is part of the Belgian Days and the creative program of the "Visionaries" Foundation. It is implemented with the financial support of the National Fund "Culture", One Year Grant program `21, the Belgian Embassy in Bulgaria and in partnership with Business Club Belgium-Bulgaria-Luxembourg and 0511 Designs.

Photos: Mihaela Draganova