From the moment Sea Shepherd’s Netherlands director Geert Vons and I start chatting, it’s clear that his vision for marine and environmental protection differs from the usual scientific approach.
A talented artist and tattooist, designer of the iconic Jolly Roger logo, Geert views the options for marine conservation through artistic connection, but that doesn't mean he's not academic.
A graduate of Leiden university, he studied medicine and ancient classical Chinese and Eastern philosophy and it was while supporting himself as a student by doing bar work that he first stumbled upon Sea Shepherd’s conservation work.
‘I worked in a bar every weekend to help pay for my studies and that was where I first saw an article in a German magazine about Sea Shepherd,’ he recalls. ‘It was over 25 years ago, when Sea Shepherd was a much smaller organisation than it is now, and it made a real impact on me.
Sea Shepherd's RV Farley Mowat ice-class ship, previously known as the Ocean Warrior
‘It got me interested but there was no address or easy way of contacting them as this was before the internet existed, so I had to work really hard to find out how to get in touch. It was a different era, one where you had to write letters to people!
‘My first experience of working with them was small scale and intimate. I was dealing with correspondence, answering letters, buying stamps and helping to run stands at their events. I talked to people a lot and told them what was going on.
‘It was a small movement at the time and one of my most vivid memories was people asking me, if these things are wrong and they are really happening, why isn’t the government doing anything about it? People felt that if it was as bad as we were saying, governments would do something. I had to say, well no actually, governments are hardly ever willing to act in this situation!
‘Most of the time the message does not come across. People do ‘hear’ what is being said, but that does not mean the message comes across. They have listened with their rational but it does not reach the heart. People might engage on an issue but they soon start thinking about their plans for the evening rather than what is happening in the natural world. As long as governments don’t address global issues and give the attention needed on a large scale, things won’t change.’
Geert then started offering his paintings and drawings to help raise money for the organization and by 2000 he was a regular volunteer and had designed Sea Shepherd's iconic Jolly Roger logo.
‘The Jolly Roger had a big impact,’ he recalls. ‘I’m old fashioned and old school when it comes to designing logos. A good logo to me is a minimum of colour, lines and text to get the strongest look. It’s a visual thing.
‘I love propaganda in general, from the Second World War, Soviet Russia, Communist China; not WHAT is said and shown, but HOW it’s said and shown. The power of a single image with a short slogan is very strong at a sub-conscious level. There is something really powerful in propaganda. If it’s for a good cause, you can direct or guide people.
‘A good heart will also create good results. Art should serve a purpose and have a goal. It’s nothing more or less than a way of thinking, expressing a goal, it’s an audience. Over time, it becomes more accessible to people.
'Every piece of art has criteria. You can judge it on the idea, the technical aspects, the mastery or skill of how to paint or perform welding. Modern day conceptual art is taking over but that is bullshit. If you have a thought and you are the first one to express it, does that make you an artist?’
Geert’s fascination with the ocean and with drawing and painting sea creatures stems back to childhood. ‘I’ve always loved the ocean,’ he says. ‘You can walk along the beach and look at the sea for hours without getting bored. Every time I travelled, I’d choose to travel somewhere alongside the ocean.
‘I went to Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands off British Columbia’s west coast and there was a whole spiritual aspect to the art there. It’s much more integrated and part of society and daily life, it’s not separated or a luxury thing.
‘Who came up with the idea to split the body and the mind? They are related and they will each affect the other aspect. How can you see the ocean or environment as being outside of yourself? The environment is a label which automatically puts you as a person outside of it. It’s not environment/humans, we are part of the whole thing. Creating groups and labels only makes that division stronger.
‘We have so much technology, internet and communication in our lives but if you have a problem you are still on a waiting list yet people say communications have improved! It’s too complicated.’
Despite the disconnect between mankind and the environment, Geert is optimistic that one should at least try to improve things. ‘It doesn’t worry me – because that doesn’t help – so it’s stupidity to worry. I won’t ever despair, it might not make me happy but this is reality. I think we all have to try as hard as we can to help, to make changes. Whether it works or not is irrelevant.’
One of the overreaching appeals of Sea Shepherd remains its authenticity according to Geert, who adds: ‘I’m sure everyone remembers the first meeting they had with Sea Shepherd, and they would remember that conversation because of the passion and authenticity of the person talking to them.
‘Every single member of Sea Shepherd has a voice and can make a difference by sharing their story. Sea Shepherd has something unique; it appeals to some very strong ‘archetypes’; the pirate, the rebel, the warrior!
‘That is something very personal, subconscious or not, and everyone can relate to that. Who hasn’t played a pirate when they were a kid and recalled the times when they rebelled against bureaucracy or ignored a red light in traffic when waiting too long?’
Retaining a multi-faceted approach to engage individuals in marine conservation is also important. ‘We have to keep evolving on approach and try to engage people in a different way to get a little piece of their attention and fire them up about the injustices in the natural world,’ Geert adds.
‘I can relate to that. Simplicity is also important: you can talk about scientific reports, global warming and the dangers facing the oceans but when you talk with or from or to the heart, it becomes something different. This is where the strength of art lies, in getting those messages across through painting, imagery and music. It’s a completely new medium to use to convey this important message.
‘This is why artists and musicians have an important role to play. People listen to them, because they touch the heart in contrast to politicians. No-one is touched by the words of a politician preaching his politically correct written statements.’
We turn to Geert’s other passion as a tattoo artist. He first started a tattoo business over 20 years ago, briefly stopping when he was made General Director of Sea Shepherd in 2009, before combining the two.
‘Now we have a Sea Shepherd tattoo ink line, and we get lots of support from other countries,’ he says. ‘We work with other tattoo artists too. For me, the hardest part is fitting it all in as most people want a tattoo in the evening or at the weekend. The support from the tattoo scene is incredible. It’s also a means of bringing art to the people.'
In line with Sea Shepherd’s vegan philosophy, Geert uses vegan ink. Some tattoo inks are made with animal products including bone char, glycerine from animal fat, shellac from beetles and gelatin from hooves whereas vegan ink contains no animal products or chemicals and all the additives are vegan. As long as the ink is sourced from a good manufacturer, the colours remain bright and durable, the tattooed area heals rapidly and it is also considered safe for the skin.
‘Some artists don’t care which ink they use but this is the angle we wanted to take,’ he says. ‘There seems to be a new vogue for tattoos, they are so emblematic of the sea and have historically been popular with crew, sailors and yachties.
‘I spoke with the Captain of the QE2 in Madeira once and he talked about how much the ship’s crew love tattoos.’
Sea Shepherd’s ethos of radical protest strikes a deep chord in the Netherlands among its traditionally close knit and intimate community. ‘The Netherlands is so small, we are dependent on the countries around us and no one speaks Dutch apart from the Dutch,’ Geert says with a laugh. ‘But the right to protest and enjoy freedom of speech are embedded in the Dutch Constitution and that means the Netherlands keeps a strong base.’
Sea Shepherd tattoo bench
With a Sea Shepherd shop already selling artwork and merchandise, Geert’s current focus is to increase the choice of special and unique items and more art, in the hope of expanding the stores all over the world.
‘My priority is to see Sea Shepherd expand on a truly global level and find more creative outlets in art, music and sport to support and create a whole new media,’ he reveals. ‘I’m looking to create a world people are aware of and to which they want to contribute.
‘Artists can make you really feel the issue whereas scientists talk with their heads and politicians are unreliable or are lying!! That’s where I can see myself making the difference.
‘I’m visiting some art projects in Italy to help promote Sea Shepherd’s goals. It’s a different approach but I know it will work. Ultimately my life and my dream are connected, not separated.’
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