Fantastic and Free Animals
“Street Art is an Art of Gimmick, where each artist has a pattern that he repeats.”
First steps and technique
When did you start to get interested in street art?
I came here late because it took me a while to realize that things were happening on the walls. I do not subscribe to art magazines and, if I watch art documentaries, there were very few on street art at the time. It was when I saw paintings in the street that I thought something was going on. I really became aware of this at the edge of the canal, when I saw what dAcRuZ was able to do by bringing people together around his large frescoes. It was amazing, like miniature Sistine chapels.
How did you become a street-artist?
I have always drawn, whether on my course sheets or on the phone, but never on the walls. In 2009, I stopped working in a company to work on the street, but I was missing the paper. At the same time, I discovered all these artists, like dAcRuZ or Seyb, and I realized that nothing prevented me from doing the same thing. That’s how I decided one night to cross the cape and try the adventure of street art. The transplant took place, but it could have been different, because many people who start eventually give up. At first I tried to make collages, but it bothered me: what I really liked was to draw.
How did you choose your technique and equipment? Is it a choice imposed by the nature of your work or guided by its own qualities?
I have always drawn with the pens I had on hand, whether it was my fountain pen or Bic. Of course, it is impossible to use such pens on the wall. I had to adapt and discovered the existence of paint markers that quickly became my work tools. It was out of the question to work with a bomb for two reasons: first, I didn’t have the technique, which is particular; second, I have to work late and never know what time I’m going to be on the street to draw. I couldn’t walk around with a stock of paint cans.
How do you choose your walls and why do you prefer to paint over the Korrigan paint used by the city’s cleaners to “erase” the paintings?
There are three answers to that: I have too much respect for the ashlar to degrade it. I find that graffiti, however beautiful it may be, has nothing to do with a Haussmann building. I am extremely respectful of what has been erected in the past and it is a lack of respect for artists to weave them by covering their works. The second answer is the practicality: the ashlar is granular and Posca’s wicks do not last long on such a support. This brings us to the third reason, which is the Korrigan painting. The city repaints the walls with this beautiful satin beige colour that has an exceptional touch and transforms after a few layers a rough wall into a pleasant work surface. Sometimes the city paints dressed stone with this paint: in this case I am in my shadow zone, I paint over it from time to time.
Just as I don’t see myself painting on old sculptures, I never toy with other street artists. Paris is big enough, there are enough walls not to have to walk on each other. I find that despicable, it’s not my culture. Another form of degradation is spot joking (or photobombing), which consists in positioning yourself close to you, as when a person in the Marsh has glued underwear close to one of my creatures. But it is quite possible to work together through collaborations.
the Codex Urbanus
What is special is that your artist name has gradually become your working name. How did you choose him?
In fact, it’s the other way around, Codex was never my name! My first attempt at collage was porcelain plates on which I painted animals. They were signed AJT. I quickly abandoned this technique because it was very heavy to carry, complicated to go and glue them, and people would sting them. That’s why I switched to drawing on the walls that I signed Tlatloc, my cataphile name, because I wanted to remain anonymous, especially since the nature of the offence I was committing had changed: if the collage is contraventional, the drawing is criminal. In each case, I wrote the name of the project, Codex Urbanus, or “urban manuscript”, because it is a kind of medieval grimoire of fantastic animals on concrete. What I hadn’t imagined was that if I saw this inscription they would call me Codex. The first person who exposed me -Patrick Chaurin of the Amateur Cabinet- contacted me by calling me that and Codex became my name for my first exhibition. But I think that’s true for many artists: did Cyclops or Mr. Chat choose their name?
Why did you choose to represent a bestiary, i.e. a repertoire of real or imaginary animals?
In my notebooks, as a child, there were already many monsters and animals. Many cities too, but they are more difficult to draw. When I started out on the street, I wanted to create a coherent project, so that each drawing would be the stone of the same building that made me want to continue. As it has to be fast, because it’s illegal, it seemed impossible to make a city panorama. Since then, the bestiary has become the ideal solution, because a chimera is always different and requires less time. By making one creature at a time I also limit the chances of being caught.
Why did you adopt this very simple style in the drawing? Was it to adapt it to your subject?
As far as I’m concerned, it’s more of a style that chose me. The first time I drew on a wall, it was real, on the street, knowing that I was doing a test that would remain. I draw without technique, with a somewhat naive side that is my signature, but which also recalls the ancient bestiaries containing animals never seen before forcing the imagination. This lack of technology also allows for faster execution. When I work in the gallery, you recognize the style but the drawing is more elaborate because I have more time. The third point, which is crucial, is that I do not want to prepare my speeches. For me, street art is above all about freedom. This freedom does not compromise either with authorizations, or with the expectations of third parties, or even with personal expectations. I don’t have to make preparatory copies, the pleasure of creating a beast on a wall is more than enough in my approach, I can even screw up. There are some failed Codex.
Most street artists use a particular design to be recognized because it is an advantage to be immediately identifiable in the street. Wasn’t it risky to change the motif for each work?
I was aware that it was necessary to be quickly identifiable for two reasons: in the street people have little time, if they do not know how to decode who the artist is, they pass by. Street Art is an Art of the gimmick, where each artist has a motif that he repeats: it is an idea that can be found in other worlds, such as with the stripes of Buren, the glass beads of Murano d’Othoniel, the rusty beams of Venet. On the other hand, recognition came later. It was incidental in my early days and I couldn’t imagine what it would become. I wanted to have fun, and for people to perceive the coherence of my project, but not necessarily to associate it with the person from Codex. I couldn’t always repeat the same character like Mr. Chat. A bestiary was something both diverse and coherent.
How do you adapt your work according to the time you have?
Unlike the street, legal walls allow more time, especially to paint a background. On these walls I had a lot of fun working with gold paint, because it allows me to reach the illumination by making the drawing sacred. Besides, it’s quite unexpected on the street. I believe I am the only one still working on a golden background today. This gives the impression of an icon. There is also a somewhat alchemical side to what I do: starting from a dilapidated wall or a wasteland to transform it, it’s a bit like turning lead into gold.
What is the difference between your work in the gallery?
The difference already comes from the support: we leave the wall to draw on paper, wood, canvas. It’s nice to be able to work again with a pen because it’s my original tool. But I’m a little stuck in my street work because I exhibit as a street artist. It is Codex who exposes, never the person behind, what could later be a constraint to blow up.
Classification, on the other hand, has nothing to do with it anymore. The Urbanus Codex is reserved for the street, because without it it would no longer be urban. In the gallery there is a big expectation, regularly I am asked to make creatures with a Latin name and numbers. If it is a creature that existed in the street I can remake it with its original identification, but the gallery numbering is not as consistent. Besides, I’m trying to show something other than the bestiary.
The gallery asks another question: how do I collect? Collectors can afford to sell the same thing at exhibitions as on the street, but I would be unable to reproduce exactly the same drawing. This problem is shared by graffiti artists. Unless I buy a wall, my work in the street is impossible to collect other than photos. How to collect graffiti? No one has the answer. You can either paint directly on canvas, reproduce parts like Moyoshi does, or sell blackbooks, which makes sense because they are collectible graffiti projects.
Influences in art history
The other key dimension of your work is the written word: the work is composed both of the drawing and of the name of the creature that comes from Linnaeus’ classification of species.
I think it’s a set. Each entry in the Codex Urbanus has 4 elements: the mention Codex Urbanus which links it to the grimoire; the creature itself; its number; its binomial name in Latin which gives information about the animals that have been crossed. There has always been the same construction, even when it was painted on porcelain. In general it explains what we see because I don’t try to stick to reality when I draw but to the image I have of things. My image of a buffalo is not what it really is, but it is this image that I reproduce. The result will not necessarily look like a real bison, hence the presence of the binomial name that will identify the animals that make up the chimera.
Why the choice of the word Codex, which has a strong historical meaning?
A codex is a manuscript and that’s exactly what I do with handwriting. The most famous codices always refer to things that are a little mysterious, almost alchemical. To name three, we could take the Aztec and Mayan codices, which are fantastic, with rituals of witchcraft, divinities and sacrifices. The Codex Seraphinianus, which is a work from the 1970s, written by an Italian author in a language that no one can translate containing fascinating surrealist drawings. Finally, we are obviously thinking of the Codex Atlanticus, which is the sum of all Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. I wanted to create the street-art equivalent of this kind of work, except that instead of doing it on parchment I do it on walls.
So your work has an encyclopedic side. However, the purpose of the Encyclopedia is a complete census. Does your project have a final global representation?
In the long run, the question of the publication of the bestiary will arise. Urban art is made to be ephemeral and in the street, but of course one day I would like to have an exhaustive compilation of all the creatures that have been drawn on the walls. However, there is still work to be done before we have a global vision of the project.
In the book A vandal bestiary, it is written that one of your principles is the vandal principle according to which “illegality protects art against external influences”. Could you come back to this principle, and to the way you actually conceive the legal side of street art (authorized walls, commissioned works).
It is not necessarily reconcilable. The authorized walls make me dream, by their size, because they are often made with the help of grants, or with other people. It’s much more stressful too: when I’m facing a wall at 2am in Montmartre, I don’t ask myself any questions. During a festival with other artists who have a technical background, what I do is very different from what we usually see, except there is an expectation to satisfy. There are graffiti artists who do splendid and hyperrealistic things, while I am there with something dreamlike but more complicated. This difference can be found in traditional painters, such as Chagall or Quentin de la Tour. I am very honoured to make legal walls, but I am afraid of disappointing and not being up to the task. I bring an imagination that is a major point for people who follow me and collect me. It is very difficult for me to be invited to street art festivals, whereas it is easier for me to exhibit in galleries or museums, where the level of demand for meaning and symbols is more important. There are few artists from the street who could have exhibited at the Gustave Moreau Museum. It was this imagination that opened the door for me.
What are the other principles that are decisive for you in the way you are street-artist?
Illegality is the sine qua non. But street art must also be on the street. There are people who forget that, who are listed as street-artists even though they have never worked as such. The pleasure of being free also counts: one should not be paid to do street art because the waiting created in return makes one lose one’s freedom. In addition, there is a criterion of occupation of the territory: street art is done in a given area and over a long period of time. When Daniel Buren stuck his stripes in the street for two months in 1970, it was not street art, but a marketing operation. If he had done it for ten years, I wouldn’t have said the same thing. For me, street-artist works in a region. Another thing that, without defining street art, is a kind of pitfall, is monumentalism. JR makes gigantic creations, which are a bit like the negation of street art. On the other hand, if Banksy may have lost his attachment to a land, he continues to work illegally and on a street-artist scale, always stencilling, which is interesting.