Transform words into murals
“No matter what graphic identity emerges from a series, for me the most important thing is to transmit an emotion, to tell a story.”
How did you become an artist?
I started Street-Art and narrative illustration work a little over three years ago. Before that, I had other means of expression, such as music and I worked in video. I was a musician, singer and lyricist from late adolescence to my thirties. I had a fairly basic knowledge of urban art, Banksy, Obey, Invader, Blek le Rat or Ernest Pignon-Ernest, whose work I had discovered thanks to my mother. In the summer of 2016 I started to create differently, out of necessity, including feeling better personally. The street has become a more appropriate outlet than the confinement of rehearsal or recording studios.
First I tried an illustrative project, which had nothing to do with the street: listening to an album and making a visual during the listening time. I did about ten covers (John Coltrane, Mac Miller, Battles, Action Bronson) until I made Nina Simone’s. The confinement due to my job as an editor weighed on me and I wanted to print my visual of Nina Simone and stick it in the street, a bit like a teenager decorating his room. So I found myself putting a Nina Simone on scale 1 in Paris. It was the first embryo, the first time I found myself artistically alone after years of collaborative group work. Alone on the street at 2:00 in the morning, I felt like a liberation. When I came home I had this kind of satisfaction, like at the end of a concert, the satisfaction of having done the work. That’s what I’m looking for in Art, those little moments of grace and appeasement. A few weeks later I did some more visuals, and I didn’t stop.
You are distinguished by your curiosity in very different artistic practices.
It’s a cultural bulimia, a need to fill myself, because other people’s imaginations are incredible. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been fed all these comics, movies, books or shows. It is also interesting to see one’s own ability to create in reaction: after an emotional slap received when listening to a piece or reading a passage, I feel so charged that I need to externalize myself through artistic practice. These emotions that go through Art are extremely precious to me: I remember perfectly my first listening to John Coltrane, I can tell it in detail. There are many artists whose aesthetics and approach I like less, others whom I appreciate precisely for that, and those who manage to do both are models for me such as Ernest Pignon-Ernest. The next projects I would like to develop on the street are precisely projects that require different artistic practices: video, music, and of course writing, I always come back to them.
THE SEARCH FOR A VISUAL SIGNATURE
Unlike other artists who start with a defined visual signature, you don’t start with a pre-established style.
I started without any real artistic awareness, I was only motivated by the desire to be outside and ask questions, either because I found it funny or because I needed to talk about a subject. I wasn’t even signing my very first collages. At first it was an ancillary activity, a moment of freedom that I allowed myself, to spend full time came later. Even if it is actually a short time in absolute terms, it means a lot to me because there is a huge difference between what I was doing at the beginning and now.
This evolution is manifested by the double passage from colour to black and white and from visual to drawing.
With the work also appeared my interest in the practice itself, and in particular that of the other artists: what do they do and why? Who does what on the street? By looking at their work or meeting them, I was able to understand what their processes were, how they worked. I started from pre-existing images that I modified to unique collages that are painted. This evolution came both from my own desires and from being around others. When you put up printed posters there comes a time when you wonder if you can’t give more. This notion of giving is interesting, because we always wonder what we are offering to others: a work of art? a whim, a state of mind? Painting was a way to continue to explore what I wanted to do. As for black and white, it is the only graphic signature I have almost always kept since the beginning.
Do you think that some of your pieces will have a greater impact on people’s minds, whether they are distinguished by their shape, where they are placed or when they are glued? Your March 8 fresco on women’s rights stands out because of its scale.
This is a special project, carried out over almost three years. At the beginning the implementation was done quickly, I organized a photo session with about twenty women, my relatives but also friends of friends and strangers that we met that day. Several things followed one another and prevented me from doing it for the first time on March 8, but I think it was important to stick the fresco on that date so that it could resonate, so that people would be more sensitive to it. The idea for this women’s fresco came from several testimonies on the harassment, brought back by my sister and friends within a few weeks. Unfortunately, men are all too often in denial on gender issues and street harassment. They cannot assimilate this reality, which is not theirs, to think that it exists and that it is unfortunately possible. It’s a subject I wanted and needed to discuss.
I glued it on March 8 in broad daylight at 10am with some of the women who had participated in the project and some friends. Around 11:30 am the police arrived on the spot apparently informed by a neighbour, they asked us to stop and remove everything because we had no authorization. I started negotiations because I wanted it to exist, even for 24 hours. It was also several months of work that I was asked to throw away. The subject and the date were clearly in our favour, the police gave us the right to finish on condition that it was removed the next day. At the end of the collage, a few hours later, I tried to save the fresco by calling the town hall of the 11th. The people I had on the phone seemed sensitive to this type of action, the fresco was finally legalized by the town hall after it made sure that the end of the wall was indeed the property of the city.
As for knowing if this collage will make an impression on people’s minds, I don’t know, it made an impression on mine, that’s for sure… The idea of this project was to do my part, and to participate in highlighting street harassment.
One of its specificities and that it did not fit into a series, unlike many of your creations.
I had just finished the first chapter of the Idiomatic Expressions. I wanted to take a break, and three months between January and March to prepare the fresco, so I started. It is true that it is not part of a series, but I had already addressed “gender equality” in some of my collages. It is a subject that, as long as it is necessary to deal with it, should be. I asked myself many questions before doing this project, speaking beforehand to my partner, my mother and my sister, to know if I should do it, if as a man I could speak? Finally, once the fresco was installed, almost all the feedback was positive. By wondering if what we do will please, or if we should do it, we are already beginning to censor ourselves, whereas the quintessence of Street-Art is to be able to express ourselves freely.
You seem to have given up being immediately identifiable (in the absence of a recurring visual motif), to work more on research and meaning.
I create above all for myself, and if tomorrow I realize that I can go on with my life with a graphic paw that is my own, I won’t stop myself. But if I am honest with myself, I know that I will not be able to work on a series and therefore on a graphic style all my life, because I envisage a series with an end and its own graphic identity. I could potentially do Idiomatics all my life, because it would be possible to go abroad and deploy the same system with different languages or to continue in France for a few years. But I have absolutely no interest in that. In fact, no matter what graphic identity emerges from a series, for me the most important thing is to transmit an emotion, to tell a story. I hope that one day my work will be recognized for the subjects I cover and the way I tell it. By doing a little introspection I realize that in the songs I wrote 10 years ago I was dealing with the same themes as now. It is this attention to the subject, this willingness to carry a message, that is more my paw.
THE CHOICE OF GLUING
Why did you choose the collage?
For a practical question: when I started I wasn’t drawing – and I still don’t consider myself a draftsman today. I knew how to use Photoshop and it was easy for me to edit images, to print them in large format. This made gluing easier and faster for me. The studio preparations for the collages I do today sometimes take me up to three days, a time that is obviously impossible to spend on the street. This does not mean that I will always remain on this technique, but I like the ephemeral aspect of the collage, the texture of the paper. I learned to use a thinner paper, and to adapt the amount of paint needed so that it does not soak in water in the same way. It is a continuous learning process.
Precisely how do you look at this ephemeral aspect?
At first my goal was to have the piece glued in the street. What happened next was none of my business. I consider that my collages are not finished until they are applied. There was then a period during which I personally took the fact that some of my collages were ripped off, degraded, or invested by advertising. Now I have returned to my first state of mind: a collage can last two hours, six months or a year. My goal is the fact that it exists, the duration does not interest me.
This is a question I also asked myself when I started working in the gallery: does my work deserve to last over time? If I paint something and put it on the street, it will remain ephemeral, so when the opportunity to work with a gallery presented itself, I had trouble accepting the idea that these works could be sustainable. For me, there is a clear separation: what I do on the street will disappear, what is in the gallery will remain.
Does that mean that what matters to you is done off the street?
It would be the opposite, it is the street that motivates me and makes me want to create. Nor does it mean that I value my work more in the gallery than in the street or the other way around. The only difference is the support used in the gallery, which is durable, whereas a collage placed in the street does not remain intact for more than a year. The purpose is also different: if in the street a piece is finished when I put it down, in the gallery it is when the work is sold. When I paint a canvas, I will always have it in mind until it is sold, wondering if I need to rework it. In the street once the work has been placed, I abandon it more easily.
Why did you choose to glue unique pieces?
When I read the Codex Urbanus book, several things challenged me and challenged my practice, especially when it talked about the pitfalls of photocopying. If someone perceives it that way, it means that others may think the same thing. However, I don’t want people to walk past one of my collages, see that it’s a photocopy, and leave. They may not try to understand what I meant, when it is my only will. The most interesting thing for me about Street-Art is the possibility of questioning passers-by and making emotional proposals. In the case of Idiomatics, the visual had to be simple and subtle enough to question the passer-by with a glance. If I can make people smile or think, or if someone understands twenty minutes later in the subway what I wanted to do, then the goal is reached. Painting unique pieces also means emphasizing that a proposal will only be made once, to encourage passers-by to go further and see if they are interested.
A SERIAL WORK
Working in series allows you to exhaust a theme by exploring it in depth.
I number all my creations in the street, from the first to today. All there is on Instagram is everything I put in the street, in that precise order, like a logbook. At the beginning I didn’t work at all in series, it was only one shots, which represented my state of mind, versatile like everyone else’s. When I wrote the sentence “Romanticism is a man’s thing” it was supposed to appear just once. Then, I pasted the first visual of the romantics a few months later, without necessarily looking for a link. I realized that with the sentence I kept talking about the same thing and started building a universe around it.
The series was born at that moment, for a total of about twenty pieces. The majority were asked only once, except for a few that had to come back 3 or 4 times. When I returned from an artistic trip to the United States, it took me a long time to initiate a new series. The series of Idiomatic Expressions matured over several months, in parallel with the reading of the Codex Urbanus essay. This book “Why is Art in the Street? “has triggered a questioning: am I a street-artist? why do I do Street-Art? Stopping impressions to paint also comes from this reading, because I wanted to move towards a more accomplished work, closer to the definition of the noble meaning of Art, both in discourse and in practice.
Operating in series is both comfortable and difficult, comfortable because the main idea gives you a framework, difficult because you have to succeed in renewing yourself in this framework. A series has a beginning and an end and that suits me, I can start a project for 6 months or a year, but I couldn’t approach a series without seeing the end or imagining the end.
Before the Idiomatics, the written word was already present in your work, but in a different form. It is interesting to note your evolution in the use of the written word, and the reflection on language. We then move from the slogan “Romanticism is a man’s thing” to a graphic interpretation of language.
The first art form I used to express myself was writing: I wrote stories, short stories, poetry, songs. When I started working on the idea of the Idiomatic Expressions series I wondered how I would translate the meaning of words into an image. It is by figuratively and narratively imagining the expressions that I found the absurd, surrealist or sometimes poetic character.
I can give a telling example, I made a collage almost at the beginning next to the Alesia metro station, where the “Rimbaut passage” is located, with a T that is not the poet. By playing with the sounds and remembering the history of Rimbaud and Verlaine, I came to Arthur Rainbow, so it was the pun that led to the graphic creation of his portrait with a shirt in the colours of the LGBT movement flag. Finally, this shift in sound (Rimbaud, Rainbow) allows us to compare Rimbaud’s classicism taught at school with a reinterpretation of his image as a possible LGBT icon.
So the words served as a trigger. My ideas never come by image: they come by words, then I translate them graphically. That’s why I don’t feel like a painter or a draftsman, I don’t create from my line.
The Idiomatics series is also interesting because it allowed you to work on a unique character and movement.
Many idiomatic expressions are actions (such as “On the hats”). I wanted to translate things literally, making the expression absurd and leading to surrealism. The action of the sentence imposed the movement on me; it’s the same for “Dragging a pot”. Words here force us to stage and work on the movement. It was a new challenge that allowed me to explore the field of possibilities between words and images, just as it allowed me to work on other drawing and painting techniques.
The fact of having a recurring character allows to give a unit to the whole series.
The character who plays the face of the series is a friend, Romain Nouat, the editor of Le Chat Noir de Montmartre. It is a newspaper that was published in the 1800s, created by Rodolphe Salis, and that he relaunched a little over a year ago. I needed someone here to play the series and I asked him to pose for me, to be “my muse” as we like to say. I also created the story of a person who would be in charge of testing idioms. This personal narrative is not real, but allows me and helps me to think of this character as being able to be multiple, at different ages or dressed up.
What is your relationship to the street?
I admire the approach of some people or artists who manage to create without waiting for the eyes of others. For example Vivian Maier for whom the purpose was to take her shot and not to show them, or even to develop her films. The purpose of what I do is to display my work in the street, because that’s when it’s finished. I need the idea that there could be a reaction, whatever it is. What better way to do this than to place a work in the street? I work practically only illegally, because for me it is an integral part of the process. Not having to ask for authorization means that you are solely responsible for what you do. This total freedom to do things on the street requires a stronger questioning, you are alone in front of your own critical mind, the doubt is multiplied tenfold, you can even question yourself continuously. Moreover, there is also this beautiful idea, that of being able to say “the walls are ours”, to grant yourself a right, to violate a prohibition. Street art is a paradox in our society in the sense that art of “vandal” origin is prohibited by law, but tolerated and even appreciated by many. For me there is a false mystification around the illegal aspect of Street-Art, because its place in our society is proof of a certain degree of freedom unlike in other countries where it is very difficult to express oneself on the street.
How do you contextualize your plays on the street?
I look at the street as a field of expression. I can spot a wall, which will attract me and on which I can imagine a story. Architecture, place, wall can inspire me and that’s usually how works interacting with the in-situ bring an even more interesting dimension. However, on this series for most of the works, I made the collages before looking for a wall to stick it on. When I glued in the provinces, I prepared my paintings here at the studio, then I walked around the city for several hours before going back to sticking there at night. Looking for a wall that has a specific meaning is very interesting, but the place left to chance is also important: when in Orléans I wanted to stick a piece “Sentir le sapin” I thought I would put it next to a church or a cemetery. Once there, I came across a wall right next to the funeral home, the combination of collage in the context was perfect for black humour. It’s great to be able to leave yourself a little margin of chance; sometimes it does things right, and sometimes it fails.
Do you see Street-Art as an artistic movement?
I wouldn’t talk about movement or artistic current, words and their definitions are complicated in terms of art history. I believe that street art and therefore those who practice it, must themselves think about what it is and how to define it. This is a job that Codex Urbanus started in his book and I think it should be developed, discussed and refined.
How do you look at the photograph?
It is double. On the one hand, it is an artistic work tool because I take my different models in pictures to have a basis before moving on to drawing or painting. On the other hand, it is a way of archiving my work in the street. These are photos that I often wish to be “neutral” and that serve to transcribe the collage as faithfully as possible into its environment. In my approach, the neutrality of the photo must leave as much space as possible for the work for what it is and what it can generate. I’m not looking to make a beautiful picture with a neat framing that would make it more aesthetic. But we all know that it is difficult to find neutrality in the photo, if only in terms of the time at which it is taken. That’s why I think it’s always better to go see a collage with your own eyes.