Diving through schools of wallfish

“It’s amazing that while for most people my paintings depict a vertical plane with a swimmer looking up, for me it’s a horizontal plane, and I’m looking at the end of the tunnel.”


Your career has had some rather strong breaks, notably the passage from graffiti to figurative art, which you explain by the awareness of the viewer.

I started doing graffiti at the end of the 90s, a bit by chance, having grown up in the suburbs in a rather hip-hop environment. A buddy and I used to go to the flea market to buy cheap body sprays, and on the way home we’d tag walls and railroad tracks. We were so happy to see our names, our neighbourhood facing other neighbourhoods. As I grew up, I did more graffiti, pure ego trip without thinking about the public who would see the work, if not the other graffiti artists. Anyway it’s impossible to think about the public, because if you did you wouldn’t graffiti, knowing that most people see it as a degradation.

I matured a lot after a pretty serious motorcycle accident in 2007. I spent a lot of time in the hospital, wondering what I was going to do because I didn’t know if I could walk again like I used to. At times like that you take stock of your life, and realize that you have to enjoy your time on earth, and do what you love the most. I realized that I had made some bad choices, that the career as a graphic designer that I was beginning to move towards was not to my liking.

I’ve always had two types of lines. I drew all the time, without necessarily showing my drawings, and when I graffitied I respected more strict rules, inspired by the style of older graffiti artists like Bando or Nasty. When I got out of the hospital, several people I was painting with had been arrested. Sometimes they had to pay huge fines, which ruined a whole life. That’s not what I wanted, and I took the plunge to reorient myself professionally and become an underwater cameraman. The sea had always been a passion, and I wanted to live those magical moments that I could see in wildlife reports.

Has your relationship with the street changed over time?

In the beginning graffiti was not for me an art form but a kind of extreme sport. What we were looking for, beyond the piece that would make an impression, was adrenaline and discovery. It is the impression to live an adventure film, in which one must pass obstacles, fence, dog, security, until arriving in the network to paint. It’s addictive and makes you enter a spiral where you always want to paint more. We didn’t always make beautiful pieces, but we had a common passion for adventure, and that’s what seduced me in street art.

It was pretty hard to stop painting. My passion for underground diving also comes from the fact that it is for me the closest thing to graffiti as I practiced it: an important material to carry in double or triple because it is impossible to go back to the surface in case of technical problems. Organize everything to access the basin or the siphon. But also fear, and a strong mental preparation. And this adrenaline gradually gives way to pleasure.

Concerning painting, I understood that I could not stop painting in the public space. So I started to make my drawings of animals in the street. It didn’t really bother me anymore, either because the wall was broken down all the time, or because people considered that this painting embellished their environment. I once painted a panda in Belleville. The people in the building liked it and asked city hall not to erase it. For me it was a reward and a pleasure to hear that.

Where’s your motivation today?

There’s no adrenaline at all. The pleasure has now come from making your painting visible, from seeing it photographed, circulating on the Internet. It creates a kind of cycle, and generates a return and exchange that I like. Personally, I also love the wastelands, and exploration in general. I sometimes go on wild camping trips to find places in France or Belgium. Some places are really inspiring, I always try to have a ladder and some paint in the trunk in case…

an evolving style

How did your line evolve since the graffiti?

I did active graffiti until 2009, but slowed down after the accident. It was also at that time that I had a first stylistic evolution. I mainly painted trains, and I imagined the idea of a dialogue between the users and my piece that circulated, going beyond the traditional tagging codes. A painting about current events would thus be seen in a different way than my blaze, and would provoke other reactions.

Gradually, my drawings came out of graffiti, and were addressed to a wider audience. I approached themes related to ecology or modern society by using animals to tell stories and pass on messages.

Like on the M.U.R in Oberkampf for example where I had painted an old mouse sitting on a big cheese, surrounded by a wall and barbed wire with other hungry mice around it.

Why did you choose to represent animals?

I have the impression that I understood quite young that the Earth was precious and that there was a balance to preserve, because it allows us to blossom. In my opinion, one species is no less valuable than another and I am trying to understand what balance must be maintained so that everything does not end up being decimated by human beings. The freedom offered by painting allows you to act where you want, even in a lost place, while having a visibility thanks to Internet. Rather than painting a cute character that will please many but will be useless, I wanted a painting that would make the person who would look at it think. I then started painting animals to tell about things that touched me, sometimes with a touch of humour. Like many, I grew up with La Fontaine’s fables and I found it interesting to use animals to convey a message.

Why do you choose to change your style again at COP21?

I was getting bored with painting, I wanted to go to something else but I didn’t really know in which direction. I then had a kind of awareness: my passion being the sea and the oceans, I had to concentrate on them so as not to scatter.

The ocean is the main regulator of the world’s climate: covering 71% of the earth’s surface, it produces more than 50% of the oxygen in the air we breathe and absorbs about 30% of the CO2 generated by human activities. So it is important to be concerned about its well-being!

So it seemed logical to me to make a painting on this theme for COP21. My research led me to these fish, and the repetition of the motif seemed interesting to me, creating the effect of a school of moving fish. If the realization of the COP21 was only a first step, the result was rather satisfying, and I thought about how to improve this sketch, to make it more alive and luminous.

I’ve been diving since I was about ten years old, and as I also love caving I finally discovered underground diving. In France, especially in the Lot or the Ardèche, there are many places with drowned networks allowing the practice of underground diving . When you dive underground and you get closer to the exit, you perceive a glow coming from outside, while you are still in the dark. This vision fascinates me. The exit is always a small rebirth, it is this feeling that I would like to transcribe in painting.

schools of fish

Although the fish are recognizable, you are moving away from figurative work to focus more on movement and light.

I have always loved abstract painting, but for a long time it was a personal pleasure that I didn’t show. Little by little, my work as a public artist was built on drawing and line. Then I felt like turning the page and exploring other mediums. The fishes, approach the abstraction because the composition is random, the forms are similar while being alive because identifiable. It’s not just a drawing of a fish, but a shadow that you see in the distance and that your brain imagines moving. It is then interesting to play simply with the composition of the pattern and the light. I have left the drawing, in favour of the nuances of the colours, to try to concentrate on the light and the movement.

Do you work in layers?

Actually I try to create perspective by playing with the fish scale and the color gradient, it’s a bit of a balancing act.

When I started working this way, I was trying to find a shape that would fit in with the place I was in. For me Street-Art is above all about adapting to the space and not necessarily creating a model that you want to reproduce exactly. Once the space is found, I use the shape of the fish to play with. In a wasteland for example, I look for the place that will be interesting to place my light, then I install fish that go on the ceiling, walls and floor. They occupy the space in a few strokes, and the whole room takes on a new dimension.

Do you choose your colour scheme when you start your play?

I have to because I need to know what material I will be bringing to the site, and therefore have the right quantity. I do colour tests at home, starting from the brand references, and when the gradient works I go to the site impromptu. The hardest thing is often to find the right references, because not all bomb color charts are equal. When you go to Montana, even if you have 280 colours, you will only have the choice between a few predetermined shades. Sometimes it’s tricky to find the right matches, because if an orange is too red or not red enough, the room won’t work. Making the mixtures myself, so that I can paint the shades as I see fit, is a real goal.

It would be necessary to create bombs in which you can choose your own dosage and fill the paint. In the meantime I will try to paint with a compressor and a spray gun. But rather in workshop because it is necessary to recognize that the bombs are very practical in outside.

painting and diving

Your painting reflects your militant commitment to the defence of the oceans.

I dive a lot, always looking for the biggest ball of fish or the best natural cavity. By observing the movements of these shoals, I told myself that I had to paint them. Today, my goal is to paint little bits of ocean everywhere to show the general public the beauty that obsesses me.

When you see my painting, you don’t think directly about ecological issues. But I believe that one should try to speak with a softer language. Before I was in confrontation, wanting to show how horrible it is to imprison an orca, to finish off a bull.

I used trash, thinking it was punchy and imagining that it was the only effective way to call a person on the street.

For most people, the issue is paying the bills. Saturating their daily lives with violent images doesn’t help matters and would rather depress them. I have come to believe that beauty can be everywhere, remaining politically correct while at the same time questioning. From then on, there is a discourse that flows from it. When I prepare a workshop in a school, I’m especially interested in questions about “why I do this”, because I’m going to be able to talk about the preservation of the oceans, telling them that they can have an impact on the future if they make the right choices. Painting then becomes a bridge to a more important subject. My message may not have a huge impact, but if it can work a little bit as well as it does.

So your painting comes from the visions you have when you dive in?

That’s right. For example, in the Lot, the temperature of the water inside the cavities is constant throughout the year. However, at certain times the river waters are really cold, and all the fish come in to warm up. They don’t go very far so they don’t get lost in the channels, and when you go in (or out), you pass in the middle of this swarming vision. It’s quite magical. It’s amazing that while for most people my paintings show a vertical plane with a swimmer looking up, for me it’s a horizontal plane, and I’m looking towards the end of the tunnel.

Do you have the impression that your paintings can have a meditative dimension?

I realized that by painting fish I found a little bit the sensation of diving. Underwater you have this meditative side, where the only sound you get is the sound of bubbles. You feel weightless, in another dimension. In recreational diving, we let ourselves be carried away, we admire, and it happens that the brain leaves towards other thoughts and escapes. While painting I find this impression of automatic writing: the placement is made by the glance, but there is no real reflection, everything passes by instinct.

street cred

How would you like people to look at your work?

People consume a lot, but they don’t necessarily go through with it: if a video lasts longer than a minute, it won’t be watched in its entirety. I’ve learned to detach myself a little from the public eye. If that’s so much to my liking, but the important thing is that the aesthetics correspond to what I want to convey.

I like discovering new techniques, painting new supports. This year, I was able to legally paint a tramway in Grenoble, it was incredible to be at the depot, painting on the platform and playing with the support. I was also able to make a stained glass window in Chartres with a school in the form of workshops, or to participate in a festival in Ireland.

I think I would be bored doing the same thing over and over again. Maybe one day I’ll even stop painting fish, but for the moment I feel that I still have a lot of things to experiment with.

What do you have to do with the ephemeral dimension of Urban Art?

We accept this aspect from the moment we start painting in the street. It’s part of the rules, even if it’s always painful to see a room, on which you’ve spent time, covered with chrome tags when there are walls all around. I’ve found rooms that have been in a place for years. For example, I had a painting in the sanatorium of Dreux, a very large old wasteland, which represented Maître Corbeau recovering his cheese. A lot of people go there, but this room has never been ironed. There is a form of respect for the environment that implicitly says: we agree to leave this room here.

What do you have to do with photography?

For me photography is part of the work. Obviously, it offers a partial view of the piece that could be seen from many different angles. But when I take a picture, I try to think about the angle I want to put forward, which will depend on the place and the way I have dressed the space with the fish. In this way, it immortalizes the desired staging, freezing the vision that you will have of that moment, and therefore has an important part in the creation.

Yet photography is mostly for others. From the moment you put it on a hard disk, you don’t look at it anymore because you already know it, having spent a day working on the piece. It thus becomes a memory like a childhood photo. Thanks to the Internet, a painting made in an Auvergne forest can be seen by people in Oregon, which leads to a snowball effect.

How do you look at Street-Art as a movement?

I believe that urban art is a contemporary art movement in its own right, just like any other movement in art history. But what’s incredible is that the development of the internet has allowed it to cross borders and spread to all the major cities of the world. Then I think it’s important to differentiate between Graffiti, Street art and Muralism. Some artists practice all three but it is not at all the majority. 90% of the walls we see on the internet are commissions. The artist has an authorization and is paid for his work, so it’s muralism. Which, in my opinion, cannot be compared to a free and illegal action as in Graffiti or Street art.

Anyway, this over-mediatization has allowed a great number of artists to live from their passion to make it the biggest artistic movement of all time (Until the next one… ).

Pictures:  Beerens, Jonk, A.Masurelle, François Croisille

You could also find Beerens on Instagram and on his website.

Interview recorded in july 2019.

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