A bestiary at the crossroads of graffiti and natural science
“Showing what we’re into is something I think about a lot when working with animals. Like all living things, it’s a whole liquid, solid, mechanical and organic world.”
When did you take your first steps on the street?
I started painting on the street before I was an artist. I have always drawn, and art classes were my favourite classes in college because they were more recreational and fun, appealing to what was most personal in each one of us. I was having fun finding a style, while at the same time I was beginning to discover graffiti and tags that fascinated me since I saw them as a kid on the highway.
A teacher encouraged me in an interview to continue along this path, because I imagined myself doing character design in video games. So when I entered high school, I started to study graphic design. A friend, who had gone to Auguste Renoir high school to study Applied Arts, met several graffiti artists there, and offered me to paint in the street. I had always had this fascination for tagging, and I wanted to know how these people drew, when, with what materials. So he passed me some graffiti magazines, and we bought some bombs in Châtelet. These magazines allowed me to discover my first lettering, but it was the documentary Writers that impressed me the most. Everything became more concrete, the film showing people painting, and allowing us to understand the history of the movement.
I was then living in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, in 95. We would leave in the evening with our drawings made during the day, to go from the sheet to the real thing. In graffiti, there is this relationship to a territory and an environment, but also to a very adolescent adventurous side, turned towards exploration, the fact of going out at night to be confronted with atmospheres that people don’t know. At the same time, high school was a time when I learned a lot: thanks to friends and my uncle, I became curious about the history of art. Culture was for me an uplifting experience, allowing me to discover new things.
But from that time Graffiti has always been the backdrop. We used to meet up with friends to go and paint a field in an abandoned place, to go out at night on the motorways or the railways, which very very quickly became a way of life, a kind of drug. At the end of high school, I turned to an art college in Paris 1. For me it was a way to get back in touch with this artistic aspiration, without thinking that I could associate Graffiti, which for me was a world apart.
What made you switch from graffiti to figurative drawing?
First of all I would answer boredom, because when you start Graffiti there is a very academic dimension: first mastering the tag, then the flop, then the graff, in a very linear progression. Even when you move on to graffiti, it’s all a question of mastery: the sketch, then the choice of colours, the outline, the lights and outlines. It was at that time that I discovered incredible artists like Horfe, who in the 2000s decompartmentalized this discipline, and made me understand that I could add figurative or organic elements by incorporating motifs from other cultures such as comics, painting or cinema. Graffiti then came out of this constraint of a predefined style, like the wild style, or the old and middle school styles.
In college I also discovered new artists who strongly influenced me. My first real artistic emotion dates from this period, and from an exhibition at the Petit Palais on Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele. Schiele’s work on the line was a shock, this angular and organic side touched me a lot. Gradually, I told myself that I could include these influences in my graffiti, and this became a reality with the appearance of Montana’s low pressure bombs. It was then possible to obtain a very fine line, like those of Horfe or Sirius which followed a particular technique. Until then, the bomb was a brake for me, because even the skinny strokes were too thick, and without hiding it was difficult to get close to the feeling of the drawing.
This personal questioning of graffiti also resulted in a change of blaze, to be able to orient myself towards a more figurative style. I kept the R and the O, two letters I liked, to move from Arow to Horor. The double O thus allowed me to add new elements: indeed, in the history of Graffiti the O is a letter that often allowed me to add other motifs. Many old-fashioned graffiti artists used to put an apple or a star on it… With the arrival of the Internet, I also discovered other styles, which made me want to create something more personal in reaction, thinking about how to integrate the drawing into the work of the letter.
A SPRAY OF BLACK, A SPRAY OF WHITE...
Was it important for you to keep the bomb as a medium?
The bomb has a magical side, that of the sprayed paint, without being in contact with the wall. I’ve always been fascinated by all the possibilities of rendering it, its speed, the movement that is linked to it. There’s a gesture to the bomb that you don’t have with other tools. The technical dimension it gives rise to also impresses me, and I wonder how certain effects are achieved, as a painter might wonder which brush was used. Finally, you can go back and forth, but you will never completely master your stroke. This random and accidental side is also found in watercolour, working with a wide stroke and letting the colour live.
Why do you prefer to create in black and white?
From the beginning I was more interested in line than colour. I think the history of Art is divided between artists who had a particular sensitivity to make the colours vibrate, and those who focused more on the line, like two different archetypes. I have always been more sensitive to the line, even in the work of others, although I admire the great colourists, Fauvists or Impressionists. It’s something I can’t put in place, even if I work a little in watercolour (which gives me a more organic relationship to colour).
I find that the line does indeed offer something simpler and more personal, almost an imprint of the artist’s personality, because no two will be identical. That’s why I was amazed when I discovered Schiele’s work: by following his lines, following the trajectory of the line, one truly reconstitutes the personality of the man. This strength of line is found throughout the history of creation, from cave art to printing.
It is also surprising to note that in Graffiti, colours often serve to camouflage certain gaps in technique or line. Bando explained that Graffiti is only style and technique: chrome and black are enough, because letters and outlines cannot lie. Black and white has this simple and direct aspect, without embellishments: for this reason it is currently my language.
What is the place of movement in your work?
Everything is movement in the line, which then becomes the synthesis of an inner gesture that is written by power and line. In Schiele or Dürer, we feel a vibration. I can spend hours looking at an engraving, crosses or wefts, wondering how to follow the line millimetre by millimetre. I also think of Asian calligraphy, both choreographic and energetic, concentrated in one movement.
This liberation of movement in the tag is also spectacular. When I see a beautiful tag I redo in my head the movement of the artist, the position of his hand, like a kind of trance. The tag is a summary, the visual result of a dance. Mosa has theorized this idea, working around the choreography of the tag, and the dance linked to the signature. We talk about flow for graff as for rap, because we find this way of dancing on a beat: from time to time the letters swing and bring a sensitive dimension. For me, Graffiti has always been intrinsically linked to movement, to moving to explore one’s line, to running when being chased, to climbing walls. Today, working on the animal allows me to continue exploring this dimension.
work on the animal
How did you come to work more on animals?
At the end of college I did my master’s degree in photography. The studies of Plastic Arts tend to push in one direction, which explains that to be able to break into this field, and to be relevant to it, he necessarily makes a conceptual work with a lot of references. Academic drawing has no real place there. On my travels, I started to take out my sketchbook, to sketch the life around me.
I’ve always had a problem with the human figure: I liked movement, seeing people passing by and capturing a posture, whereas I had more trouble with the portrait. During nude sessions, I was more interested in anatomy and musculature than in the face. In a sense it was a continuity of Graffiti, which is based on the articulation of the letters between them. It was in Southeast Asia, when I was going to do a photo reportage, that I realized this preference for drawing. When I sat down with my pens, people would stop and a discussion would start, whereas photography was a more unilateral act.
I started painting and graffiti again, and in 2013 I joined the association Art Osons, in 95, through which I was able to meet other graffiti artists. It was a determining factor in my career, because all my friends had then stopped, and I missed this collective emulation. This is an aspect that is a bit missing in Street art, where you don’t find this kind of exchange as much among people who are just starting out. It was from this period, around the beginning of 2014, that I started working with Norione, and that I affirmed myself as an artist, even if it took me almost ten years to get there. It’s a difficult status to assume, you can’t call yourself an artist. That’s when I made my first characters, which nevertheless had a lot of anatomical elements.
The pivotal moment in our creation came during the Heritage Days in 2014. We had a workshop in an old farmhouse in Courdimanche, and we had to do a fresco on the wall of an old building. I have always been interested in old, abandoned places. For graffiti artists, it’s an intrinsic part of the practice – and almost a fetish – to go and discover places outside of time, with walls that have a history. As a painter, when you discover the history of a place, you want to pay homage to it, while telling a new one, thus respecting the crack, the stone. It is an aesthetic of ruin and recycling. Corine Pagny, a resident artist, suggested that we paint a dance of death made up of skeletons and horses. We embarked on a large composition of horses in black and white, inserted in a pyramidal structure previously drawn with coal. This painting remains a magical moment to this day: several days without thinking, tracing directly in black. The power that emanated from the whole was obvious, very direct, emanating in particular from the presence of the animals and reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings. This imposed a vision on me that I knew would follow me for a long time.
What do these animals get you?
The animal is a way to reconnect with the wild, with something we miss. I spent hours in the anatomy galleries discovering their shapes, the diversity of their skeletons, as a reminiscence of the images we were given as kids when we had a good point. Each species has its own inspiring expressiveness. For me, horses exude this power, this grace, this emotion. The bird arrived a little later because I missed the trip. It also allowed me to dwell on questions of freedom: at the time of the migrant crisis, I went to the Calais Jungle with other artists to discuss with them these notions of travel, transit and migration. At that time, the figures of the migrating bird and the wader became more present in my work.
The bird is also intimately linked to my way of painting. The fat cap allows me to make lines that end in points, and I often drew my letters in this way, which makes one think of beaks or feathers. The fact that I wanted to release the letters in all directions following the movement instinctively led me to birds. It was from that moment on that I abandoned the human figure.
Many urban artists work on the animal world.
If more and more urban artists are working on animals, it is because we realize that they will not last, that we have entered a new phase of species extinction. We who grew up in an urban environment completely centered on humans and industry realize how much we miss the wild. We try to hold on to it because it eludes us. At another time I think I would have loved to be a naturalist and it seems to me that it was Roa who also talked about her dream of exploring the world to discover animal species. We are currently living a new form of naturalism: these animals exist, we know it because they are in our books and in documentaries. Yet they no longer live in our cities. We still have the opportunity to see them but maybe in a few years they will have disappeared, and I think that this is permanently in the mind of artists like Teuthis, Ardif or Faith XLVII… Painting animals then comes back to looking for a timeless dimension. If I am so fond of black and white, it is also because I am very attached to these aesthetics that are capable of crossing eras.
A FANTASY WORLD
It’s also an opportunity for you to switch to a more fantastic world. Is it a consequence of your trait or does it come from your taste?
I’ve always liked manga, in which we find this notion of metamorphosis, or transformation. As a child, I liked the principle of the werewolf, the man who transforms himself into an animal, or into a superman. Even in Dragon Ball Z, the fighters transform into super warriors: their muscles swell, veins appear, their hair changes colour. These ideas can be found in some video games like Altered Beast, in which the hero turns into a bear or a wolf. Finally, there are also great references like Akira or Miyazaki, which have connections with Lovecraft, or even Steampunk, and stage real mutations.
So the darker side of your drawings would only come from the line?
I’m obsessed with lines, whereas I’d like to be satisfied with simple shapes. Artists like Dürer or Bellmer brought me this gothic side, which I compare to anatomy or natural science, which can sometimes be quite morbid. One also thinks of the engravings of Gustave Doré, which by definition have a romantic, dark aspect, certainly less joyful and light than Impressionism. The very fact of having to scratch and claw with the tool carries this aesthetic.
When I paint an animal I will want to underline a certain shape, add black or an opening, and if there is a hole I will want to fill it with a multitude of threads or smoke. We find this desire to remove the skin, to remove the first skin to see what’s underneath. This desire to show the inner layers can be found in Fragonard’s Écorchés, with traumatic images of burst horses, into whose blood vessels resin has been injected. Showing what we are inside is something I think about a lot when working with animals. Like all living things, it’s a whole liquid, solid, mechanical and organic world.
Shadows have a special place in your work.
I consider that I still have gaps in my treatment of light and shadows, which are things I am constantly working on. Sometimes I miss the right contrast, or on the contrary, I apply dark areas where I shouldn’t put them. You might think it’s easy to paint from photography, but to each element that you add you have to think about the light, which I place from time to time in a too random way. And it is its management that gives a drawing or a photograph its quality.
I also like these spurts of light that prevent the whole thing from being too clean. Our association with Norione worked because his line is more delineated, and each tempered the other to find an interesting balance. Ardif’s animal parts or Teuthis’ work are extremely precise, but when I see the detail of these furs or shells I know that I couldn’t reproduce it, that something would have to diverge at some point. I’m always tempted to make a mixture of everything I know, a display of technique. Once again we find here this idea of metamorphosis and impermanence. For me, a closed drawing would be unnatural: the vibration that springs from it will also be a reaction to the sometimes morbid aspect found in it, and will allow to play on the duality between life and death, between inert and movement.
vision of the street
What does the street mean to you now?
The street is originally linked to childhood, a place of adventure and exploration. When you are in primary school, sleeping at your best friend’s house and sneaking out of the window, you find yourself confronted with yourself for the first time. Parents don’t know about it, you hide behind cars. It’s also an open door to the imagination: kid, the night is another world to you, everything tells a new story and every house can be inhabited by monsters.
In older age, the street knows multiple realities. There is the one you take every day when you go to work or school, and the one you explore. Graffiti constantly questions the appropriation of one’s environment. When you spot a wall, you visualize your graffiti in the manner of an advertiser before going back to paint on it. The appropriation is then very strong because you put color on these walls blank of any form of expression, thus bringing life to this architecture. Contrary to concrete and grey façades, old stone walls retain a sensitivity: there are people who have nothing to do with graffiti but who notice that a certain stone was laid by a man. Putting one’s blaze on a dull wall is like saying that one exists, and I am always more reassured in a tagged place because I know that people live there.
What’s your relationship to photography?
Several things come into play: the place, the time I have, my equipment. When I started to paint, photography was just an archive for me. There was not then this imperative and this urgency of publication on the networks. For a long time, I painted less, but took a lot of graffiti photos during night outings. For me, getting beautiful images was then as important as making a good graffiti. I liked to take the trucks, the blinds, in order to highlight the paint in its environment. Photography can be interesting when it manages to tell something more than the work. Recently, for a painting in Tunisia, I felt that I had to do one that went beyond painting. I came back to the place at night, with a multitude of candles, so that I could take a long break. After an hour’s installation I found an atmosphere again, and the photo became an autonomous work that dialogues with the painting.
What do you have to do with the ephemeral aspect of your work?
The ephemeral is always present, because we know that even the most beautiful wall won’t last, that a tag can be erased the next day, or that it might last a year. When I started I wondered how old the paintings were when they were half erased. Imagination still had an important place: who? when? where? how? A personal projection added to these questions.
But in the hollow is the memory that the ephemeral calls forth, memory that is in my opinion more present and intrinsic to tagging and graffiti than to street art, because it always happens to discover ghosts of tags that are twenty years old. When I took the train to Saint-Lazare, I saw old Shoe lettering alongside much more recent blazes. This juxtaposition of layers is fascinating, as is the necessary humility that emanates from the ephemeral. Even if there are places more or less exposed, painting in the street condemns the work to disappear in the short or medium term, regardless of the energy and passion brought into creating it.
Why would graffiti have that memory and not street art?
I think the relationship to history is very different in the two cases. Graffiti has codes: you don’t have to go through another artist again, or else there is a kind of hierarchy, which respects both the old and the places. The goal is not to do something seen from the largest number, but rather to look for the right place and the right atmosphere. The graffiti artist is fully in this respect an artist in situ, who will appreciate at the same time, and for different reasons, busy streets and abandoned areas. Some taggers will want to put their name everywhere but as discreetly as possible, in hidden spots, so that it stays longer. Conversely, it sometimes feels like the street artist is posing a work of art knowing that it will be photographed. He has much more integrated this notion of the ephemeral because he knows that this image, once archived, can be added to his catalogue.
This does not mean that street art has no history, and somewhere it stems from interventions in the street, be they political, social, etc., but it does have a history. Nevertheless, Graffiti and tagging are for me more instinctive and primary, where street art is often in search of a concept, in a too consensual approach. A story that is constructed in this way will therefore necessarily be more factitious.
But doesn’t the graffiti artist also want to stand out?
Graffiti artists have a huge ego trip, probably even more so than street artists. But when I first started out I didn’t think they were looking for consensuality as much. Emulation and competition are more about the best style, with nothing else to gain but recognition from one’s peers. The fact that there was no money in Graffiti in its beginnings, and nothing but a being of identity and expressivity, is a founding element of the movement. Nobody gives me the floor, I don’t exist in the eyes of others, so I’m going to write my blaze everywhere like a dog that pisses.
In other respects, Graffiti is particularly elitist. It often happens that once on a field there are altercations, of which only the level of the graffiti will be able to give the outcome. By painting more figurative things, this relationship to others necessarily evolves. I find it enriching to have the opinion of someone who is not in the middle, because his eyes will have more freshness. I could also reproach Graffiti for the fact that, while talking about freedom and openness, it prevented a diversity of points of view, and judged what could – or could not – be part of it.
How do you feel about that when you’ve moved from one to the other?
It’s funny to see people’s reaction: they are very little sensitive to graffiti and lettering, but as soon as they see a character they notice it, and if it’s a realistic eye they think it’s beautiful. I’ve been doing lettering for a long time and I appreciate it, but I also want to reach as many people as possible. My leitmotiv from the beginning, whether in photography or drawing, is that the person who looks feels something.
From my first big collages in the street, in 2015/2016, I discovered the different reactions of the public. I would sit in a corner and watch the passers-by who saw this apparition. There is something rewarding about touching both parents and children. Moreover, as a cartoonist, there is a great deal of projection: I want to talk to the young person who passes by to stimulate their imagination. In the Fantastic Bestiary of Street Art, we find this interesting idea of reintroducing fantasy into the daily consciousness of people in cities. So it’s very important for a kid to stop on a drawing or colours, because that will accompany him for a while.
That’s also why I do workshops with Arts Osons, and get involved in the associative sector. I could be the child with whom I work, and I would have liked to grow up in a city covered with works that make me look up and give matter to dream. Planting a seed, sharing Art with people, are more important things to me as the years go by. It is to consider Art as a form of elevation to make it accessible to all. On another level, painting in an abandoned place also carries the idea that one day another will arrive and will be all the more surprised by this appearance, as I imagine were the first adventurers who entered the Chauvet and Lascaux caves.