“Painting characters in the public space who look at passers-by is both to signify his presence, but also to highlight the gift of ubiquity conferred by painting in the street. When I create my self-portrait, I am present in several cities in several countries, even when I am no longer physically present. This provokes an encounter and a reaction. By preparing the stencils in the studio, I am the first spectator of my own work. It is therefore necessary that he touches me because I myself am looked at by the gaze I have created. (…) I start from a photo I didn’t take, of Dylan or Hendrix, and I bring it to life through the radiance of the gaze: the presence thus generated is much more important than the drawing I make of it. To create a presence, even if it is frozen, is something that is striking.”
We can’t talk about your background without talking about music. To understand how you became an artist, you have to talk about the American counter-culture as a doorway to the imagination and the dream…
I was born in 1957, and I often say that each of the decades of my youth has been significant in many ways. The 50s saw the development of the electric guitar and the birth of rock’n’roll: Elvis, Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Lee Lewis… At the same time, the Teddy Boys appeared in England, one of the very first youth movements, embodying a particular spirit, vocabulary, dress and musical tastes. This rebellion against the preceding generation marks a transition after the post-war period. During the inter-war period, jazz crossed the Atlantic, of course, but in Europe it concerned only a handful of aficionados, a certain elite, while rock music reached a large part of the popular strata.
I’m ten years old in 1967, the summer of love in California, and the blossoming of Flower Power, the hippie movement and psychedelia. In ’68, the events of May shook our country. I was a kid, but I remember it pretty well. The 1960s and early 1970s, when I was a teenager, saw profound changes in society, politically, socially and culturally. There was an explosion of Pop Art, the fight against the Vietnam War, the fight for women’s rights with Angela Davis, the fight for civil rights with Martin Luther King. Rock becomes pop, all these instruments from the blues mix with other influences and become more sophisticated. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Stones or the Pink Floyd explored new lands and released concept albums. Record players are exchanged for hi-fi systems. I was too young to follow what was going on in the 50s, but the 60s and early 70s hit me hard. I’ll never recover from the jolts of those hectic decades. Even today, my life and my artistic practice are still deeply influenced by this period.
1977 is the year of the punk wave. At twenty years old I am almost too old to live it fully but this period will change everything. Punk, just ten years after psychedelia, “sets the record straight” and will deeply impact my aesthetic and musical tastes.
I, who was rather a shy and reserved child, I rush into these movements without my entourage realizing it very well, and I find there a right to dream, to poetry and a certain androgyny. When my parents give me a guitar for my twelfth birthday, I use my fingers for hours to learn songs by Dylan, Cohen or Polnareff, and I spend hours with my friends spinning these few chords, doors to dreams and freedom.
In fact your first visual shocks are linked to this love for music, especially through the 45 rpm covers, with Dylan, Morrison or Hendrix icons, but also their stencilled graphics.
My first steps and artistic emotions are indeed not strictly musical. I certainly had my first guitar when I was twelve years old and I have always been marked by what I listened to on the radio, then thanks to the 45s, but the images were just as important: as far as I remember I have always drawn and painted. I remember my large box of Caran d’Ache pencils and my gouaches: they were for me “sacred” tools! I loved drawing lessons in primary school: the school would have closed at midnight and I would have stayed there, just to paint or draw over and over again! So this taste for images was there, along with music, and even before. Later on, the era and my personality were embodied by artists whose music interested me as much as their image or their record covers. When I was young, I didn’t pay much attention to Dylan’s lyrics (which I often had trouble grasping), what hypnotized me was elsewhere: his voice that everyone hated, his musical style (he didn’t play guitar or harmonica particularly well, but the whole thing was totally brilliant). Above all, he had this face, this hair, this morgue and he dressed very well. Dylan, for me, was an absolute work of art! I consider a work of art not necessarily a painting. Although I have gaps in art history, I can say that I have seen works all my life, whether it be through record sleeves, posters, people in the street whose looks fascinated me. Sitting in the subway in New York and London and fixing a mental image of what surrounds us, of these urban landscapes, of these people with incredible looks, is like making your own film, your own exhibition…
How do you move from this beginnings to a more developed practice of plastic art? What was the influence of more subversive collectives like Bazooka that were then developing in France?
At this period of life, between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, each year counts triple. You forge a personality and a taste for life. I found a cat drawing from that period, which I had signed and dated. The fact of signing shows that unconsciously it is a work that one wants to keep, and that one assumes this “possibility” of being an artist. The second step is to show it, to consider that it may be of interest to others, and to assume this nascent status. In junior high and high school we find artistic external signs on bags or notebooks, first signatures. In the middle of the baba cool and revival folk period, I made small leather bracelets and other leather pendants that I then sold, with pebbles, nails bought from the blacksmith and Breton symbols such as triskeles or ermines. When I arrived at the University in September 1975, I was still very hippie “fleur bleue”. In 77, the punk movement shook me, but it wasn’t until 1979, when I returned to Ireland for a year, that I made a radical break with the Baba folk scene in which I had previously evolved. I cut my hair, wear leather and boots.
The punk movement allowed what we didn’t allow ourselves to do, it allowed us to get back to the urgency of rock, with immediate pleasure, with a certain rage that had faded away throughout the 70s. Music, clothes, images: punk marked the end of the decade. The Bazooka collective intertwines the pages of Libé with incredible drawings that electrify me. They also sign record covers, like the famous Asphalt Jungle single and the Skydog Commando album. The Sex Pistols’ first album is packed by Jamie Reid: everyone knows this famous cover. The covers of their singles spread an aesthetic of basic, chaotic and cheap photocopying.
Standards and principles crumble and the definition of a work of art mutates. While in 1979/80 I made pen and ink drawings, poetic and surrealist, precise and chiadé, which spurred me on in the press, on record covers and concert posters is at the antipodes. Little by little, I abandon this style to try my hand at tinkering with images, in a spirit of urgency, “do it yourself” and a certain aesthetic violence. I triturate, I glue, I cut out, I use photomatons, polaroids and especially photocopy and Letraset screens. I’m very influenced by this post punk spirit and by the imagery of the 80’s and 81’s which saw the birth of the new wave. The Ska revival and the ” two tone ” imagery is also an influence. So I was collecting photomatons and practicing copy art (or xerography), when in the early 80’s I started to show my work to bands who wanted to release singles and needed visuals. So my first public production was a poster for the band Private Jokes in 1981, five hundred copies of which were printed and pasted in the street. When I signed it, I assumed paternity and I was very proud, but I wouldn’t have really considered myself as an artist then. I was just creating images.
How did you then move on to an urban practice?
As part of my studies, I went to live in Ireland for a year in 1978/1979. There everything blended together, a guy who played the bagpipes one night could play punk rock the next, you could work at the post office with a green crest, whereas in France people would stare at you for an earring, or a tattoo was a bar to the slightest job interview. Back in France, I put away my acoustic guitar and now all I do is listen to rock’n’roll and keep on creating images. At the same time, I continued my English studies. Why English? Because it’s the vector of my passions: music, art, literature… What I like comes from England or the USA. After a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, I passed the Capes in 1982 (almost by accident!) and I entered the National Education system with the simple aim of earning a living, to be independent, pay my rent and be able to go on holiday. So I arrived as a trainee teacher in Tours in the autumn of 82, without knowing anyone. Cutting the cord with my youth in Nantes, I feel new, free, freed from all constraints and ready to take on this new life. From the outset, I frequented rock circles: concerts, free radio stations, record shops, music stores, bookshops, clubs and musicians’ bistros. It is both a period of excess of all kinds and the discovery of a new life. Quickly, I want to assert my need to create images and to make it known. An enlarged photo booth cut out of a piece of cardboard: my first stencil was born. I sprayed it all over the old Tours, one night in the fall of 1982, as if I was throwing my business card on the walls.
The practice of stencilling
Stencilling is the art of repetition. Is it necessary to find in your choice an echo of Warholian serigraphs and Pop art?
My previous images were photographers: I started out from photographs in order to divert and transform them. The Private Jokes poster was made up of two flat tints because it was in the spirit of the times. During a Clash concert in 1981, Futura 2000 was bombing on stage: it was the first time I saw an aerosol can and someone using it to create. I’d known the Clash since their first album in 1977 and they were a lot more unifying than the Pistols because they were a lot smarter. They had lettering stencils on their clothes, Pollock draping on Mick Jones’ shirts. That led me to the stencil, as did seeing pictures of Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s work. I had also had to see Zloty’s Ephémères once in Paris, around the trou des Halles. But the Warholian idea of rehearsal was also present.
What technique did you use for stencilling?
In 1982 we didn’t have today’s tools, so I worked with a simple stencil. Indeed, in the absence of a computer or scanner, it was necessary to use tracing paper to determine the areas of shadow and light and photocopying services to enlarge the prints. The original was given out one day and the copies were picked up the next day, without access to the machines. I then realize that after passing through the photocopier, my most nuanced photos come out only in black and white, because the toner is deposited in one place or another, without gradation. This helped me a lot to understand how to paint my whites and blacks afterwards. The arrival of the first photocopier that enlarged the image was extraordinary because, although the print was still in A4, you could go from a photo booth image to the almost real size of a face. From that moment on I made stencils a little bigger, going to get cardboard in supermarkets. I then use big carpet cutters and Altona bombs, made to paint mopeds… A few months later I add a background to be able to shade the colours of the face. This simplicity also made it possible to be faster: with a spray in each pocket and a stencil under the arm, it takes a minute to make a painting. The slogan I came up with at the time was “Vite fait bien fait”, which later became the title of the first book on street stencils, in 1986, published by Alternatives (a work co-produced by Agnès B). I developed my technique fairly quickly from my self-portrait: a mistake made by analogy with the photocopier (where when I moved the original I obtained elongations) allowed me to discover that by slightly moving the stencil at the time of painting I modify the shape of the image. People started to associate me with this idea and it became my trademark for some time in the 80s.
How do you decide between stencil and glue?
It’s first and foremost a practical difference: flying abroad, I can’t carry bombs or take large stencils. When I started, I travelled without any particular project, so to be light I simply carried a box of wallpaper glue powder in the bottom of a suitcase, as well as stencils folded on very thin paper. Moreover, in some places like the Great Wall of China it is out of the question to paint. If one is caught, a paper is easily removed, it is not a degradation of historical monuments. The visual effect is practically the same, the differences can be positive: the fact that time alters the collage, for example, is aesthetically interesting. I don’t like the words legal or vandal: legal, because it refers to legal or a certain “official art”, but vandal even less because it refers to the idea of knowingly destroying the public good. On the contrary, I like the city and I hope for a reappropriation rather than a destruction of these spaces.
The gesture of spray painting itself is not neutral. It evokes social protest and leaves a lasting mark on the wall in one stroke.
This tool is incredible. Technically, it adapts to all media and culturally it has become a rebellious tool, an artistic weapon, at first very much used for slogans rather than stencils. Blek had started stencilling the year before, Hugo Kaagman had been stencilling in Holland since 1977, but otherwise there were none. In the United States, the bomb was used for tagging, but without any artistic or realistic consideration.
How did you gradually move from working on colour, which was inspired by pop music, to working on black and white and the silhouette?
It wasn’t thought through, my first stencils were in black and red. Influenced by Warhol’s serigraphs, I continued with other colours. I played a lot on accumulation and repetition: from my portrait I created a “shaping” thanks to my typographies, arrows, chains or dotted lines, delimiting a border that allowed me to work by composing the image, creating a dynamic, a graphic balance. If we plunge ourselves into the works of this period there are many monochrome, dominant red or blue. Little by little, this 80’s aspect faded and I gradually favoured the subject, because all these colours and shapes interfered with what I wanted to tell. I continued to use posters and record covers, but I also developed my own vocabulary. This transition happened gradually, especially during the decade 1995/2005 when I spent much more time playing music than making stencils. My comeback was greatly helped by the sudden notoriety, in the mid-2000s, of Anglo-Saxon figures like Banksy or Shepard Fairey. One can almost say that I opened a second phase of my career, abandoning colour and painting more life-size figures, in black and white, with shades of grey.
When do you consider your work finished? It seems to be composed of three dimensions: the stencil, the scriptural signature and the graphic one through the red arrow.
This is a question that was asked a lot by easel painters, who would come back to the work tirelessly to add a small touch, or accentuate a shadow. The work may never be finished and at some point you have to decide to consider it finished. The stencil solves this problem: the image is already ready; after spray painting, the work is finished. My choice of medium was precisely because of this speed of execution, this “quick done, well done”. In the street the stencil is finished once the red arrow and the signature are added.
The Man and the Icon
Your work is about the human being and especially the gaze, which makes you say, “A dead person is a body whose gaze has died out.” Could you explain how the gaze allows you to draw links between all your characters?
This sentence doesn’t take into account the blind people I have painted, whose eyes can never have been lit and yet who are very much alive. I chose this subject out of a need for contact and sharing. I consider that in the body’s envelope, the eyes are the breach that allows one to see inside. We do not see a person until we are confronted with his or her gaze: thus, to have a fleeting gaze is to refuse the risk of communication. To paint characters in the public space who look at passers-by is both to signify their presence, but also to highlight the gift of ubiquity conferred by painting in the street. When I create my self-portrait, I am present in several cities in several countries, even when I am no longer physically present. This provokes an encounter and a reaction. By preparing the stencils in the studio, I am the first spectator of my own work. It is therefore necessary that he touches me because I myself am looked at by the gaze I have created. If it’s mine this effect is that of a mirror, but when it comes to celebrities it becomes very impressive. I start from a photo I didn’t take, of Dylan or Hendrix, and I bring it to life through the radiance of the gaze: the presence thus generated is much more important than the drawing I make of it. Creating a presence, even if it is frozen, is something striking.
In fact, you are also part of the tradition of portrait artists, putting the human being in the forefront. What makes you choose your unknown models, from geisha to dancer?
I don’t make any difference between someone famous or not. I simply have to be moved by the picture I choose. Most of the time, this choice is primarily a matter of chance. I come across a photo of a little girl with a cuddly toy on the Internet. If she touches me I wonder if the picture is stencilable. If it is a very famous photograph, I will either refrain or contact the photographer. On the contrary, if I can’t find her name, I will use it. I am very satisfied when I take the photograph myself, because then I feel like I am the author of the whole process, but I also know that if I only did that I would spend a lot of time on it, because I am not a photographer and I don’t have the right equipment. My credo remains “Quickly done, well done” and, even if I sometimes had photographic ambitions, it is still very time-consuming. I would like to have several lifetimes to deepen all these techniques!
The choice of the portrait is particularly noticeable in your interior work, as you use the frame to “cut” people’s faces as closely as possible.
I consider myself a photographer. I think without pretension that I have the “eye” of a photographer. I capture the image with my eye: I frame, I think about lines, proportions, perspectives, the play of masses or fields. But I don’t know how to use a camera or how to adjust the focal length. I take pictures without a camera, from shots often taken by others. The framing is only valid for my exhibition work, even if in the street there can also be a predefined framing when painting large frescoes.
Could you go back to your choice of icons: is it because they make it possible to appeal to a collective memory common to the greatest number?
On the contrary, not everyone is going to recognize them, and that’s precisely what I like. At the Bièvre meetings I painted a seated Hendrix that had been erased. While I was painting another character, a little old lady passed by and said to me:
“Ah, you’re the one who does those paintings. The little black man sitting at the end of the pavement, he’s no longer there. They erased him. He was my boyfriend when I went to walk my dog and buy my wand, too bad. »
This woman had never seen Jimi Hendrix before, but this painting had created a presence in this neighborhood to become a full part of the everyday landscape. Hendrix or no Hendrix, she had seen a human being first and foremost. My culture allows me to depict people I care about, and I like the idea of making a connection with the only guy in the neighborhood who will know a little-known figure like Nick Drake. It’s the same thing when it comes to clothing objects, which are a fetish. While most people will find it ridiculous, I know that there are a few people on the planet who worship these little things. That’s enough for me to make a connection with the other one. It’s those connections that make us, build us, and keep us from going under.
How do you explain that “the unity of images, through the support and the tool, smoothes out the differences” and makes it possible to draw up encounters between figures that have nothing to do with each other.
My Shhh! is a self-portrait, but on the Internet it is written everywhere that it is Salvador Dalí, because his eyes are exorbed, so some people get confused. Nick Drake looks a bit like Jim Morrison so a lot of people also take my Drake stencil as a portrait of Morrison. When I started to paint, it would never have occurred to me to consider celebrities and strangers as identical. But over time my discourse has evolved and I realize that the differences may not be as great as they seem at first glance. Anonymous or icons, it doesn’t matter, they are first and foremost human beings. I paint them all the same way: at scale 1 and in black and white, without making any difference.
You say that “politics sometimes takes precedence over a more poetic dimension; that you have to remember that an image is more about feelings than it is about sentiment.” Against the backdrop of committed street art, do you think that when it comes to the work, the heart should take precedence over the brain?
Maybe I didn’t use the right word because it’s impossible to separate sensation from feeling. There is no break between heart and brain. Where would the boundary be? Whether we listen to music, read a book or contemplate an image, emotion will be a prerequisite for any intellectualization or understanding of a concept, even if it has to be nuanced because this emotion can also come from the concept itself. However, one must be careful not to create pathos simply to make people cry over good intentions or to attract “sympathy”.
I am very concerned by so-called “committed art” while being extremely suspicious of it.
The city as a crucible of a common memory
Your work also stands out for its resolutely urban aspect. How do you envisage the city as a space in the realization of your work, particularly through the disappearance of the frame?
I prefer to talk about contextual rather than urban art, because it can be a village in the country, an interior or a semi-public space. If you isolate a wall as an entity, it becomes a painting. A wall is a context because it is in the street of a neighbourhood in a city in a country, it has a colour and reflects light in a certain way. It is the context that will make a work come alive. A work on canvas is fixed, even if it changes significantly over time. In the street, as soon as the painting is finished, the work has already changed: the light is no longer the same, it will rain, the passers-by will be different. It is not a work in the street, the street is an integral part of the work.
With your fresco in Place Stravinsky, the Silence of the City, you become a muralist, and make the ephemeral work perennial.
I make a big difference between what we call “Street art” and muralism. A mural is, most of the time, bigger than what we usually do. We always paint it with an authorization and a sometimes rather heavy logistics. It is also a different work because it presupposes a format – the edges of the wall – which delimits the frame. I tried to place this work in the context of the Place Stravinsky and this heart of Paris, but a mural of this magnitude is not conceived in the same way as a furtive work that is often very ephemeral. As it is official, it takes its place in the landscape in a definitive way.
I don’t dislike making such frescoes, however I think we have to be wary of gigantism: what we wanted to do by putting Art in the street was to bring it to the people and desecrate it. If we offer them giant frescoes, we certainly transform the street into a museum, but by taking over certain negative museum elements, such as the official or intimidating character. Also, I think the surprise effect is important, and if every gable of a building becomes a fresco we won’t look at them anymore. I’m glad I was able to do the Chut! and I have other large frescoes in the works but I often look for smaller walls. I’d be bothered if people’s reaction to my work was limited to its size: I want them to be moved, but without that emotion being generated by gigantism.
Your work does not exclude collaboration with other artists such as near the European Place de Clichy where you have made several stencils with Jérôme Mesnager or Mosko. How has the city encouraged these collaborations with other forms of mural expression?
It’s a bit of a coincidence. With Jérôme, we’ve known each other since 1984 and we lived through a period with Miss.Tic, Speedy Graphito, Paella? etc. which allowed us to participate in many events together. There are friendships that have been created, trajectories that have separated… We belong to the generation of street artists of the early 80’s, which seals a bond between us. But collaborations are often by invitation: for the European it came through the semi-associative gallery Ligne 13, which we all went through. It was the gallery that asked us to work with them for the Rififi festival in Les Batignolles. We painted this theatre façade for the first time in 2006, before redoing it in 2010.
Relationship to music
Your stencils showcase a lot of musicians, whether it’s traditional music, from the accordion to Amália Rodrigues’ fado, or icons from the 60s.
I regret that there aren’t more musicians in the street, that we don’t give them a more important place. I started playing traditional music by begging for money: in Brittany we used to play on the terraces, being directly confronted by the people. I love street music: for me, painting an accordionist on a wall also means recreating an atmosphere such as it existed twenty years ago and more. France has kept some traditional music, there are sometimes balls, but they’re no longer popular gatherings like they used to be. This is true for all the acrobats: I remember a time when John Guez gave theatre lessons to passers-by in front of Beaubourg while Mouna harangued the barges a little further away and magicians galvanised the crowd to the sound of a barrel organ or a musette accordion.
You’re not only a painter, you’re also a musician. Apart from music, which has influenced your graphic work, what has been its place in your career and what echo has it had with your graphic evolution?
I played music in a serious way until 2005. Since then, the time spent painting has been too important for me to be able to really continue in such an advanced way. For me it was two separate things that I rarely mixed. With Open Road, I installed paintings at a few concerts, but the atmosphere they wanted to create was not related to my work. I think that the moving image is always more eye-catching than the fixed one. In an exhibition, if musicians are playing in a corner, they capture the attention of the audience, who no longer look at the paintings, unless of course it was originally conceived as a global scenography in which music and images play a role, or if it’s a performance.
With Distant Shores, you place your work at the heart of Irish music: how important to you is this traditional music that you call “music of the soul”.
For me there are two types of music: those that are written and those that are transmitted orally, which are geographically and temporally a thousand times more important. The invention of musical writing is quite recent in the history of mankind and concerns a limited number of people and a limited type of works. When there is a score, it is placed in the middle of the work that the musician is going to reinterpret. Conversely, for what I call “music of the soul”, the transmission is direct, with no reference other than the ear and the heart. This is the case with blues, fado, flamenco, traditional music and also rock’n’roll. If I hum a song, I can do it because I’ve got the music in me, because my father or the people in my neighbourhood passed it on to me. It only exists because it existed once. If you need the paper to remember it, it’s because you didn’t integrate it directly. Irish music in particular is played in sessions in the pub. You play one day, then come back the next day, until you find your pulse, just like rock’n’roll. Rock’n’roll is a mix of all these influences, from blues to white music from the United States, itself coming from Scotland, Ireland or France. So, in what Woody Guthrie was singing, there were Irish influences, and a musician like Chuck Berry would cover old bluesmen tunes.
Conclusion: the work in time and the figure of the Sitting Kid
Your most famous stencil is the Sitting Kid. How has its meaning evolved throughout your career? By sticking this character in a place steeped in history such as the Great Wall of China, are you trying to make your work long-lasting?
The first time I painted it, I didn’t know I was going to keep it. It was one stencil among others. It had the advantage of being fairly round, without taking up a lot of space. It started out as a single layer, with a little bit of white missing. In the film L’art et la manière, you can see that it’s not quite the same stencil. I gradually became friends with this little kid, probably because I myself have experienced the effect he has on the audience. With his somewhat sad and dreamy look, he fits very well with my idea of Man in the city and in the world, a grain of sand in the immensity. The bigger and emptier the wall on which it is placed, the more this aspect is accentuated.
On the Great Wall of China this takes on incredible proportions. At no time did I want to provoke, I didn’t have the impression of committing a crime more important than elsewhere. It’s true that when I put it in such a place, the postcard effect exists and it allows me to appropriate – a little – the place. It is a very small theft of part of the heritage of humanity. I did it to feel alive, because I don’t want to imagine that the fact of having been there only exists in my own memory. I myself am nothing, but by putting a small grain of sand on this immense thing it is as if I am part of it.
That ties in with the need for recognition of the artist you were talking about.
I’m aware that with Chut! one of my works almost becomes a monument in Paris. There’s something a bit pretentious in this approach, but I think ego exists at the level of each individual. For an artist it has almost become a cream pie, but the ego of the car salesman or the baker is also present. This need to exist is inherent in human nature, which cannot free itself from a kind of competition. You have to place yourself in relation to others: if you forget yourself completely, you no longer exist even for yourself.