The eternal smile of the perched cat
Crossing the square a young man stops, turns around to look at the roofs of the city. He carries in his bag a series of coloured bombs. For a moment he fixes a given point on a wall, then smiles. He recognises his cat and its beautiful yellow colour, which is looking down on him from the rooftops. He recently arrived from Orleans, where he was already reproducing the animal on the walls. When he arrived in Paris, he chose to continue reproducing this motif, his motif.
M.Chat appeared on the walls just as Street-Art was celebrating its first figures at the beginning of the 2000s. Rapidly propelled to the forefront, notably thanks to his meeting with Chris Marker for the film Chats Perchés, he became over time one of the great figures of French Urban Art. Today, his character has become an iconic figure on the street, and his wide, benevolent smile contemplates passers-by, mostly from the rooftops.
When did you start painting?
When I was 16 I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was at Benjamin Franklin High School in Orleans and, after a second general, I decided to specialize in electro-mechanics. There I learned all the basic industrial techniques that allow me to work in a factory or as a lathe-mill operator. That’s when I met Michael Gaigné with whom I created a group of graffiti artists called the CPs. For me it meant not taking oneself too seriously, for him “Criminal Power”. We started tagging in our high school, then in the neighboring high school, to gradually develop an occasional provincial graffiti. It was the early 90s.
As I liked to draw, my parents enrolled me in the evening classes of the Beaux-Arts. It was fun to do nudes, it impressed my friends. The Gaudier-Brzeska High School has kept the frescoes I made when I was 16. One of my aunts then told me to enrol in the Fine Arts, I passed the exam, but to get in I had to take my baccalaureate, which I studied in a fortnight to get an average of 11.3! I studied there for six years, at a time when there was still a Fine Arts/Com division, which has since changed into a design speciality. There were a lot of Parisian students and teachers who didn’t necessarily succeed and who came because of the distance. Me, I hadn’t understood how I should validate: I wasn’t able to graduate after all these years and I ended up helping the other students to get their diploma. I didn’t realize what I had to do for myself. This can apply to the Cat: I have a foundation and I am no longer a beginner, but I forbid myself to be aware of it.
Why did you choose Street art?
When I started Street art didn’t exist. So it’s not a choice but a reality that makes that before the appearance of the Cat I was doing Graffiti. M. Chat appeared in 1997, at a time when we are moving from Graffiti to post-graffiti which is the junction with Street art. The appearance of my character takes shape at this period. I asked myself when I was in Fine Arts what I could do differently, because there were a lot of graffiti artists then. We were then at the beginning of the logotype, with people creating characters, which allowed them to have longer careers than those who do lettering, a specialized but niche art. Street art appeared in 2000. This new form of Art comes from the Internet, which allows it to blossom. When Chris Marker in Perched Cats talks about September 11th, he will put a historical marker to define this period, or rather this change of period.
THE BIRTH OF THE CAT
Where does the Mr. Cat character come from?
When I was a student, I used to give drawing lessons to little kids. The Cat appears one day through a sketch of a little girl. I take a picture of her with her drawing to enhance her work. With my boyfriend, we started to reproduce it exactly on the walls: I liked its Art brut aspect. It also changed my style of graffiti artist: if in general, graffiti artists are looking for the perfect line, I had more of a flopper style, letting myself be carried away by the movement. At the time when I started to draw the Cat I have with two friends a collective called Beirut. One of them was a silkscreen typographer, very good at choosing colours. It was while repainting the kitchen with the shades he had chosen that we found the yellow that would be Le Chat’s yellow. Through practice I went from the drawing of this little girl to my present cat.
How would you describe him graphically? When Chris Marker talks about it he compares it to the Rosta windows, the big Soviet propaganda posters, both very simple and very powerful.
When you see the character of Mr. Cat he looks very simple, but he is actually very thoughtful. On a geometric level he is an agglomeration of symbols: the circle, for example, represents unity. Ruedi Baur is a typographer who tries to understand how writing came about. Letters all have archaic versions: thus, by passing through the transformation of forms, typography will be able to tell the evolution of humanity. I realized that I was fascinated by the circle. For example, I bought a man who was painting as a calligrapher in the street his unit of work because it had this shape.
I like the idea of an unconscious that I would reproduce in a mechanical way and on which I would then project a certain bestiality, a form of abstraction that is a bit wild. I shut myself up in this style but I believe that there is nevertheless matter behind the paintings. If we take the motif of the Cat’s hand, it is at the same time a reference to Miró who signed with his hand, but also an evocation of childhood, because its apposition on the canvas is the first gesture that means “I exist”. Sometimes there may be impressionist touches, which gives an astonishing result, halfway between classical painting and comics. But this mix defines my style. It also answers the question which is: why draw this character tirelessly? Because I find him intellectually perfect.
What are the artistic and popular inspirations of the character? We think of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland but also of Maneki Neko, the Japanese lucky charm.
In the beginning the Cat looked like a little mouse from the Cities of Gold with the moustaches of the character of Andre. We also find the cited references, as well as the solar disc of the god Ra among the Egyptians. In the aesthetics, even if some paintings seem very commercial and use a pop and cartoonsque style to get closer to the illustrative drawing, we can also find a choice of complementary colors that will oppose each other to create a strong visual contrast. Using Keith Haring’s style, I mix yellow, red and blue to create electric contrasts.
Mr. Cat has grown everywhere, but what does it symbolize? In Perched Cats, we see the character appearing in demonstrations, implying an awakening of political consciousness.
The character of the Cat is peaceful but also attentive. He has an intellectual position. I would not define him as political because this word evokes for me structures of thought that I do not find in my Cat. I prefer the term citizen. When I was a student I dreamed of revolutions and I took part in demonstrations, but the violence and the stakes were not the same, and did not yet have the global dimension they have today. My character followed in my footsteps by becoming a citizen and participating in these popular movements. He represented this will to change the world, but without necessarily having solutions. As he descended into the crowd he became closer to other humans. Thus, it is very symbolic to see him acquire wings.
Do you sometimes think that your character is a limit in your artistic production? Is there any confusion between Thoma Vuille and Mr. Cat, between the artist and the character?
There is a confusion between my name and the Cat, but for me it is my work, not my identity. Some people see it as a nickname, but it is not my name. Maybe at some point I would like to do a painting that looks a little more like me and I would become Toma Vuille again. But I don’t want to run my Cat like a business, that’s not what I want. I have this possibility to oscillate between the amateur world and the professional world and that’s what I like. I think I could paint something else, but as I am attentive to people’s desires, I continue to realize what they wish for when I don’t know if I would do it myself otherwise. If at some point I would radically change my style, maybe people wouldn’t follow.
Perched Cats, a meeting with Chris Marker
You’re in Chris Marker’s latest feature film, Perching Cats. What was your vision for this project?
What’s strong about this film is that it’s an end-of-life work. With all the restraint that characterizes him, I have the impression that Marker recalls a little bit his student period through Mr. Cat. He has a desire to change the world and mark it with a vision of youth. Perhaps he also had a fantasy idea of the artist behind the Cat, a young Catwoman… At one point in the film we witness the meeting between Mr.Chat and William in Egypt – Chris Marker’s avatar – which supports my character and prefigures the meeting of future personalities. The documentary, which until then had a desire for escape and poetry, seems then to return to the world of responsibilities and demonstrations. My Cat will become aware of the realities of the world such as war or AIDS. The end of the film takes Chris Marker into what seems to be a reflection on his own death when he films the funerals of Marie Trintignant or Professor Léon Schwartzenberg.
Chats perchés is also a testimony of France in the early 2000s. When did you hear about the project?
The documentary can be seen as a poetic biography that would talk about all ages of life. Marker could afford that. We can consider that the film, released in 2004, was shot between 2001 and 2003. We are then in the middle of this moment of change, a period that continues to this day. Marker was obsessed with the Third World War, which was for him a kind of globalized world in which areas of great violence are linked to strong social ruptures. About a year before the release, a friend told me about this project for which I provided some of the images. I met Chris Marker at the end of the film and I’m one of the lucky ones who can put a face to the name. I think he supported me because he needed to help the Cat, and he liked the idea of someone drawing smiles all over the street. So I was waiting for something and meeting him took me one step further.
During the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, you were able to draw a gigantic Cat on the forecourt. Did this performance make you a more institutional artist?
The Chat géant was institutional. Thanks to Marker, I had an important media exposure, and I realized other big projects, which are not well remembered because there wasn’t the same audience for street art at the time. At the same time I only went when I was in demand and without too much pretension. Looking back, I realize that I was in contact with cultural engineers and curators at that time, which gave me an institutional side. Nevertheless, I quickly stayed on projects with a human dimension, only realizing projects with the public sector in quick succession. For example, I collaborated with Francis Bueb in Bosnia when he was director of the André Malraux cultural centre. I have become accustomed to working with people rather than institutions, because it is by meeting people that I like to move forward.
BETWEEN street art and graffiti
The consideration of Urban Art evolved very quickly at the end of the 90s: in just a few years we went from tagger to artist.
In the field of Urban Art I am one of the lucky ones. Tagging has become a has-been: it used to be considered as an emancipatory act, but today it refers to a different kind of advertising in the public space. It’s a weapon that’s a bit of a thing of the past. Street art is better tolerated because it can beautify the streets and only gently disrupts this space. A dialogue has been created with this art form, which does not exist with tagging. These two worlds now cohabit with two different minds. But this change of consideration is also linked to the market. There is a respect from the public for what is rated because they don’t know how to judge the works, and separate what is or is not Art.
How does this opposition between Street art and Graffiti manifest itself?
This opposition can be found on several levels: there is an almost anarchist violence in Graffiti that we don’t find in Street art, which is more democratic. The recognition is made there in particular by attacking the works of others, which is the case with my Cat which is regularly vandalized now that it has become a reference. This form of degradation is called “toyage”: it is a provocation. It also depends on your legitimacy in the street: the one I have today in Paris didn’t exist ten years ago. Another difference lies in the techniques used: whereas Graffiti uses bombing, street art uses collage, deformation, stencil, which are slightly more elaborate techniques. There’s also a difference in the audience: the graffiti artist does it for his buddies, he claims his belonging to the group to have an internal recognition. The street artist is aware of the show, he knows that he paints to be seen by people he doesn’t know. That completely changes the logic.
Is there a territorial struggle? Do you know that you can’t always paint in certain places?
I couldn’t paint on religious buildings, but I wouldn’t mind painting on the Louvre. However, I find that painting brutally on a wall doesn’t make sense. You have to take a position on a place without degrading it, honoring it. On a daily basis, however, there is a real struggle for territory. All my accessible and emblematic walls have been attacked. I manage to keep my drawing at the Lock because it is historical. Yet I spend most of my time cleaning my walls, and since I’m not a bad guy, a lot of people try to come and step on me. In this case the game is to repaint and repaint to last as long as possible. There’s a certain part of the graffiti artists that you can’t reason with and they can be violent because they don’t like street artists and the money they make from their work.
How do you choose your locations?
Usually when it comes to walls that are not in the street, I choose the ones that are abandoned or about to be destroyed. For example, walking under a bridge recently I felt like painting there because there is a place to take, a place that is not being used by anyone, where I don’t need a “deposit”. The 45-degree angle areas are interesting because no one is going to settle there. The wall I’m talking about is interesting to me because it’s close to the fripiers’ market, in an in-between area at the crossroads of the 18th arrondissement of Paris and Saint-Ouen. But more and more, when I’m with my family, all I do is spot the walls I’d like to paint on. The simple fact of visualizing my Cat in this place is enough for me, it’s almost conceptual Street art. Now I don’t need to anchor myself in the street anymore, I can create more easily on canvas.
M.Chat and the evolution of an artistic movement
Where does your character fit into this evolution of street art?
Mr. Chat benefits from the evolution of street art, even if I remain personally attached to Graffiti. Today there is an economy that has developed around Graffiti and Urban Art which allows to make it a profession whereas before it was impossible. What annoys these first graffiti artists is to see what difficulties they had while my generation reaped the benefits. An artist like JR comes out of nowhere for these people. One has the impression that through his encounters he almost became the artist of a globalized state, as shown by the dimension he took with the pyramid of the Louvre. I prefer to stay in my place, rather than go in a suit that’s not made for me.
Is there a logic of filiation in Urban Art?
Painting is an Art that allows you to improve yourself through work. When you develop a cosmogony around your universe you can attract people who start to follow you. I don’t have a dominant message, but I have an independence that makes me not a follower, even if I followed JonOne a little. You can find meaning in my work even if it doesn’t create a revolution of thought. If Le Chat had not worked, we could have made a series of characters with a friend, because I liked the idea of working with several people, each with his own unit. But Graffiti offers another form of filiation: when a name falls, or you want to follow in someone’s footsteps, you can take back their name. Thus I am followed by Cats 2.
What does it mean to you to be an artist in this day and age?
Today there can be a thousand artists. How does that remain coherent, or does it only reflect a series of opportunities? What saves me is to tell myself that I’m not professional. I think that today you have to be an art worker. Someone who is going to be full of good intentions is going to be rejected if the public doesn’t expect him. It’s too risky to expose your guts. I think that this very personal side is outdated, especially since I don’t think there are any geniuses left nowadays. Traditional painting is a relic, tortured artists are no more, our lifestyles are getting closer. People expect a know-how, a rigour, a clean and pretty image. Why redo what is already done? To be an artist is to be able to produce quickly without putting oneself in a state of trance. The artists who dominate today are capable of putting together an exhibition in three weeks, which is the strength of their production. The last one to make moves is Jeff Koons, that is to say, a financial magician turned art magician.
For me everyone is an artist, that is to say a human being capable of expressing himself. Everybody should be able to be an artist in order to escape. We have technical means that allow anyone to have an artistic production. But what makes this production of quality?