“Zebras, giraffes, panthers or tigers offer an infinite possibility of visual renewal. Of course, they also allow to renew social commitment through their universal aspect and can be appreciated by everyone, regardless of age, culture, or social origin. I’ve always found it important that as many people as possible find themselves in what is on offer on the street.”
How did you become an artist?
I used to draw a lot when I was a kid, until I was a preteen. My mother reminded me that I decorated my childhood bedroom by painting a large figure directly on the wall. I started to paint in the street several years later, in 1989, with a more militant approach, participating in the defence of the Moskowa district where I was living at the time. I had seen the work of a few people who intervened in the public space, like Jérôme Mesnager or Miss.Tic and I wanted to do the same. However, my initial training is rather graphic – I am a book worker – and, as an apprentice typographer, I learned letter drawing and colorimetry.
What was the justification for locating your works in neighbourhoods like this?
The Moskowa district was being walled up and concrete fences were being erected, which created a deadly appearance. So I decided to paint to revive the life of the place. Maybe there are some interesting walls in the 16th arrondissement, but that doesn’t speak to me as much. I come from the people, so if I want to paint, it’s with the people. There are cultural inequalities: even if everyone can go to a museum or a gallery, because it’s a personal approach, there are nevertheless neighbourhoods where these practices are encouraged by education. Therefore, I think it is less justified to go to these places and I am very attached to the fact that I paint first in working-class neighbourhoods. Thus, I work mainly in the north-east of Paris, even if I have already participated in the Bièvre region, or installed a creation on Avenue Matignon more than fifteen years ago!
STENCILS AND BRUSHES
Could you come back to the creation of the stencil, which allows the passage from photography to painting?
Stencil is an easy choice, because I am neither an illustrator nor a painter. Most of the time, I start from a photograph that I redraw before printing and cutting it. Previously, I used the technique of multi-layers in polychrome but, during an artistic residency in India, I had the opportunity to paint with a brush, which allowed me to have a new approach and to innovate. Several reasons push me to gradually leave the spray aside. It’s not very good for your health, even when painting with a mask. Then, when you work in the street with a spray and mask, the contact is not as easy as with a palette in your hand. Finally, after having used the same technique for more than twenty years, the brush allows you to break the routine to find a surprise in the rendering. I work on volumes, expressions, I am once again confronted with uncertainty. Thus I feel more like a painter.
How do you proceed with the brush?
After a light spray, I fill my background while keeping a little transparency to be able to work the volumes. Then I position my stencil of details (often the black) that I make either with a stencil brush or with a spray can. Some of my paintings are made entirely with brush and acrylic, especially in India because the bombs are not of good quality. I am thinking of gradually freeing myself from stencil for the large pieces, but it is not obvious because it allows me to keep the approach of the dimensions.
Unlike other urban artists, your works need a first location.
There’s always a spotting, because I can’t walk around with all my equipment. I also think that you have to think about the place: with animals, the question of size already arises, but you also have to think about the perspective, about what’s around… There are also some that are more relevant than others, depending on the place. In any case, my paintings will have an offbeat aspect: it is a purely subjective choice that makes you choose a giraffe rather than a hippopotamus!
Your style is also recognizable by the use of bright, plain colours that evoke childhood.
It’s true that these colours are garish, but they are nature’s colours! A tiger is orange, a yellow leopard, a black and white striped zebra: I didn’t invent anything. I sometimes allow myself to draw purple panthers or blue tigers but, curiously enough, when the drawing is realistic, it goes very well and people don’t even realize it. It’s fun to pose something completely incongruous as a matter of course. It’s part of the message: the animal world reminds us of nature and freedom; colour reminds us of joy and the struggle against concrete and greyness. But there are also great artists like Jef Aerosol, YZ or Ender who paint in shades of grey and do beautiful things.
Is there a difference between your street and studio work?
I think there is a synergy between the studio and the street. With my last exhibition where I paint on rough wood, I went back to basics. People are happy because they find again a world they love. At the beginning, it bored me to become the craftsman of the animalist by working only with stencil. But by using the brush again I avoid the routine. This reconsideration has allowed me to use a medium that I appreciate and that people like, while at the same time making my style evolve.
Animals and people
Why did you choose to represent animals from the savannah? For their playful aspect?
It’s first of all a personal choice, I love animals. Zebras, giraffes, panthers or tigers offer an infinite possibility of visual renewal. Of course, they also allow us to renew our social commitment through their universal aspect and can be appreciated by everyone, regardless of age, culture or social origin. I have always found it important that as many people as possible find themselves in what is on offer on the street. The choice of these increasingly rare and endangered animals is also justified by their freedom, which refers both to this way of acting without permission, but also to the offbeat way it brings nature back into the city.
Isn’t there a risk of imprisonment? Do you develop your bestiary over time?
You can quickly become trapped, even if the animal world is large enough to allow you to go to other universes. If I’ve made penguins or polar bears, I find that I don’t renew myself enough. I like pandas but I only painted them during my residency in China. Since I use stencils from the street to make paintings, I try to have animals that are attractive: reptiles don’t attract me, especially since they are difficult to render. I’m not looking for originality at all costs. And I like felines a lot! I thought I was going to attack birds but I haven’t had time yet.
Your works, through their accessibility, create a link with the public. As with Mesnager’s White Body, one has the impression that before being meaningful, they already create a bond.
They are all the more accessible when people make them their own. The paintings that are offered in the street become those of the people in the neighbourhood. They defend them, sublimate them, maintain them, make declarations of love to them. All ages appreciate them. A grandmother told me at a signing session: “You made a giraffe in front of my door and every time I leave the house it makes me so happy, such a pleasure.” You feel like crying when you hear that.
The “Mosko” style in the visual identity of the animals is immediately recognizable by passers-by. Do you think its simple appearance gives it more visual strength?
There’s a paw. But since I paint with a mask, people don’t necessarily recognize me, especially since it’s often hours when they themselves are working. But many people know the paintings before they realize who the artists are. And yet they are able to reproduce the works and the routes! That’s also why Urban Art is a human adventure.
The street as a social space
How do you anchor your creations in the urban space?
Several conditions determine the choice of location. There are walls that speak to us and call out to us, others that are chosen to be able to carry out artistic interventions in neighbourhoods where little happens. For me, there is a social aspect in street painting, even if it can vary according to the time and the motivations of each person. It is a militant approach, but also playful and open to sharing.
What was the goal of the urban artists of the 80s?
We wanted to bring something to people’s daily lives, even if that doesn’t necessarily exclude having commercial ambitions. Our initial commitment was to put Art on the street, which was a success. Urban Art offers this possibility of offering an opening, an immediate pleasure. I am not at all nostalgic for the time when there were only ten of us. It’s up to us to renew ourselves, to know how to maintain our place if we want to. The scale of the movement today is also due to an explosion in the vectors of communication.
Could you come back to the creation of the Ménilmontant zoo in the 1990s?
The Ménilmontant zoo marked my first meeting with Jérôme Mesnager and Nemo, which led to this collective work. The public services were so afraid that it would become an adventure playground that they built a wall several metres behind the gates already there. Nemo was very angry and, when he came back from Colombia, he went and broke the wall with a sledgehammer! A Japanese television crew was there to film the arrival of the policemen who took everybody away! In the end, the hole wasn’t very big but the symbolism was strong.
Could you paint everywhere?
I’ve always made a distinction between murals and other walls. I’ve always respected private property, but I don’t consider murals as such. However, the law does not reason that way and there is always a risk taken, even if my theme and approach limits it greatly. Illegality has never motivated me. A gentleman who watched me paint would get angry at this expenditure of public money for an ephemeral work. When he understood that we were doing it for free and illegally, he couldn’t believe it!
Has a graphic dialogue with the public ever taken place around one of your creations?
I painted penguins on President Wilson Avenue. After a year, children baptized them with felt pencils, which I decided to leave. I also have a zebra on rue de Rosny, which is very graphic, Art Deco style. Taggers came and inlayed little graffiti in the dark, without touching the structure. I find that it succeeds, without distorting the original work, while allowing it to live and evolve in its environment. What pains me is the will to destroy or vandalize, even if it is rare, because I am not in competition with my world! Moreover, I never cover anyone: if there is a little graffiti I stand on the next wall. You can’t ask to be respected when you don’t respect others. That’s why I prefer collaborations to people who come in with different goals.
Is it as easy to find a creative space on the walls today as it was in the 90s?
Obviously, the more people who express themselves on the street, the fewer walls there are to paint. Nevertheless, there are places where there’s no rush, like La Courneuve, where I did my last work, or Montreuil. In reality there are still walls available, but you often have to leave Paris or change districts. With Michel Allemand we used to paint in the 19th or 20th arrondissements, because he always had free walls there.
How do you reconcile the ephemeral nature of Urban Art with the fact of repainting a work (which makes it permanent)?
I’m not particularly attached to the ephemeral aspect of Urban Art: if a painting can last ten years I have nothing against it! There are districts where my paintings have lasted fifteen years and others, notably along the Bièvre River, where I was immediately killed. There is such an accumulation of self-promotion in the central districts that I would not like it to be my daily environment.
When I was asked what to do for the tenth anniversary of the Bièvre, I suggested that they cover everything up. It would be nice to erase everything and start again quietly from scratch. To children who one day threatened to erase my painting, I replied that since they didn’t live there, they would be the first to see the result on a daily basis. They didn’t touch it. The old people said that everything was going to be destroyed, but there was nothing, except a decal of a dog biting the buttocks of a White Body. The social role of creation is also visible in the respect that surrounds the works in the street.
Collaborations and evolution of Urban Art
What has been the evolution of Mosko & Associates?
I signed Mosko when I started, then when Michel joined me we worked together under the name “Mosko & Associates”. The idea of an associate allowed us to integrate people who participated in the adventure by gravitating around us, which was quite unifying. This collaboration lasted a great number of years through the realization of works with artists such as Jef Aerosol, Speedy Graphito, Jérôme Mesnager or Nemo. The climax of our common work was undoubtedly in 2005 with the participation in Section Urbaine. Then it gradually decreased and the event at the carré de Baudouin in 2009 was the culmination of the double collaboration with Nemo and Mesnager. In 2015, we decided to change our signature, because we no longer work together and I don’t want to become schizophrenic by signing a piece of work together that was done alone!
Your career highlights the importance of these artistic collaborations. How do they manifest themselves now?
Indeed the human dimension of the work is not only through the relationship with the public but also through collaboration with other artists. I am particularly lucky to be asked to participate in collective events with people who are much younger than me, which allows for one-off encounters, even if the relationship is less fusional. These are not so much collaborations as common creative moments, where we meet to work together in the same place.
How do you see the beginnings of young artists today?
I started at the end of the first wave of Street art, which started with Epsylon Point in 1979 and Jérôme Mesnager in 1983. When I started, Urban Art hadn’t yet given rise to all these vocations as it does today. I have nothing against people who are professional artists, but I think it’s a shame to meet young people who are already anticipating their career path: where’s the pleasure in meeting them? They already have a career objective, they want to sell paintings in galleries. I’ve never had this approach: fifteen years separate my first street painting from my first exhibition! I’ve always been a salaried employee, without ever wanting to leave the job I loved. However, I must admit that giving up a job to go into Street Art is courageous, especially nowadays where there are many suitors but few chosen ones.
In your opinion, is the legitimacy of a street artist measured by his seniority?
I don’t think it’s a question of age. There are people in the graffiti world who are thirty-five years old and have almost as many paintings as I have, because they started painting when they were thirteen. Others have been painting wastelands for as long as they can remember: they have real legitimacy as artists, without being on the street. The world of Graffiti is full of talented painters whose commitment does not pass by the relationship with the public. I admire these people who take risks to paint in places that are not very accessible for the love of Art.
You started at a time when painting in the street was still a particular choice of expression before becoming a place of recognition. How did you experience this transition?
Without wanting to make a trial of intention, I feel that often the primary desire of the act of painting in the street is no longer the sharing with people, but the possibility of making one’s own promotion. In my opinion, Urban Art goes further than painting, because people know that it is something we do for them. That’s why I prefer the term Urban Art to Street Art. Urban also means civil: it’s a social art that brings poetry and wonder.
Many thanks to Mosko for this interview.
Interview recorded in June 2017.