When Urban Art becomes Legend of the Centuries
“Maybe I tend to want to put a bit too many references sometimes, when I just want to be able to convey something, a questioning, an emotion, or at least a slightly thoughtful approach to the subjects I tackle.”
It all starts with a fresco seen in the mid-80s. An imprecise memory that marks you deeply.
I think it must have been 1986. This fresco was located in Fontenay and represented countries with their names, flags and many colours. I must have been twelve years old and I got these drawings in my face: in the age of comic books and cartoons, it was fascinating to discover these paintings, which question the who and the why. For a bored kid, it’s also seeing bigger drawings on the walls. Then, like all the guys of my generation I went through the same experience, reading Spraycan Art and Subway Art, which are really the references.
That’s how you start with graffiti, with a blaze – Toons. Have you always wanted to be an extra?
Initially I wanted to do animation. I started doing graffiti when I was about seventeen or eighteen, before I wanted to join the Goblins. I passed the contest twice without having the level. As I was drawing cartoons, Toons naturally became my signature. I then stopped painting in the street around 1996, before starting again in 2011. Throughout this period I had a workshop where I continued to work in a more abstract way on volume, wood and paint, while pursuing a continuous research on matter and texture. I am currently returning to this desire for abstraction, even if I keep in the background the desire to show the passage of time, and to work on wear and tear.
How did the Retropolis project start?
When I took over in 2012, I started with a concept of retro-graffiti rather than a signature, in parallel with retrofuturism. The idea was to explore the “what if”, as we often find in cinema. Having worked for fifteen years in a web agency, I was fed with a wide variety of graphic trends, but also with typography, fashion photos and diverse knowledge that I wanted to transcribe. Retro thus refers to what has been done before. A historical base for telescoping distant universes in time and space. I’ve been working on this for a few years now, and I have the impression that it’s an infinite trail.
Retropolis is an imaginary city with several districts, such as Ortopark or Vootham. Some of the frescoes on Joseph Python Street are reminiscent of the atmosphere of Samurai Champloo, mixing hip-hop with more traditional forms.
I’m very influenced by comic books and I always want to tell a story, hence the creation of Retropolis and its imaginary characters. Each neighbourhood allows us to deepen the encounter of particular artistic currents. The first was a carnival marked by an American style from the 1950s, with its wobbly roller coaster and tents. Russian fairgrounds would have settled there and would have allowed the city to grow, integrating elements of architecture with bulbous roofs, typical of this Russian architecture, mixed with this universe of amusement parks.
If we assume that everything is mixable, we might for example want to mix very religious elements with the red light district of Amsterdam, in order to underline a certain form of opposition. However, I tried to find something more subtle to avoid these pitfalls. My second neighbourhood is inspired by the 1930s in terms of architecture: it’s Art Deco with broad lines reminiscent of Streamline and an architect I love – Hugh Ferriss – who is partly responsible for the buildings that can be found in Gotham City or Metropolis. I added elements of voodoo culture, very colourful, composed of many symbols and a system of gods and demigods, because this mythology is very vast.
In Retropolis we also find the idea of an upper and a lower city, which also marks strata between different eras.
This idea, which we find in Metropolis in particular, has been taken up by a lot of anticipation films. But the caste system that was introduced there still exists today when you look at the struggle between the elite and the people. We are satisfied with series and entertainment, and from time to time we demonstrate to get a few crumbs. Even as an artist, you are always rowing, without consideration. I am still offered work without remuneration except for the price of the paint. If from time to time I do projects for free – Urban Art has a social dimension – people have to stop thinking that an artist lives only on love and fresh water.
On what supports can this city spread?
I think Retropolis will stay pretty much connected to the streets. The paintings I do now tend towards something else, a form of abstraction. However, when tenders are invited, the street dimension must be retained, integrating elements of the urban context, with colour, in a search that is close to advertising. I always come back to working on this old but patinated side, like this elephant on the rue de Belleville that can make you think of a false ad for lemonade. The ultimate goal would be to finally make this brand exist. It would really make me laugh to transpose these imaginary elements into the real world.
How is your studio work built?
In the studio, my research focuses more on the figure of the artist and the sacrifices we are willing to make in order to succeed. Are we ready to put aside our convictions? What is success: money, recognition, being an example for other artists? The pact with the devil is, in my opinion, an interesting theme, which has been present in literature for a very long time, particularly through the myth of Faust. It’s an idea that developed later with, among others, Peau de chagrin, Le maître et Marguerite or Le moine. I had worked on three essential literary examples: Faust, Dorian Gray and Macbeth, their representation and this materialization of the pact. Being young, king or scholar, and accepting to give everything to extend one’s youth, power or knowledge even further. At the artistic level, I think many of us ask ourselves how far we can go. With these references, I am sometimes afraid of appearing pretentious, but having a fairly low level of education, I have had to compensate by training myself on my own for twenty-five years. Maybe I tend to want to put a little too many references, when I just want to be able to convey something, a questioning, an emotion, or at least a slightly thoughtful approach to the subjects I tackle.
Your style, distinguished by the use of colour and line, is very recognizable.
Without false modesty, what I do always seems small and not brilliant. Indeed, I don’t refer to what I see around me, but to what has been done before. I don’t aim for recognition or visibility, but to be able to be part of this great family of artists, without borders or temporality. It’s all about transmission, and I rely on what others have done before me to try to make my own contribution to this edifice: if behind other people’s work there may be influences, I would have accomplished something really important. That’s what motivates me and makes me think that I’m still far from having achieved something significant enough.
Blue is a very important part of your job. Are you interested in the place of this color in the history of Art?
When I first started working with acrylic, a friend of mine was selling jars, including a hideous apple green, to which I mixed a turquoise dye. I then started to paint with this tint, which was mistakenly taken for my signature when in reality it was because that was all I had! I had other colours, but it’s true that these pigments cover very well and are ideal for the street.
I refuse to work with just one colour, because it would be too much of a constraint from which it would be impossible to escape. So in my last exhibition there was no blue. In art history blue reminds one of Klein, but historically it is also the symbol of royalty in a way. Pigments were more expensive than gold, only the richest people could use them. I’m more interested in working with unlikely colours in order to be able to mix them. There are such talented artists who work with colour that it can seem difficult to renew themselves, so I try to combine colours to create moods and universes, allowing me to return to a pop style – in the popular sense.
Each new creation is the result of research: how do you apprehend your evolution?
Thanks to photography I can see what I was producing two and a half years ago and I am satisfied if I see that I have progressed. But the research is continuous, and I need to create permanently, otherwise I feel depressed. There are times when I feel like giving up because I’m rowing, nothing works, I feel like I’m regressing, but I always continue. So it’s taken me months to develop my technique to try and come up with something else, something that will allow me to take a step forward in the street. The work in the studio is also very important, because it allows me to focus on the association of colours, light or composition.
Unlike many Urban Art artists, you don’t work on the repetition of a motif, but each time you produce something new.
I don’t like to confine myself to an artifice, and the idea of repeating a motif for twenty years makes me a little desperate. Is it a strength or a weakness? I admire those who manage to find a gimmick and make it evolve thanks to their paw. At the moment I don’t have enough of this fibre because I want to test a lot of things. It’s hard not to get lost when you want to go in all directions. Am I an artist? I don’t define myself like that, I’m a guy who likes to draw and paint. I recently saw Vasarely’s exhibition in Beaubourg, and what’s very interesting is that you can see his career and his evolution, so that you can understand his discourse that is both sought after and provided, even if I am sometimes afraid of contemporary art in which the concept takes precedence over the representation. However, it is extremely difficult to find a new graphic style. Everything is only a recuperation of what has been done before, in a more or less improved way. I’m also part of it and I can’t criticize what others do.
What is your goal as an artist?
I would like to find my own way, with a timeless style that cannot be frozen in time. Vasarely’s work, for example, is marked by a period and a moment. I’m going to look at what’s around me in order to be up to date and be inspired by what has been done before, but over the last one hundred and fifty years. I love the Vienna Secession period and the impressionists, who have styles that I find timeless. When you look at a work by Klimt, it remains ultra-modern in its construction, its dynamism, its technique, its illustration, its painting.
Report to the street
What’s your connection to the street?
Even though many people consider me a street artist, I still consider myself a graffiti artist in the sense that the places I paint in are illegal. There is nevertheless an ease of intervention today compared to the time when people used to call the cops directly, even if I don’t have a permit. I want to keep this state of mind: coming to paint where it doesn’t belong. This illegality, whether we find it in a toilet, on a street or in a wasteland, is the testimony of a person, of what they wanted to tell us. As a private citizen, I see grey and blank walls that I have come to take. I insist on this point: I am not going to cover up the graffiti that is already there. What exasperates me are all those who come to stand over you because the presence of your painting would suddenly give rise to a “street art spot” justifying collaborations. Walls are everywhere, and I don’t see the logic of sticking to the same place.
Your work is often placed in Belleville. Why is it important for you to have this territorial anchorage?
It’s a convenience. I came back to the 20th arrondissement of Paris where I lived in the early 2000s. I started to paint by chance in a small street, wanting to rediscover the feeling I had with my friends in the mid-90s. I started on fences, especially when I started again in 2012 with the TRBDSGN, who had already been painting in the street for many years. Then in the twentieth century, with a brush, which is a tool that people don’t associate with degradation. I had used it for the first time indoors, so as not to intoxicate myself, and I quickly realized that it allowed me to obtain a rendering that I had been looking for a long time to have with a bomb. In the 20th arrondissement, politics are very open about Urban Art, thanks in particular to Art Azoï, who has been working for a long time to make people understand this approach. Nevertheless, there is always a certain urgency, a constraint of time and environment that is sometimes stressful, but which defines a context. If you want to paint without taking risks, don’t go into the street.
How do you interact with passers-by?
My approach is to be in the street, to paint and talk with people, because there is a real social dimension in Urban Art. Depending on the neighbourhood, opinions are not the same, in certain corners of the 11th arrondissement covered with graffiti, people are annoyed, whereas it also happened to me that some people leave thanking me. It’s interesting to see that this art form touches all generations: from kids who don’t necessarily understand but who appreciate colour, to delighted grandmothers, to those who don’t speak French very well, or tourists. It’s not much, but it creates a bond.
How do you see the ephemeral nature of urban art?
I have a kind of old-fashioned, old-fashioned twerp who comes from Graffiti, and is bound to respect, always having trouble understanding how someone allows himself to come and put his tag/collage/stencil/poster on someone else’s work and gets offended when the opposite happens. But you’re right, this form of expression is inherently ephemeral, so you have to accept that once your painting is done in the street it no longer belongs to the person who produced it. It is accessible to everyone, for better or for worse. This is also what makes it possible to move this field forward so quickly, because everything disappears very quickly and one must constantly renew oneself. We completely get out of the academic codes of classical art and studio work, which makes this form of expression accessible to anyone.
As-tu l’impression de contribuer à écrire l’histoire de la ville ?
J’aimerais que ce soit le cas mais j’en suis encore loin, et pour être plus précis, il ne s’agit pas de laisser forcément son nom mais plutôt de sentir que l’on peut faire partie d’une sorte de « grande famille » à travers le temps. Il y a des acteurs importants, comme la galerie Itinerrance dans le XIIIe arrondissement et surtout Art Azoï dans le XXe.
On urban art
What do you think is the difference between Urban Art and Contemporary Art?
The direct feedback from the public marks a change. Compared to Contemporary Art, it is interesting to see how an artistic environment reserved for an elite and not very accessible suddenly becomes popular and is appropriated by the people. Everybody becomes a judge, and the artists who are most followed thanks to the street are not because they went through Fine Arts or classical training, but because people liked them. It’s a real choice that is made in a more democratic way. For the time being, contemporary art and the important players are still snubbing this current, but more and more are taking the plunge, until perhaps we all succeed in this transition to see it as a new major current.
What place do you give to photography?
I take pictures to share, mostly on Instagram. It gives me a history, allows me to place dates. I don’t have pictures of what I used to do, a friend keeps them. In fact, I don’t see what I’m doing – whether it’s a painting or a wall – as a purpose, for me it’s a continuous training. The fact that I like it must remain the main motivation. I have a daughter who is two and a half years old, she enjoys seeing an elephant painted by her father when she goes to the crèche. I also have a son who is eleven years old who is less interested, but if one day he wants to paint I would be delighted. It’s gratifying to hear people sometimes say, “My daughter loves what you do”, because then you know you’ve been able to please someone for a few seconds.
How do you look at street art today?
There is no other word than Street art to define this movement, but the problem is that we are reaching a caricature system made up of people who have nothing to do with it: besides, it is now very easy to make a portrait of a chick who looks up a little, to spray a lot of colours with a bomb and call it Street art. Banksy’s film Faites le mur ! denounces this aspect. A young person who starts today comes to the street because it seems accessible and attractive. The positive side is that there’s no need to go through the Beaux-Arts or Arts Déco, but some forget that giving oneself the means to produce something is a step in itself.
What will make an urban artist stand out?
Reaching the top gallerists requires a very professional approach, and we quickly realize that most street artists are not adapted to this kind of level. Many of those who succeed are not excellent in terms of visuals, but they know how to manage their communication and are real production machines. We have to find a balance in the face of this logic which sometimes favours performance over creativity. By giving his or her opinion on the theme or colours, the gallery owner is going to carry out an artistic direction which, if done intelligently, can produce very good things.
Finally, it is difficult to theorize this movement.
It is indefinable and moving, evolving continuously since the 1970s. Many people break their teeth trying to define it with new words like Pressureism, yet even the pioneers can’t afford it when you realize how everything has changed in a few years. There are also a multitude of sub-levels between stencil-makers, glue-makers, mosaicists or muralists… I don’t know what the future of Street art is, whether it will be a movement that, like Impressionism, will not have lasted very long and yet will be widely recognized. It comes back to the desire to be part of a current because it gives meaning to one’s life, rather than a motivation that would follow a fad.