Motif pink Monsieur A character as painted by Swedish-born, Portguese-speaking, Parisian graffiti vandal, fine artist, night club owner and hotelier, André Saraiva
You are made in France, says Olivier Zahms, editor of Purple Magazine. Your parents, having escaped António de Oliveira Salazar’s, Estado Novo dictatorship, fled to Sweden in 1969 or 1970 – and your mother loved Ingmar Bergman. Your father deserted the Portuguese Army, selling his guns and his rifle to cross the border and they found each other in Paris. You understand that you were conceived on Rue Dupetit-Thouars and born in Uppsala. This small, sleepy, socially progressive Swedish city, home to one of Europe’s oldest universities – and a paradise for children – was where your parents continued to study. You were the only child in your school with dark hair and you were bullied. Yet, you have mostly fond memories of your formative years living in Sweden, which remains the source of a lot of your favourite foods and tastes. Your parents separated and your mother fell in love with a Frenchman, moving you to France in 1981. François Mitterand was elected as President the same year. You were ten and you lived in Le Marais, which was a working-class neighbourhood at that time. What brought you to graffiti at the early age of thirteen?
Painting in the street? I don’t know. I don’t remember, but I think it must have been a kind of rebellion, an urge. There was no specific reason.
Pioneering Parisian artist Zevs (top) sharing the wall with Mr. A.
You spoke Portuguese with your mother and throughout your early life, because of having been raised in places that were either partly or completely foreign to you, you’ve always experienced life as like an outsider. This otherness kept you fighting and seeking to gain acceptance, a struggle more noticeable in France than in Sweden. You became attracted by others who also identified as fringe elements: exiles, displaced persons, travellers, artists, people of the night. You discovered that these outsiders had the most interesting personalities. You became skilled at making friends as well as being genuinely curious of other people. Your father left your mother and you remember going to see him from time to time during holidays, or he would come to see you. He was a painter. Your mother earned a living as a translator and may have even cleaned a few houses, as a last resort, when you ran out of money. She took work in a rubber-stamp factory for a time and would bring these home with her, objects with which you enjoyed to play. You’ve always liked the principle of reproduction. In Le Marais, there were people who were doing stencils. You were inspired to start doing this, too. You were living in the thirteenth arrondissement underneath the big towers in Chinatown by that time. You would spend afternoons bunking off from school, painting onto the local garage walls. You were caught fighting, selling hashish to your classmates, giving out magic mushrooms to the entire class. You were repeatedly expelled. You started with painting your name on walls, but where did the character, Monsieur A came from?
I decided to try expressing myself with a character, an attitude without the use of writing, that could be understood by everybody. Monsieur A is a universal motif.
André’s first graffiti derived from reading Krazy Kat, an American newspaper comic strip by cartoonist George Herriman, which ran from 1913 to 1944.
Comic strip, Krazy Kat appeared in Charlie Mensuel magazine in 1969, the precursor to Charlie Hebdo magazine.
By the time you were fifteen, you’d become more serious about graffiti and you were now interested by the underground New York scene. You remember seeing writers up in Paris, such as Boxer and Bando. Boxer, you think was murdered. They found him in the Seine. A lot of the early graffiti artists came to a sticky end, either by going to prison or being murdered. You’d done stencils, you’d been writing on the walls, and now you began to tag. You had a rule that you’d do at least ten per day. If you got sick, you’d have to make up the number that you’d missed. You stayed with it for fifteen years. The first graffiti you made was of the character, Krazy Kat, an American comic strip, which was syndicated and published in Charlie Mensuel, precursor to Charlie Hebdo magazine. But after a short time, you changed your name to André, which sounded French. You rejected the Anglicisation of graffiti culture. You enjoyed the Frenchness of the name. When you’d write André with an accent aigu, other writers didn’t like it. The gang with whom you painted was called TVB which stood for Tout va bien [Everything is ok]. This fun and casual style was perceived by hardcore elements as a provocation. You tagged TVB, while the others were writing NTM, which stood for Nique Ta Mère [Fuck Your Mother]. What do you think of the new street art generation in France?
There is a lot of good stuff, I’m not aware of everything that’s happening as I live in New York, but every time I see things, it’s usually interesting and the level is quite good.
You had to learn to run really fast. London was a place to which you travelled in the 1980s and which you liked a lot. You said that the British taggers were complete wimps, despite the police being courteous. André was recognisable, and at the same time rather funny, because it is an old-fashioned name. Conversely, the world of Parisian graffiti was new, and also new for the authorities, who had previously been chasing after the post ’68 students writing their slogans, such as “Il est interdit d’interdire” [It is forbidden to forbid” or “Sois Jeune et Tais Toi” [Be young and shut up]. You were not making political graffiti and you had no ambition to paint libertarian phrases. “The ’80s were the beginning of the end of political hope, and the true provocateur was graffiti tagging,” Zahms said. The police didn’t know who they were dealing with but it took time before the introduction of repressive laws. Squads of special police were formed to combat the writers. You were held in police cells several times, but it was never for very long. You know some people who went to prison for months and were given extraordinary fines, and investigated as if they were terrorists. In Paris, the graffiti scene was quite violent. It was very underground and intense. It was one of the most active scenes after New York. You got beaten up dozens of times. You even had a gun held to your head. Moving from writing the word André to painting the Monsieur A, you were one of the first graffiti artists to replace your signature with a drawing. Space Invader, Banksy, Kaws, all becoming known later. You also let yourself be seen on television and photographed in magazines. When you were still young you appeared on the TV programme Envoyé spécial. You said “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink; I tag”. Is it still your only vice?
Yes, yes, still the same.
Painted postboxes by Mr. A for which he went on the run to Portugal to avoid prosecution and a reported one million francs fine that La Poste wished to see him pay for the systematic vandalism of its property
Inside Di Rosa’s boutique and gallery, L’Art Modeste, on rue de Poitou in 1991
Away from tagging, you discovered contemporary art on the Rue du Renard, the Galerie Beaubourg, and a little boutique called L’Art Modeste which was founded by the Di Rosa brothers during the period called Figuration Libre which sold things by Di Rosa as well as Keith Haring. Through that shop, you discovered how merchandise could work as a means to express yourself, as a t-shirt, a pin badge, a tote bag — and that it wasn’t less than a painting on canvas. You remember your first t-shirt signed by Keith Haring. In the early ’00s, you started to achieve considerable recognition as an artist. You began making sculptures from Monsieur A that took influence from graffiti, neo-pop, comics and sci-fi, artists such as Kenny Scharf, Hervé Di Rosa, Keith Haring. You admired Futura from New York who was by then a star. He was the graffiti world’s Basquiat, where Basquiat himself had been absorbed by the art world. Where the French graffiti scene intersected with painting in the group of artists led by the Figuration Libre movement, including Di Rosa, François Boisrond, Robert Combas, Les Musulmans Fumants, with Tristam, the Frères Ripoulin, and Speedy Graphito. You have a famous series of French mailboxes. You found it amusing to paint almost all the mailboxes in Paris, which caused the French Post Office to try to have you arrested and sent to prison. You fled Paris for Portugal for several months to evade trouble. You were famous for your campaign, Love Graffiti. Do you still make them?
Yes, I made one downstairs at the Levi’s flagship shop at Champs-Elysées. I wrote the name of the girl I love, Annabelle. But I started to do them because, as I was not very talented in writing love letters, it was a way to declare my feelings.
Love Graffiti by André Saraiva, where he paints the name of his girlfriend at the time. He also accepts commissions, chosen from letters he receives explaining the story of the love
Viagra Mickey sculpture, inspired by Disney’s iconic asexual mouse of the same name. Disney commissioned André to ‘reimagine’ its character for the rodent’s 75th birthday.
André creates a short film for his collaboration with French fashion label, Sonia Rykiel
Your Love Graffiti project, which fits the mould of Nicolas Bourriaud’s relational art theory, sees you replace your name for that of the girl you’re in love with: Josephine, Olympia, girlfriend to girlfriend, Chloé, Uffie, Annabelle, and you accepted commissions. Edouard Merino invited you to exhibit the idea at Air de Paris. Disney asked you to create a homage to Mickey Mouse for his seventy-fifth birthday and sent you a resin sculpture that you reimagined through the lens of the new drug, Viagra. You gave Mickey a “beautiful, strong” erection, which you showed in the window of the boutique, Colette. Disney wanted to remove the sculpture but you refused and it tried to prosecute you. You’ve opted for the colour pink as a motif in your work, which is rarely used nor tolerated in graffiti culture. You found the colour to be attractive to women. You appreciated the frequency vibration of the colour. It’s a colour that reflects light and other colours. You’ve collaborated with a lot of different brands, Orangina, Louis Vuitton scarves, Converse trainers, a film for Sonia Rykiel, which isn’t a problem for you. You started by painting t-shirts and writing on the back of jean jackets which was as important as painting a wall or creating a fresco. It was a form of art, having people wearing your work, broadcasting it in this way. What was important was that more people see your work. You didn’t dare tattoo yourself, but people who like Monsieur A got it as a tattoo. Sarah from Colette got a Monsieur A tattoo, before she found her husband. And she had Kaws tattooed on the other side. Your idea, like all artists who come from the street, is to always express yourself on every type of canvas — from clothing to billboards, from a wall on the street to the pages of a magazine. Talking about feelings, you travel a lot. Do you have a favourite place, one that made a great impression on you or one that you’d like to paint?
There will always be places I’d like to paint, but as I’ve travelled a lot already I’ve painted in a few original places, even dangerous or inaccessible ones. For example, on a police station a long time ago, on billboards in Los Angeles, on the equivalent of the Champs-Elysées in Tokyo. To paint in those kind of dangerous and inaccessible places brings such an amount of adrenaline that is also part of the fun to paint graffiti in general.
Pioneer Plaques sent into space with the first satellites just in case of any contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life
The first time you found yourself in a nightclub was at Les Bains Douches, which closed and is now a hotel, with a smaller nightclub in the basement. You were fifteen years old, surrounded by adults, women, celebrities talking to you. You began to learn about fashion, money, ambition, failure, the world of sex. By the mid ’90s you’d invented the character, Monsieur A, meaning Monsieur André. You’d figured out how to draw your character with just a few strokes, like writing, but without letters, and by making that character run, jump, dance you were talking to everyone – like the drawings of a man and a woman on the Pioneer Plaques sent into space with the first satellites to communicate with any intelligent extraterrestrial life that it might encounter. You painted the Mr. A character as incessantly as you painted your André tag, and you were immediately successful with it. With all of your projects, nightclubs, shops, hotels, do you still find time to paint in the streets?
Time for painting? Yes more than ever. Nightclubs were always part of nighttime graffitism, night clubs are part of my universe. After having painted and spent the night writing my name on walls, I would finish on a nightclub couch, sleeping until the first metro. Nightclubs were more or less my second home.
Don’t you miss Paris now that you live in New York ?
Yes, but I come back often. My daughter lives in Paris so I come to visit her quite often.
André exhibition at Alexandre Farto aka Vhils’ Underdogs Gallery in Lisbon
Monsieur A in Shibuya, Tokyo
Inspired, significantly, by an interview by Olivier Zahms published at purple.fr, and an original Street Art Paris interview by Dudy in 2012 at Levi’s flagship shop at Champs-Elysées in Paris, for a brand launch with Shepard Fairey.
Find André at his website, mrandre.com