Alighting at the Stade de France station is like walking into a virtual CGI/CAD world of some architects’ brave-new-redevelopment. It is much the same as post-Olympic Stratford, and no doubt other ‘regenerated’ satellite conurbations, in which the landscape of former industry has been scrubbed out to make way for stadiums and geometric office blocks. A few side streets later and the urban grain becomes more tawdry. Piles of scrap and burnt out scooter parts take precedent amongst forgotten, unlooked for spaces that comprise the ‘psycho’ part of Iain Sinclair’s psychogeography obsession. Consequently, the sudden emergence of a long, straight wall fizzing with colour and warping dimensional planes is all the more akin to an explosion of sherbet on the visual taste buds. This is a new 100m wall-painting that borders a building materials depot, and which is itself dwarfed by the gargantuan over-pass of the périphérique, marching overhead like a set from War of the Worlds. It is in these impossible surroundings that three of the most accomplished graffiti veterans recently collaborated on a new commission from the local Mairie and building materials firm, SPL. Not the most expected of partnerships, but during the course of our conversation it became clear that the regeneration of areas such as these, also reminiscent of Williamsburg in New York or Hackney Wick in London, is now seeing a growing demand for urban art forms. Art that has become an established salve for post-industrial, amnesiac spaces.
Three most distinguished artists, each displaying a distinctive and otherworldly talent, yet each remaining quite unaffected give their perspectives of their work and graff culture. They share their stories, embedded in the street. Jean Moderne, Honet and 2Shy discuss work and inspiration, and why street art is a dirty word.
Can you say something about the celebrity that ‘street art’ has found in recent years?
I feel affected by that dynamic as long as I still still remains underground in a way. I am sorry to have to say, but if you talk to a lot of young graffiti writers they know who I am. It is a bit pretentious to say, but I have lived long enough to experience it. “Oh, you’re the guy who did this, wow, RCF I remember that truck you painted. You were Pogo, oh those trains, its RCF writing trains… I love that style… bla bla bla.” And then in the art market, “who are you again, RCP? No? Er, what’s your name? Oh yeah, you’re doing street art… um, are you famous? Who are you?” (laughs). Well, I didn’t jump on the bandwagon – I didn’t run fast enough (laughs).
Has writing been a compulsion for you?
It doesn’t have to be an obligation and sometimes I have stopped painting in the street. For two years, I think its over and then I come back for some reasons, like being a bit depressed or something, “Okay let’s go back to paint trains, this at least nobody can steal from me.” This thing is my thing I can do whatever I want, because sometimes you have a bad experience with the art market and the art world and they treat your like shit, really. And, its “okay, let’s hit a train.” I can write whatever I want, the way I want and it doesn’t have to be relevant, its just a lot of energy – pure sex really.
How did you come to graffiti art?
I think my path is about finding a balance in my split personality because I am really am a painter from childhood. I love painting, I love drawing; it took me time to find a particular way to express it. In my generation, painting was not that popular. I mean, contemporary art took over. When I was an art student, contemporary art was all that mattered really. Painters belonged to the last century. You could do illustrations, you could work for an advertising company, maybe you should consider computer illustration, but painting really, no gallery wants paintings! So I believe that graffiti, in a way, was appearing as a last option: “Hey, we like to paint, we still enjoy painting, you bloody intellectuals told us ‘paint is dead, beautiful is dead, this is the end of history and this is the end of art history, as well.’” I heard those sentences from really famous professors at university. I was just happy painting, okay, it’s a selfish thing. I never considered I was making history. So, I think that graffiti was the funny side, not split personality, maybe two sides of a coin. Graffiti is a practice. It’s a nihilist, selfish, destructive thing to me. Like, “my style is better than yours, I am writing my name all over the city, more than you. I am challenging everyone in that game of graffiti.” It’s a game, we’re talking about the graffiti game, it’s fun. And what the rest of the world considers about it, we really don’t care.” But, you flip the coin and I am a painter deeply and I was interested in art studies, and for a long time I was not considering both sides being compatible. Graffiti is not about what you paint, its about the way you do it, the way you live, the way you experience it, the way you are challenging authorities, challenging other graffiti writers. Of course, there is some artwork, as long as you are practicing some new styles, trying to design a new letter and your tag is catchy or not, readable or not, different decisions. So yes, there is an artistic process but it’s a practice, it’s just about how many trains you painted – it won’t give you a ticket for a show. You painted a train, that’s it. You had fun doing it.
Do you consider the audience in your work?
I just do it whether people feel it or not. But I can tell you, its now a few years back, after using amazing colours, I decided after little by little to stick to primary colours. People telling me about “oh, this is a Mondrian thing,” like, yeah, why not – less is more. It’s more an influence from mid-century design. But besides, I read tarots, you Marseille tarots. So it is more like that imagery is routed deep inside of me. So, I won’t paint a tarot card, it doesn’t make sense they already exist, but most of my artwork is influenced by it. It’s not visible but, it is about the invisible in fact.
What is your working process, is there a stronger medium for you?
Trying to go forward, whenever I am painting I try to do something new not to do well, but to do something new for myself to challenge myself. I still feel like a channel. I am deep inside myself somebody grateful for being alive and for the culture for the culture before me – what people created, touched me, influenced me, touched my emotions. I wouldn’t paint something of you know, Jack Kirby, the comics artists of the Fantastic Four, I am such a great fan like many people, but sometimes if I do use something I am really grateful “thank you Jack, thank you for what you have done, you influenced me so much.”
Let’s say my painting is inspired by graffiti and my graffiti is inspired by painting as well and by art culture. But I still see it as two different planets, I don’t know which one is the planet and which is the satellite. Let’s say graffiti is Earth and painting is the moon, or the opposite, I don’t know!
What is the relationship between painting and graffiti?
I think the relationship between the two of them is more technical at the end of the day. I have some visual technical habits inherited from graffiti that whether I want it or not, will apply on a canvas. Which are gesture – I mean doing graffiti quick, at night, afraid of being caught, you learn to find solutions before the cops arrive, before security catches you. You have to find immediate on the spot solutions, like “oh this can is empty finally, er, I wanted that blue outline, what do I have? Red, okay that will match.” You don’t ask questions you just do it. I believe that way of thinking, the way to adapt, has been really present in my artwork on a canvas. Like, not asking myself too much questions when I am practising. I ask myself questions before I paint, does it make sense? Is it relevant. Then the techniques come from the graffiti – being spontaneous.
Do you have any objectives in your work?
The way I started painting graffiti, it was all about fun. I never started with a career plan in my head. It has always been about having fun and a matter of desire. I wouldn’t say I do commission work for the money, I mean money matters, but I have fun doing it – several murals and I am happy. I reckon, the more I am free the better, but just take it as a game.
How about your influences?
From the mod background of course, you have to meet with skinheads, and punks, rockers, whatever so I already had a sight of tattoos painting on parkers. It was about popular culture. It is really funny, I am crazy about 19th c. portrait artists. Funny to say that is my background. On the other side, industrial stencils on a sixties pinball matter as much as Gainsborough, as influential. It is about pop culture, I am not talking pop art as a movement, but pop culture really. Street codes – the shoes you wear, that outfit, that scooter, whatever and record covers. They were really influential on me. I mean graffiti history, graffiti writing is about designing your letters so anything could be great. I mean later I had to interview some original graffiti artists from the US. They all admit that Rick Griffin, who did designs for the Grateful Dead in the seventies, was a massive influence for most of them. Which is again pop culture more than any classical painting and they were crazy about that. So was I.
Mod culture is obviously important to you, can you speak about that?
I became a mod mid-eighties. There was a massive in England and it arrived in Paris as well. That mod revival, for several reasons immediately connected, pop music mainly – music, scooters. In a way pretending to live in the sixties was my punk, my own personal punk attitude, like “we don’t like this world, as an adolescent, I don’t like modern technology, this is too scary – let pretend we live in the sixties. Fuck you grown-ups! We don’t like what you have built, let’s go back to before to that underground Soho scene, listening to black music. Few people understood about the mod movement, the attitude is pretend everything is fine. You know the famous motto being ‘living clean under difficult circumstances.’ You live in a shit-hole, your job sucks, but still your scooter is all sparkling and you have the best dress in town. To me that has been more punk than anything – arrogant, pretentious youth, like “ha, you can’t touch me, you won’t change a thing.” But to be honest after sometime in that mod scene it was all about nostalgia. I was so looking forward to new art forms, music and paintings. In a way I was more mod than most of the revival mods – I wanted to experience the sixties in my everyday life. What would a young guy in Soho back in ’61 do? Try to find the next artist, try to find the next trend in the art form. So mid-eighties, it was like okay, Futura2000 found out about him in a magazine. It was like “wow! this is my generation! This is brand new.” Fair enough that is hip-hop but I love it. So, lets move in that direction. It was about the music as well. A lot of mods turned to hip-hop, I mean its about black music, rhythm, dance music. Because, when I was around 20-22 years old, going to see 50 year old singers from the Motown – it was so expensive first, so lets go see people of my age with a new rhythm. KRS1, Tribe Called Quest. That was really important, and in a way it was still mod to me. Different outfit, different music, not that different at the end of the day – same attitude.
What of the esoteric in your work?
I think long ago I painted constellations. I have always surprised about mankind’s history like, “oh, a civilisation connected those dots in that specific order” and different civilisations don’t connect the stars in the same way. The Mayas don’t have the same constellations as Romans. There are different connections between the same stars. I always thought it would be funny to create some new ones, to create new connections. In constellations lines never cross and once I was drawing some kind of constellation with lines crossing and I thought, “this is so wrong. No wait, that’s my way to interpret it.” It is not logical. Well who said we had to be logical. It’s not empiric logic, it is different – magic logic.
What about the the underground nature of your work?
When we talk about the street, it is funny, because at the end of the day I discovered graffiti on the sidetracks, on trains, which is not street art. It’s not happening on the street, you have to walk by the sidetracks, which is illegal and dangerous as well. You want a daytime picture? Trains are running so you have to make your way by the sidetracks to find that wall because what you see from the window is a glimpse and you have to own a really good, decent camera to have a proper picture because it is passing fast in front of the piece. When you have the picture, you don’t share the bloody picture, you had to walk there. “Oh, I am making a new fanzine can you give me pictures?” “No fucking way, find your own way.” It’s not for everybody, it is an underground culture really. Then you are painting on trains and nobody knows when they are going to run, you paint them most of the time at night, they go straight to cleaning, or sometimes they don’t run at all. They clean where you sprayed so what you have is flash reflections on wet paint, with no distance. Like, “okay, it was my best piece but all I have is a shitty picture. There is no way I am going to give you that picture – it’s so difficult to have.” So, I believe that made it totally underground, compared to anything painted in the street, in a trendy gallery street, immediately being posted on Instagram. I am sorry, I think that is so boring. I see the intention, you have no mystery, nothing appealing to me, no secret. I see the intention and it is obvious. You want to be famous, you want to be the next big thing. Questioning society, like “oh, are you going to do MacDonald signs again, or are you going to do luxury brand signs like Chanel?” Pretending like it’s going to question society. “Fuck you, there’s no tension, there’s no mystery.” It is gross, vulgar.Honet
Let’s star with the commission here first. Is the space you are working in important to your work?
The location is a little bit particular, because we are along the canal. The canal in Paris, in the last 10-15 years, became really important. Basically before that no one really noticed that we have this canal and then it started to be a place where we went every night for drinking and to have some picnic. Especially on tis part it became a hall of fame because it is full of walls and the wall were empty, people started to paint there, and people started to make jogging or to walk on the side because they realised it was also a cool place, and its calm. A lot of people who like to paint graffiti come here. We are in the city but it seems like we are someone in the countryside. It is another approach to doing urban graffiti. Those companies around here noticed there is more and more graffiti everywhere so those factories asked to have their own graffiti on the front wall. So step by step all along the canal there started to be paint everywhere. We connected to the canal in the larger sense of it, to the workers, in the larger sense and just to put the logo of the company. For us everything was quite okay because we like the canal so it was easy to connect our ideas for that.
How did the collaboration come about and what are your different approaches?
We know each other for a long time and we know each other’s style and we are really used to paint with other writers. It is easy to come together and do something, we don’t have to organise too much, we know already the rhythm in our heads. In graffiti, since the beginning people like to organise things a little bit too much. They like to think about the concept, and to see if everything is working together. Since always we like to do the opposite, we prefer to push all of us to be individual and do the old style but be clever enough to find a way to link them. And it works, it has been a long time practising but in the end the result is more intelligent because it’s more diverse, a different approach from the same old graffiti thing. How do you define your own work?
For me I consider that I do graffiti, and next to thatI am doing illustrations. After that it goes in every direction, I have no limits and I don’t like to have names on everything, because sometimes I don’t think there is really names that are appointed. But for sure, I don’t like the word ‘street art’ because I think it was invented by the media to talk about graffiti. From my point of view, I started doing graffiti and I still do graffiti, even if I am doing a big mural or even if I do characters or if I do an art show, it’s still graffiti.
What is your definition of graffiti?
It is something that we create, all of us. We don’t need to have a clear definition. Everybody has their own definition, something that people don’t really understand is that we are all different. We don’t want the same things, we don’t use the same medium, we don’t have the same universe, we don’t talk about the same things. Graffiti is not only the paint on the wall. Graffiti is all your life, the way you are thinking, the way you are acting, the way you are putting all your energy into creating and transmitting what you know to the younger generation. I pushing myself in graffiti but i am also pushing graffiti as a global movement, as something strong and something powerful, new and creative.
Is there a purpose to your work?
This is more complicated. I don’t have any political message, most of the time I don’t even like the result of what I am doing. Sometimes people will come to you and say I really like your work and for the ego it is something that is important, but absolutely not my main goal. I more doing it for the adrenaline and making something in my life only by passion. Nobody forces me to do anything, if I want to legal or illegal, it is my own choice. A lot of the time when I meet someone whose work I really like, when I meet them I am disappointed, because a lot of people have really good in style or technique but have nothing special to say. But a lot of people do really crazy things and when you talk with them they have a really interesting and unusual approach to life and art and everything. And that I really like. If you have 1,000 writers you will find 100,000 ways of thinking. Some writers, their life can be a total mess but when they go on the street everything is under control and their graffiti is, wow, it’s really beautiful. That is really interesting too.
Do you have an alter-ego or persona in your work?
Many people come to graffiti because they have some problem in their life, to find what they are, to think they will have to work for the next 50 years, and make a baby and they have to live this life, but they are not sure if they are able to do it. But when you do graffiti then you can take a mask and you can be somebody else and you can do things you decide to do. When you are doing that, you really feel like you are your own chief, your own master, you are the one in control and even the police can’t stop you because you are cleverer than them, even the justice, nobody can stop you. You never ask permission from anybody and all the positive feedback you get it to you directly. It is a really interesting way of being. That is why people start graffiti they never stop. Okay, its important to have a real job, to have money and all that but at the end the only really exciting thing in their life is graffiti.
Do you think there us an element of control on the part of the media?
It’s the same in anything, whether music or art, people like to have some labels that they can put people in and then they can control the whole thing. Especially right now with the whole ‘street art’ because there are a lot of people who want to make money, and they are coming from outside to make their business. Of course it is difficult because we are all a little bit anarchist in the way we are doing that, because we have no special rules – we know ourselves what we want and where we go, so it is difficult to understand why we are doing that. But it is one opinion, and maybe the next will have a totally different idea.
Let’s talk more about your personal style and influences. What do represent in your work?
I do mostly characters, I like individualities, I like masks, I like making a secret life in the urban environment. Change the face, change the personality – change the way of looking. It’s like a collection of different people, some can be famous people, musicians or from the underground scene. It is all the characters I have met in my life. All of them construct me, they make my universe, the way that I am thinking. Some of them are self-portraits, but others from other circles of my life. All the circles, they made me so I like to recreate them with my style.
Is there any relationship between your art and the ancient world. The figure you have of Anubis comes to mind.
My job is really connected to the urban environment. I travel a lot so I see a lot of places. I live in Paris, a very ancient city and I like to think about about how parts change in the city and there is often a trace of things that aren’t there anymore. The traces are really important. We have the Catacombs in Paris with some of the first graffiti in the city still there, it is really unique because you can see graffiti there from the beginning of the 80s, and you can see graffiti there from 18c. or 17c.. I like to make link between the now and the things that happened before, like the graffiti from prehistoric caves. Its not new, it is cool to think about you are no the first, you are not alone, you are just someone in history with a bit H. I like this idea. From a little kid, and as a graffiti writer I like secret things, mysterious things, esoteric things, I like to watch through a little hole to see what’s behind the door. I believe, now I am doing graffiti I am on the other side of the door. People can look at me through the keyhole but now I am on the other side. I was initiated to the secret of Paris. Anubis and all the Egyptian people have a lot of secrets and there are a lot of messages nobody understands. It’s something connected to graffiti because a lot of people can pretend to know us, to understand what is ‘street art’, but at the end they don’t really know us. Until they come and paint on the line, they can’t understand all the feelings, all the pressures, the atmosphere, so it is still really obscure, even now. 2Shy
What is your approach to the commission here?
My style depends on the job I do, sometimes I make characters for kids or sometimes I make geometric forms. For this one, I take some geometric forms because it was working for working for a sand company and the characters from Cedric (Honet) they look more serious. My first idea was to do something less serious, but this time I am doing the background, Cedric is doing the characters and Jean is making a boat and the caterpillar thing. When people make something and the wall is very long. We make a sketch, but it is not in proportion, so sometimes we have to improvise but in the end it works. It is good to have something more spontaneous, not fixed.
How does it feel as a graffiti writer when you are putting up a new piece?
We never know what happens. It is always never the same. Sometimes you go on the street you make some tags, maybe a throw up and the police… maybe a neighbour, maybe the spray can is making overkill, you don’t have enough paint to finish.. but now we know, but it’s really never the same situation. Sometimes I am in the street and I see guys in the street making tags and I join them, other times the police come and I don’t finish. It is always a Russian Roulette.
Do the uncertainties of working in the street make you more creative somehow?
For me, I like to work in the moment, from the situation and sometimes I didn’t plan anything – I meet a friend with a bag full of paint, and I am wearing my good clothes and he says come on let’s do something. That is why all my clothes are totally fucked. Some people would say no I am not going to paint, but I am not strong enough. I cannot stop finding out what will happen. Let’s go, let’s try. Five or six years ago, I was at my home it was Sunday, 5pm, and two friends of mine came at my place and say, “hey let’s go to have a drink.” After a few beers we start to become drunk and we say “let’s go and make some tags.” I come back to my place to take some spray cans, and we came near Gare de Nord, La Chapelle. I climbed on the first floor of the building and I made some tags and someone opened a window and they tried to catch me. I fell down and broke my two legs. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but generally I win. This time I lose, so I spent four months in hospital. This time graffiti win and I lose. Sometimes with the edge, you know the consequences, you know what to do, how to do it. But sometimes one factor changes and you lose.
That is some extraordinary commitment to graffiti that you are out again making art. Is it a need you have to serve?
When I was still in hospital, it was impossible to go outside. If I wanted to go out a friend would have to come and pick me up. It was a wall, like a graffiti wall, near the hospital and I made maybe ten graffiti in my wheelchair. I was making my thing because I need it. A lot of people after the accident would say I won’t touch the spray can now. For me I tried to stop 10 years ago and I stopped for one year and then I went back. All my friends are doing graffiti, I have a lot of friends all around Europe doing graffiti and they say “hey, I am coming to Paris, I am hoping to do some graffiti” and I always say, “okay, let’s go.” Sometimes I have had to work, but I didn’t go to work, I went with my friends. I am graphic designer and sometimes I really have to work, but my graffiti addiction takes me. I am not happy with this, I try to be more serious. A lot of times I try to make some order in my life, I say “now I have to make some money,” but graffiti always wins (laughs).
What influence does music have in your work?
I am not a musician I have a really bad ear. But I was living for two years in Liege, because I had to move out of Paris because of graffiti, and I met two guys through the graffiti link. And one day someone said “let’s make a party” and so after two years we had made maybe 200 parties, all over Europe. At this time I thought to make my job making parties, but graffiti came back at me.
Do feel part of subculture that is expressed in both music and graffiti too?
Graffiti gave me a lot of things, some bad things but for me it was 5% bad things and 95% good things. With graffiti I was travelling all over Europe, and now the world, and I meet a lot of guys who are now friends. This opened my mind. I am a kid from the suburb, not the ghetto, but from the French suburbs. I was not blind but I had blinkers. When you meet people from different countries and different cultures – each country has their own style. It really opens your mind. I was in Sweden in 2000 or 1999, and I was making a “back-jump.” It is when the subway [train] comes at the platform at the end of the line and it is waiting to go back the other way. You pass between two cars and pass between the wall and the subway [train] and you paint. You have six, seven maybe nine minutes. And it is really fast and really crazy because when you paint people come onto the subway [train], everybody is watching you painting. It was really strange and really new. In Scandinavia you can only paint this way. It is really strict and high security so ‘back-jump’ is the good way to paint. In Spain you can paint by night, in every yard and Spanish people singing and dancing. When you can mix everything from every country you are stronger. It has helped me in all my life. When you have to wait all night, hiding in the cold, you really get to know yourself, know your limits.
The regeneration of the canal was in part due to street artists. Does graffiti have the power to change our world?
‘Street art’ no but graffiti yes (laughs). When Cedric (Honet) and Jean-Francois (RCF1) were young there were maybe 100 writers, when I was young it was 500, now it is 5,000. That’s crazy. Every young guy wants to make graffiti, it something à la mode. I don’t really know where I am going, but I am having fun in the moment. For me, I don’t want to know, if I was not happy I would stop. If I am having fun, making some money and travelling I am happy.
See more work by the artists, as follows: Jean Moderne/RCF1, 2Shy, Honet