Can you tell us more about where your studio is located?
Right, we’re in 6B which is an old building that used to be the offices of Alstom. It’s a listed building, which means it can’t be demolished. The developer didn’t know what to do with it, it wasn’t profitable to restore it, so they signed an agreement with a group known as 6B.
The association manages around a hundred studios, everything from painters to illustrators, sculptors, musicians and directors. Here, we’re in my space where I paint with aerosols, Posca and acrylics, it’s a place where I try out lots of things and where I can leave marks on the floor!
Are you from Saint-Denis originally?
I’m from Saint-Denis, a town ten minutes north of Paris. We’re the other side of the Périphérique you know. Since I was a kid, I’ve always had two passions: graffiti and parties. The famous 90s parties, what they call the “Golden Years”. I love rap and R’n’B from that period, whenever there was a party in Paris, I’d tag along the way.
Then I got into graffiti, which also had a social side in the sense that when I was painting in the neighbourhoods, the residents were there, there was dialogue. And when I finished, people lived with what I had made, it’s something I’ve always considered. Street art and graffiti has been coming into galleries and museums for a few years now in France, but people have been living surrounded by murals in the suburbs for over 30 years.
What was it like growing up in Saint-Denis?
As I often say: “If you grow up in Saint-Denis, you’re ready to travel the world!” Here, the adventure starts right outside your flat! It’s also a town that makes you quite partisan, a bit like Marseille. Even if you move away from Saint-Denis, you keep it in your heart. I travel a great deal, I need to get away, and when I come back, when I see the signs for Saint-Denis, I’m happy, I like that. Sometimes you need to get away to really appreciate your town.
What are your earliest memories of graffiti?
When I was a kid, I used to run across the waste ground between the Franc-Moisin estate and the 4000 estate in La Courneuve. At the end I remember seeing these kind of painted letters with the head of a b-boy, with stars on the letters, like those crosses you do with spray paint, where you spray the centre from further back to create a kind of halo. It’s that little star that you see in loads of graffiti from the 80s and 90s, it’s magic I only saw it for a fraction of a second but I’ve never forgotten it.
Saint-Denis is filled with tags, if you wanted people to know your name, you had to wait for a wall to be repainted so you could be the first to tag it!
Where did you learn graffiti?
There were no tutorials in those days! No internet, no YouTube! For me, when I was getting into all of this I would go to waste ground, looking, analysing, taking photos. And when I was lucky enough to find someone doing graffiti, I would timidly watch them working.
You can learn a lot by watching others work, I’ve learned a great deal like that. He did his sketches in white, OK. Then he fills in the sketches with a darker colour, blending this colour and that, then the outlines, ending with a white highlight.
From there, when I was looking at a piece I would deconstruct it: the first thing is the feeling, that’s what will make me want to take a closer look. Then I would take apart the creative process.
How has your style developed over the years?
I’ll try and keep it brief, otherwise I could go on for hours! I started around 1988 with a marker pen in the street, I also did a throw up with a couple of my friend’s spray cans. In 89, I started to draw, especially with Posca, on paper. It was real New York, b-boy, lettering, almost Wild Style with those stars and arrows.
In 93, I was doing sunsets or “skylines” as they’re known, and at the same time I was getting into calligraphy, which I looked at abstractly. I took things from different alphabets: Arabic, Asian, Kanjis and even Mongolian vertical writing. At that point I stood out a bit as this was something new. These days there are successful calligraphic movements all over the world.
Around 95, I started with realism: I would take a photo and reproduce it on a wall. There were around ten of us in France doing this. The best was Alex from Mac, who launched the European and even the global movement.
In 99, I was with my loved one, we were watching the film “The Pillow Book” by Peter Greenaway, it’s about his guy who draws on human bodies, it’s pretty crazy. I took a marker and started drawing on her back! A 93 with calligraphy. From that point on, I started painting people at parties, I must have painted thousands of people! I even painted on Katoucha, the first black model and muse for Yves Saint Laurent
In 2000, I saw a photo with the trails from car headlights. A friend explained to me that this is the long exposure technique in photography, that creates a trail from a moving light without any trickery. I thought straight away that I could tag my name, and I started to use this technique to take photos, but also in live performances.
I thought I had invented a concept, I thought I would be recognised and go down in history. Then I found photos by Man Ray that used the same technique in 1934! That brought me back to earth! I performed all over the world, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where I did live painting, during the daytime, broadcast on a twenty by eight metre screen, it was incredible!
We arrived at the end of 2000 and I took on this studio. I started painting again and I tried to make paintings but I was rarely satisfied with the results. I was used to walls, the outdoors, it wasn’t easy being stuck in a room with this tiny workspace. It took me four years to find my style.
It’s only in the last three years that I have begun to enjoy it. The studio allows me to try out new things, to find ideas that I might be able to use on a wall or a project. When I’m there for three of four days, I’m completely immersed, I sleep on the couch and I work at night. I’m in my own environment and I live with my designs. One time I didn’t leave for six days!
There’s also a lot of suffering when you create in a studio, but I also like to live dangerously. If I need to produce 30 paintings for an exhibition, there’ll be 20 that I’ll paint in advance. And the last ten I’ll paint in three days, with a good playlist and lots of coffee! And every time I submit the paintings for the deadline, I say to myself: “never again!”