Monsieur Plume likes to keep a low profile, but his jagged style will leap out of the walls and knife you in the eyes given half the chance. We met up in Montreal at the Fresh Paint Gallery on the evening of his first Canadian exhibition outside of France to discuss how an artist stays true to the streets, whilst making art which speaks to people all over the world. This interview was edited and drafted by our roving reporter, James Buxton.
Photo by Jemima Boraccino.
A Plume of Paint
Some girls nicknamed me Plume at school after my cat’s name. I added “Monsieur” to make it look more serious.
I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pen. I was very influenced by comics. I started painting on walls when I was 14, but really consider myself making art since I was offered to have my first exhibition in 2003. I had to register at the “Maison des Artistes” and it became a professional status. I realized that my art could be taken seriously and there was room for that in our society.
I started graffiti in 1998 when I was a teenager. I was driven by the thrill of illegal bombing and started tagging. There was no graffiti scene in my town at this time except for MAD. I really was introduced to graffiti by a break-dancer called Andry, he gave me a fanzine named “Languages de Rue Volume 1”.
At the same period, I met AIR at a work meeting and we founded RAID CREW together. It later became bigger and gathered many of the street kids around.
I started doing paintings in 2003, for my first exhibition. I was this energetic kid in my town, doing lots of graffiti and promoting Hip Hop. I already was involved in running workshops with local kids.
Some people who were established artists tried to encourage me in doing more and got me a studio and a venue to exhibit.
I was born in Lenine street in Saint-Pierre-des-Corps, France and dropped out of Stalingrad secondary school. I grew up in a working class neighbourhood and kept being dropped from school. My whole family had to move to the countryside for me to attend a new school, and this is when I faced racism and xenophobia. This was the trigger of how I gained the conscience that drawing could keep me out of this.
I had a very narrow vision of what painting was when I started. I had in mind all these portraits of Kings and nobles, and I wanted to represent poor people in the same way, turn them into modern icons.
I paint everyday people, poor workers, addicts, detainees. I keep a figurative style because i need my art to be readable by the widest of audience.
Painting is an outlet, and I feel the need to give exposure to the people who are hidden and excluded from the society.
A Spontaneous and Violent Art Form
My definition would be that graffiti is the expression of a message with spray on an inappropriate medium. The graphic codes or aesthetic of graffiti has become a trendy symbol and is used to carry an image of rebellion, just like the punk movement was misused.
To me, artists who sell their art to promote cars or sodas are hypocritical and take part of the counter-culture hijacking.
Graffiti is a spontaneous and violent form of art. No ideological manifesto has ever been written, which makes it a popular art movement. For many kids, graffiti is an alternative to violence and exclusion. It must remain a spontaneous and popular way of expression for social demands.
A part of rap music dedicates itself to the promotion of social success and talks about money and fancy cars. It’s a very individualistic and capitalistic way of thinking. It’s far off its roots and takes no political position anymore. This is where I hope graffiti won’t fall, and that’s why it should harden and step up for social concerns.
I don’t give credibility to people who create graffiti-looking commercial design on week days, and go illegal on week-ends.
It could start in its own circle by eliminating the hierarchy, break its own codes, evolve towards today’s social concerns, adopt a philosophy of life and keep on disobeying.
The drift between spontaneous art and commercial art is more tempting than ever. Making compromises seems not as blamable as it was. Since street-art is being taken over for marketing purposes, it is more important now to fight against it and stand up for your ideas and be honest with your art. These rules should keep graffiti’s integrity and out of commercial hijacking.
I mostly make my living by running workshops with unprivileged crowds. I work in educational centers, prisons, with homeless people… I initiate them to graffiti to give them a tool for expressing their angst.
I also give lectures to the public, explaining the basic difference between graffiti and tag, the birth and history of the movement. I see that people become more tolerant and even interested in this art when they have the keys to understand it. This is the way I found for not making any compromise.
My commitment is the same when I do illegal art and legal workshops or performances. Same thrill, same adrenaline shot. The boundary between legal and illegal disapears because my ideas are the same either way.
The act of creating and displaying art in a public space is a strong social act in itself. Street artists re-question our environment and I see it as a great sense of generosity. The street should remain the place for freedom of speech, and tolerance is very low towards this form of expression. Some cities pay for “socially acceptable” pieces, and it’s what I witness here in Montreal. It seems like it’s the best way they’ve found to avoid street bombing.
Making street-art is illegal and when you take the risk to get caught, it’d rather be for expressing your convictions or opinions rather than using the street for self-promotion or simply decorating it. In certain cases, street is all what you got left.
Clouds of Influence
I’m influenced by Lokiss, for drawing out of the line, Mode 2, for his originality, Popay, made me realize I should study painting and art in general beyond graffiti, Spike, for his technical skills. Most of the people I respect are anonymous, and I respect them for their engagement and their devotion to their cause. Ryoji Ikeda, I discovered recently is an amazing and very inspiring artist. Keith Haring, JM Basquiat for their contribution to the History of Art. Lots of deviant musicians like Death Grips, Pan Sonic, Antipop Consortium, DJ La Peste (Hangar Liquid) because they think and create out of the box, and stick to their ideas. Jacob Bannon for his artistic approach, his humility and dedication.
My direct surrounding is my base. I’ve always worked in social issues, was influenced and found my energy in the everyday local life.
I discovered and learned graffiti by hanging around the neighbourhood and meeting people. There was no Internet at the time, and it had to be social.
I have no secondary education, I quit school at 18 with no diploma and, even if it sounds easy, I feel more free not to have been to any Art school because I wasn’t taught any rules. My only fuel is emotion or passion. I feel I have to work double to defend my art because I have low educational background. I didn’t learn any methodology and tend to lack focus on some points.
Breaking the Outline
When I discovered graffiti, I apprehended it as a great way of drawing characters in a bigger scale.
My first influences in graffiti were not writers. Although, I painted with writers, it was complementary by doing characters. I express my ideas better by drawing fucked up people rather than in writing my name on a wall. Doing characters opened my field of vision and helped me develop my research because I have greater feedback and reactions from passers-by.
My latest murals are very minimal, or gesturaly economical. I avoid as much as possible outlines, shadings and fillings. The technique I use for creating volumes is close to old engravings. It has to be quick and expressive. I stricly use spray, but like splatters or whatever technique to create a material on the wall rather than a fine color filling.
I still am doing figurative paintings but I’m working on abstracting my characters, breaking the outline.
I tend to disconnect with my old cartoony style and my work is much more expressive, brutal and direct than it used to be.
I created my first canvases in 2003. The debate was running at this time about graffiti artists reproducing what they do in the streets in galleries. For me, graffiti and paintings are two separable fields even though my influences come from graffiti art. My work in the streets is very different from what I do in a studio. I respect the codes of graffiti when I’m in the streets, but I don’t feel I have any codes, limits or pressure in my paintings. I use sprays on canvases but I now combine it with ink and self-made colors made out of dirt.
I paint in abandoned factories, squats, waste grounds, street, roads, railways… the usual.
Today, I have more trouble with other graffiti artists with whom I don’t share the same views than with the police. But I believe that accepting disobedience is constituent of graffiti.
Life On the Road
In the past 6 months, I painted in Reykjavik, Iceland and Montreal, Canada. Iceland was amazing. The economic crisis left a lot of aborted building projects and the new Reykjavik city council is composed by, basically, humorists and punks. The whole downtown is covered by graffiti and the crowd incredibly enthousiastic. It looks like graffiti filled some social gaps and is part of the reconstruction of the town.
Coming to Montreal, I expected crew wars and a strong American influence. In fact, I get a very good communication, enthusiasm and feedback from people. They are very friendly and opene-minded. As we say, everything is bigger in America, and yes, walls are in fact bigger.
I had the chance to perform and exhibit at Fresh Paint Gallery in October, and to perfom at “Fine Mess”, the monthly battle they organize. I also was approached by “En Masse” for an evenutal collaboration. These things don’t happen in France!
The aspect that really surprises me about this city is how commercial graffiti goes. The greatest murals are private-commissioned works, and the sense of business drives many artists. People frequently ask me why I do this for free! It’s far more conventional than what I expected, and this is the case in the art scene in general in Montreal.
In the very near future, I will go for my first real street-art residency in a remote village in north Iceland. I am trying to think of a city-wide art project in which the inhabitants take part.
I hope this project will grow later in France and I’m already dealing with some cities to make it happen.
I would like to take my art to the next level, open to different perspectives and collaborate with non-graffiti artists and specialists. I’m interested in working on volume design and hope to keep on living of my art.