42 years of age, son of a Vietnamese father and French mother, and founding member of the French collective M.A.C. (Mort Aux Cons), it’s KONGO. He’s also the co-founder of Kosmopolite, the international graffiti festival (France), which is considered to be one of the most important festivals of its kind and one of the best platforms for launching or promoting young graffiti writers from all over the world.
He was in Barcelona at the start of October to present the scarf which he designed for Hermès and to decorate the shop-window of their store on the Paseo de Gracia in Barcelona.
We met up with Chan, who is a friend of Kongo and a member of the M.A.C., to see the end result. What came of this meeting was a couple of glasses of champagne, a few appetizers which were certainly not fit for diabetics, and a very enjoyable chat with the protagonist and the people at Hermés. The chat went something like this…
How did you begin doing graffiti?
A friend of mine from Cameroon introduced me to the hip-hop and break dance culture. I also saw some movies and photos here and there…you know, before internet came along.
For me, graffiti is very important in my life, and it has now also become my work, it’s what puts food on the table and pays for my kid’s school.
When I began, I lived in one of the worst neighborhoods in Paris, so I never imagined that I would be here, on the Paseo de Gracia, in Barcelona’s Hermès store.
Did you ever plan to become a graffiti artist?
Well, I began with Juan. The first piece I painted was with him, on which we used the word ‘PIECE’. I did the ‘PIE’ and Juan did the ‘CE’. How could we have imagined that we would do this for a living? The next step was each of us doing a piece with our names on it. Then we decided to do it bigger. We moved forward bit by bit. The next step then was to travel outside of France.
We came to Spain, to Barcelona; in Badalona we painted “MALA VIDA”. The following year, we traveled to New York, where we painted with Cope, a legend on the graffiti scene.
After that trip, we went back to France and decided to do the biggest mural ever painted in the country.
There was no plan, apart from getting better and better. Graffiti is a competition, and we’re good at it. In a way, it’s the people around you that push you to continue improving.
Badalona (Barcelona), 1990
Bronx (NY), 1995
Alez x Juan x Lazoo x Loop, 1991
Mac x Jonone x Le Jam x Bugs, 1998
Tats x Mac x Daze x Rest (South Bronx, NY), 2000
How did the collaboration with Hermès come about?
A little while ago I had the opportunity to visit China, but I had no money, and where there’s no money, there’s innovation and great ideas. I went with City, from the TS Crew in Toulouse. It was great fun. Painting with friends, buying brand name rip offs (* but not from Hermès… Insert conspiratorial glances and smirks all round).
One day, while I was painting in Hong Kong, a guy with his son came up to me and started talking. He was interested in my work and asked me to customize his kid’s cap. We grabbed something to drink while I painted the cap, and the guy asked me question after question. For a short while I thought that he was a cop, but in the end it turned out that he worked with Hermés. Fifteen days after that, I got an email from him offering me a blank check to come paint the Hermés store window at the Hong Kong airport. I painted it in black and white, because I knew that they’d be expecting a typical piece with lots of colors.
They loved it, and from there, they said that the door was wide open for future work with them, I just had to show them what I was working on and if they were interested, they’d produce it.I’ve spent three years working on the scarf that was just released.
What other projects are you involved in at the moment?
I’m working on the Kosmopolite Festival with the M.A.C. crew, which has been held in Bagnolet since 1993.
We’re now working with ‘Kosmo Art Tour’, which has the same concept but based in different cities; Amsterdam, Paris, San Paulo…
Also, with the profits made from the scarf, we will create ‘Kosmopolis’ which aims to encourage communication between kids from the shanty towns in San Paolo and kids from a neighborhood in Paris.
The idea is to photograph what the kids in Brazil paint, and bring it to Paris; then what the kids from Paris create we will take to Jacarta, and what is painted in Jacarta we take to Soweto. At the end, we’ll do an exhibition and create a kind of city; ‘Kosmopolis’, a city without boundaries or police, just art. I think it’s a great project.
I’ll also be doing an exhibition in Singapore, in a classical gallery.
Will you be working with other brands?
No, at the moment I’m very happy with Hermès. I don’t have time to do work with other brands.
What relation do you think graffiti has with fashion?
Fashion has a contemporary vision, and graffiti is contemporary painting, so I think it makes sense that the two should meet.
But do you not think that the two are at opposite ends of the spectrum? Fashion, even when it’s of the more hand-made and artistic variety, is reserved for those that can afford it. Graffiti is on the street, it’s free.
Not exactly. People that do graffiti aren’t exactly poor; they have all the equipment and some earn money from what the do, and fashion is continually looking at what is done on the street, and vice versa. Look at brands like Adidas and Nike, etc… it seems logical to me that the two should meet.
On the other hand, I do appreciate the irony. I know that what I painted in the Hermés store window would have cost me a lot of money in fines, if it hadn’t been commissioned by the company. I also know that since I did work for Hermés, my paintings sell for more, even though the quality is the same as always. But this is a problem with people, with society, that we value things in this way. I work with Hermés because their philosophy respects the artist, it’s not just about money for them. They strive to create an excellent product, and that gels with my way of doing things.
Have you seen the videos by Kidult? It’s completely opposite to what you’ve done…
Yeah, but it’s all graffiti. I like it. Graffiti is like that; it encompasses so many things. I respect other artists, and just follow my path.
Speaking of how much value people give graffiti, where do you think it has the most respect?
In Paris, though it annoys me to say so, because it never used to be that way, but now we have exhibitions, festivals, and people pay for graffiti.
And do you worry that the work of graffiti artists is reducing in value, because the people buying graffiti art don’t understand the history and language of it, which means graffiti writers are being sold as something they’re not?
Yes, that worries me, but that’s just how it is for those of us that have a career in graffiti, for those of us that want to show the public what we’re doing, and what are culture is. That’s why we do the festival, to educate the public. Before, graffiti was only used during elections, to highlight vandalism. With Kosmopolite, we made the press and newspapers refer to it as a part of culture. Afterward, we made a DVD to demonstrate what we were doing. That’s our weapon; not just painting, but speaking about why we paint, and what we do. In that way, we differentiate ourselves from those that are big one day and disappear the next.
Each creative process is like a chain of actions… what is the first link in your creative chain?
Passion… love… because without that, we have nothing, we’re dead before even beginning.
What’s your strong point, and your weak point?
They’re one and the same, because they’re like two sides of the one coin. I’d like to be more opportunistic, I’d like to be able to better sell myself to gallery owners, and not have so many scruples. But I’m like that, I don’t do politics well. I’m 42 now, and I don’t think I’m going to change.
What do you look at when you’re on the street? Aside from women… (* everyone in the store laughs, because during the presentation, every time a lady passed by, the guys got very distracted…)
Other writer’s tags, and places that I can paint.
What have you gained, and what have you lost along your journey?
I’ve made sincere friends, and I’ve lost false friends. I’ve gained some true enemies.
For you, what characteristics should a spray have?
Each brand has it’s own advantages. Sometimes I need a matte spray, other times I need something with a lot of pressure. A good writer knows how to adjust and benefit from everything.
How do see the future of graffiti?
Graffiti is never going to die. Nowadays, there are people that paint with fire extinguishers…who knows what will come afterward… light graffiti… reverse graffiti? I think that the best graffiti is being down in Brazil right now. The best writers/artists come from there.
(Amongst us all we discuss ‘green graffiti’ which is done with moss that grows on the wall, or the story of one artist who blows up murals in Lisbon, or the people that are using herbicide to create pieces under the Eiffel tower…)
The conversation goes on a little while longer but began to dissipate from there when fashion journalists needed the space to do their own interview with Kongo.