Nick Walker’s Vandal character genuflects to the Paris street art scene?
Interviewing a street artist from Britain is an odd first post for a Paris blog on street art, perhaps, but we were keen to find out the latest from him after the recent swathe of interventions he left for us, produced during February’s freezing conditions – a distant memory in today’s 18 degree Paris sunshine. So, for the record, his debut on this blog reflects his achievements in Paris, and has nothing whatsoever to do with any underhand British favouritism.
In the interview, Walker tells us how he picks his locations and reveals that Paris hasn’t seen the last of him (he may yet return to spend time and learn the language); and that he’s still on talking terms with Banksy, despite exploding a rat.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into street art.
I grew up in Bristol in the UK and got into graffiti art in the early 80s. I was transfixed by music videos like Blondie’s Rapture, Malcolm Mclarens’ Buffalo Gals, and Hip Hop History, an Arena special on BBC2. One of my major influences and turning points was seeing the graffiti artist outlining the Buffalo Gals lettering throughout the video. It was so well executed and spontaneous that I instantly wanted to be able to do it myself. ‘Nick Walker’s first exposure to graffiti’ – the Buffalo Gals music video with artwork by Dondi White.
Nick Walker’s first exposure to graffiti – the Buffalo Gals music video with artwork by Dondi White
Your new graffiti artwork around Paris, some of which is in collaboration with London street artist SheOne, features your bowler hat motif . Can you explain a little about these pieces?
The recent artworks scattered around Paris are of The Vandal, a character I created, whose purpose is to travel from city to city throwing his palette of paint down high rise buildings and famous landmarks – his version of ‘painting the town red’. The Vandal’s premiere appearance was in a painting called ‘The Morning After’ which is all about the artist ‘post-action’, as he reflects on a night’s work and enjoys the quiet walk home, still a free man, with the city behind him dripping in rich colour. This concept developed into a series: I’m currently working on the eleventh city, which is Paris.
Street artist Nick Walker makes a mysterious reference to “Derby” in this recent work made in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, a collaboration with London graffiti artist, SheOne
Testicles, spectacles, wallet … spray can
The genie in the bowler hat
How do you pick your locations? What do you think is the importance of context to your street art?
First I ask a contact in the chosen city to source some walls and then I study photos of the area in order to get a good idea of scale and then I choose which image (stencil) would be appropriate or inappropriate in that specific location. A lot depends on how hot the area is, which direction the traffic is travelling, and how nosey the neighbours are. If you choose a really touristy area the police will be quick to shut you down. Context is very important, too: it’s always a good idea to take the subject matter and place it in a relevant or directly polar environment – a little provocation can be fun at times. I have a mild political agenda but it’s always intertwined with a degree of humour and entertainment.
Nick Walker paints in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement last month. Photo: SheOne
Your work, Le Corancan [pictured below], painted illegally Canal Saint Martin in 2010, featuring several veiled women lifting their skirts to reveal their stockings and suspenders as they danced the cancan, was removed almost immediately by the French authorities, and made more than just street art news. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced putting up your work in Paris?
Le Corancan was a rather stressful painting – the deal was to finish the piece before the school opened opposite the wall. A reliable source had said it was likely the care taker would call the police so it was a good idea to start as early as possible. However I forgot to put my watch forward, so was an hour behind, still operating on UK time. We ended up starting much later than hoped, just after 7am, and finished at 10am. I was still painting when the kids started arriving and it was getting a fair bit of attention to say the least, but I finally managed to finish up and move away from the wall. I sat on a bench by the canal watching the police arrive. There were about six on foot, constantly saying “non, non …” into their radios. I hung around for a few minutes and then decided it would be a good idea to go back to the hotel before one of them clocked my finger nails. I knew that this piece didn’t have a very long shelf life, as it coincided with the French government’s final decision to ban the burqa in its capital city. Anything remotely political on the walls around Paris at that time was getting buffed immediately.
Six women wearing Islamic veils and dancing the cancan painted just before the French government moved to ban the burqa from being worn in public, painted next to the Canal Saint-Martin in 2010
Tell us where your favourite spots in Paris are for painting, and hanging out?
For painting I don’t necessarily have a favourite niche, the whole city is up for grabs – it’s a case of painting at a spot that makes the most sense at a given time. It can be quite a spontaneous process or heavily planned. The piece we did on Rue de l’Échaudé in the Latin quarter of St Germain-des-Pres was in a good area. We rolled up to a wall opposite Cham’art Contemporain and just got to work – no one cared. In fact, quite a few of the surrounding shop keepers came out and had their photos taken with us. Sometimes blatantly being seen in broad daylight is the way forward. If you’re painting at night on a city wall you look a thousand times more suspect. In terms of hanging out, there’s always a good chance that I may end the night at Le Baron, owned by French graffiti artist Andre.
A collaborative piece by Nick Walker and SheOne in the Left Bank neighbourhood of St Germain-des-Pres
For several of your recent Paris paintings, you collaborated with London graffiti artist SheOne. Are there any Parisian artists with whom you’d like to work?
I like what “Da Mental Vaporz crew” is doing right now, a serious melting pot of styles. I keep seeing the work of Dast on vans around the city. I really like the simplicity of his work. It reminds me of the work of late New York graffiti artist Keith Haring, in a way.
‘Haring-esque’ street art work by Parisian graffiti artist, Dast
What’s your opinion on the street art culture in Paris? How does it compare to street art in London and Bristol, and other cities around the world?
The graffiti scene in Paris is intense. Paris has had it locked down since day one and you can see that immediately when arriving at Gare du Nord on the train. It’s like a pandemic – no other city is quite so heavily layered up. New York used to be as densely hit in its heyday, but with all the gentrification that’s taken place in the last two decades the crown has been passed to Paris. In London, the Borough Councils and the Police are too uptight about graffiti and relentlessly buff walls, only for them to be re-tagged. It’s a waste of money trying to persistently control and clean so much street art in London. They’re simply shovelling the snow during a blizzard.
Walker’s Vandal character painting the streets red
The exploded rats seen in some of your paintings are aimed at your contemporary, and fellow-Bristolian, graffiti artist Banksy, it’s been reported. Tell us how this discord began.
It’s weird – there have been rumours for some time about this. Yes, it’s a bit cheeky, blowing up a rat but that’s as far as it goes. I was just bringing a bit of edge into the game, and people are still speculating about it. The truth is that I like Banksy, and we still talk.
What are your plans for 2012?
I have a couple projects coming up for Paris, the first of which will happen in April. I’m also in a few group shows, so I’m painting in the studio pretty much every day. My ultimate goal is to get a French tutor and move over at some point. I have much unfinished business in Paris.
What do you think is the importance of street art?
Firstly it’s important for it to be on the street and in the public realm for everyone to enjoy. If an artist calls him or herself a “street artist,” then it is imperative that they be actively painting in social space. A wall, a shutter, a building, an alley way; a blending of aesthetics, humour and a gentle nudge of an idea might just change how a passerby views their day. By changing a known environment, you look again at a familiar site and perhaps see the world a little differently, if just for a moment. The street is the biggest gallery an artist could wish for and it doesn’t matter if it’s illegal or not in my opinion it works better on the street. Also, it’s a gift to the people of the city.
Nick Walker’s website: theartofnickwalker.com.