Detail from Artiste-Ouvrier’s painting for Le MUR (l’association Modulable Urbain Reactif), on the corner of Rue Oberkampf and Rue Saint-Maur in Paris’ 11th Arrondissement
Tell us a little about your artistic background and what inspired you to first start making stencil art.
Street art came late for me, as I began stencilling in 1993, in order to have artworks from Klimt or Paolo Uccello, rather than the usual posters which I found silly and too far away from the painting. So basically I studied Philosophy at the Sorbonne for five years, and a bit of art history, afterwards, and before I had all kinds of jobs, from waiter to train cleaner, teacher for violent children. I began to paint in the street, always half-legally, in 2003. I was already painting walls, but in the squats in Paris where I used to live.
What prompts you to paint work in the street?
The street is more than a canvas and it doesn’t have borders actually, so it’s like a huge collective work changing everyday and mixed with architecture and all the urban things. I like to paint in the countryside too. But I don’t like spraying everywhere like so many do, just for fame and pretending they do the “revolution,” as they just want to sell their stuff, like every artist must.
How did your street style develop?
I did multilayer technique in the nineties, like everybody else who wants to have colours. In 2000 when I started again, after a long, long trip to Ethiopia, I wanted to become pro in a way and I created, or I found a special way to cut and paint, with only two layers and as many colours as I wanted. Of course, I have also a 19th century connection, and seek meaning, which alone might make a kind of style.
What is your process for producing stencils?
First of all you need to know what you want to paint, and why. Once you produce your image with your camera or your pencil, photocopy and cut. And then paint, paint, paint. The question is where and why.
Where and when did you put up your first street work?
2003, rue des Deux-Boules in Paris 1st arrondissement, behind the squat of Electron Libre – it was a metal door in a middle of a big wall that later got toyed, except for my door – I don’t know why. You have all the pictures on lapanse.com
There’s an erotic tone to certain portraits that you’ve made. What’s the place of eroticism in street art?
Well when I make photos with models, they are no pro most of the time, and we look for emotion and meaning. So the body language turns out to look sensual maybe, sometimes erotic even, but I try not to paint too many shocking scenes in the street. For me it’s beautiful and I don’t want to spoil this beauty by being naughty. One has to find the balance: what to show, what to hide.
You used to be a writer. How does your previous work influence your stencil art production?
Of course, a lot! The meaning is always involved. Recently someone asked for an old theatre play “Men on Mars” and who knows? Maybe I’ll work as a writer again. I used to say that my drawers were blooming, all the unknown text inside getting spoiled and feeding the painting.
How do you choose on which walls to paint?
I do only legal or half-legal, so basically I like to be invited. And sometimes I ask the owner if I can, like I did in India. I like the doors very much, especially metal doors, there I can do a lot of details.
What has been the most unusual surface that you’ve painted?
My drawer collection first, then wood in general. Recently I’ve liked to paint transparent surfaces. Or canvas, everything can be sprayed.
Artiste Ouvrier stencil street art at Rue de L’Ourcq in Paris’ 19th Arrondissement
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced putting up a piece on the streets?
I made a 5 metre high wall and I was not too proud of it, and I had a big tree to paint in mirror, 160cmx300cm. The wind especially can be very tricky and of course the rain. Once I had to struggle with 15 teenagers who wanted to take my spray cans. It’s not always smooth.
Tell us about some of the reactions that people have had to your work on the street.
Some old people stop me to tell me it was wonderful and it was art and I should start again to paint they didn’t want to bother me. It happened more than once, and I found it so sweet. People’s reactions are usually very nice.
How do you feel when one of your pieces is removed or vandalised?
Just the way it is. I try not to feel anything bad. It can be anger or sadness, but there’s no need to worry about it as we cannot do anything against it, except Mr Banksy who puts plastic protection on his walls. Too expensive to be toyed I guess.
Can you tell us a bit about the collective, Working Class Artists (WCA), which you established in 2005.
I like to work with other artists. WCA is a more doing research about the same technique I found in 2000, and giving all I know to young artists, to see them improve it in their own way, and go further. The blue that comes out of indigo is more beautiful than indigo itself, but without indigo you wouldn’t have blue. I played a bit the indigo role in the WCA story. Today there are more than 15 WCA fellows, in Germany, Paris and Normandy.
Tell us who are some of your favourite stencil artists?
I like M-City very much; he knows how and why he uses stencil. I have a lot of respect for Miss Tic or Jérôme Mesnager (but it’s not stencil). Le Bateleur inspired me, but he’s dead now. I like Ananda Nahu in Brazil very, very much, and all the nice anonymous artists. I don’t know, I like stencil most of the time, except fashion victims, or people who don’t cut their stencils themselves.
We see lots of your work around the Buttes-aux-Cailles on Paris’ Left Bank. What is it that you like about this place in particular?
People asked me to come back there just by chance, and then I had more stencil than other places, where they vanished most of the time, for a reason or another.
What do you think is the importance of street art?
We will see. I don’t like the “middle” effect too much. It can help, I don’t know. We slowly invade the contemporary art and it will be so for the next generation so it may become boring maybe when it’s official. I like to paint legally, yet I don’t like to follow the flock.
What are your plans for the year ahead?
I intend to make a living in India where there are so many possibilities to paint in the street and to do exhibitions. I’d like to come back often to Paris but also to have the opportunity to make shows in New York maybe. Or anywhere else, where people want me to paint.