Interview with spiritual-mystic Paris graffiti artist L’Atlas

by Fernanda Hinke on September 19, 2012

Ten years after France’s ‘mini-revolution’ of 1968, former French street artist L’Atlas was born, hence there became a new force in graffiti on the streets of Paris, a pastiche of graffiti, ancient typography, Greek mythology and eastern spiritualism.

Until recently, L’Atlas fought the ‘good fight’ of putting up art in the urban space without first asking for permission, mixed with a, perhaps, healthy level of egotism, but now makes art just to sell at galleries in New York, London, Milan.

Based in an artists ‘atelier’ in Paris’ Belleville neighbourhood, Fernanda Schweichler went to meet and interview L’Atlas for her blog, My Life on My Bike, and has kindly published a version of the interview she made, here, with Alternative Paris.

L’Atlas billboard takeover in Paris

L’Atlas graffiti: his formal calligraphy training being put into practice illegally. Notice the work underneath by Paris ‘first generation’ stencillist, Nemo. Photo: Jojo Blogs

L’Atlas pastes up work at 105 rue Oberkampf in the 11th arrondissement, now the site of the institutionalised space for urban art, Le M.U.R.

One of L’Atlas’ “seven daughters”, the first seven canvases he painted which he takes with him on his travels.

A student of archaeology and calligraphy, L’ Atlas’ (real name is Jules Dedet Granel) began tagging his name on Paris’ streets in the early 90’s. Particularly interested in Sufism and writing geometric codes which he then transposes into the Latin alphabet, he switched mediums in 2001, from using spray cans to using Scotch tape (Sellotape).

Always attracted by mysticism and travel, his artistic approach was marked from childhood by books on astronomy and geography. After marking the floors and walls of the city with huge compasses and labyrinths, L’Atlas’ work took the path of kinetic art and geometric abstraction.

No longer working in the street, today L’Atlas is represented by galleries around the world in Paris, New York, Milan, London and Marrakesh.

You took the name of a titan in Greek mythology. How do you feel connected with this representation?

During my archaeology studies I learned about Greek mythology and middle-eastern spirituality. It fascinated me and I thought it was a good idea to mix this mythology with something contemporary. Because the atlas is a universal form that everybody understands, I let it really influence my work.

How did you first become interested in the cosmos, earth and geography?

I was attracted to things around energy, like the earth and the cosmos, and I used to do Tai Chi Chuan, which opened my contact with the energy of the universe. I think life is energy and also calligraphy is energy, painting is the translation of pure energy.

For me there is no difference between the universe and painting. When you look at a map, the universe and cosmos are geographic landscapes in a balance. In my paintings I’m looking to rediscover the balance of the landscapes and cosmos.

How did you start to learn Arabic Calligraphy?

I started to learn Latin calligraphy in 1996 and afterwards I began to learn Arabic calligraphy in Morocco, Cairo and Syria during 3 years, between 1998 and 2000, each time with a different master. The first time in Morocco, I learned classic calligraphy. I learned 9 or 10 different styles and the year after I came back to Cairo to make a documentary about calligraphy.

This time was the beginning of my art and when I was doing my first ideograms, trying to find a balance between the letters and the form.  In 2000 I made my first exhibition with a video of calligraphy.

L’Atlas billboard hijacking

One of the “Seven Daughters”, India

Photo: The Street Art Blog

In 2001 you stopped to use spray can and discovered the use of Scotch tape. How was this transition and what fascinated you to give confidence to start using this material?

Scotch tape is something I use to make straight lines. Also, the old painters used it to make letter forms. I was also working in the cinema in 2001 and in cinema you use tape to fix the cables and stuff, so I began to steal some as it was perfect for me to make the links with geometry. With tape you don’t have to draw something so the line is already there. I like this concept of the tape being physical.

Can you tell me about your street art projects, in photography, printing onto the ground, and with compasses?

Since I was a child I was looking at the forms of the city, especially geometric forms. The manhole cover influenced my work with graffiti and calligraphy.  I like the idea that I’m going to enter into this format and stay there.

In 2000 the city hall decided to clean away all of the graffiti and street art in Paris. It was really strange, overnight they cleaned everything. I felt confused and lost in the city in which I grew up. That’s why I started to make the compass, to find my own directions in the city again. It was a joke for me.

I also liked the idea that people think that those pieces were ordered by the city, like something really legal commissioned by the city or a museum, because it is useful and normally in front of a subway, people were confused by that.  Of course, today all of that disappeared and I knew that when you’re making ephemeral actions like this it is going to provoke something.

People use to come to me frequently and ask me: “what are these?”. For me was a good excuse to go to the streets to meet people, speak and have a relationship with them. Because I love to go to street, work all day long and make pictures. I’m not a photographer but I like to go to street with my canvas and make pictures of that

Why do you use to work in black and white?

I’ve been working in black and white for 15 years. I don’t feel like a painter, I’m a calligrapher and I also make pictures. I use letters and text on my work that is also black and white. It’s really optical as when you see something in black and white there is an optical vibration. What I want to express are the pure things, the essence of things. Nowadays, one by one I’ll add colours, some red, some fluorescent. During seven years, I used to say to journalists that I was colour blind, just because the truth was too boring: “why do you just work in black and white?” And people use to say, this guy doesn’t see colours. It was a game for me.

My current exhibition, at the Musée en Herbe in Paris, is called Persistence, and includes works whereby I’ve added light in a way that plunges the viewer into a fluorescent atmosphere.

One of the “Seven daughters” , Moscow

You are influenced by Hakim Bey, the researcher of Sufism. What do you think about this philosophy of self-knowledge and interaction with God? Do you follow any religion?

I don’t believe in God, I believe in a stronger energy and I am trying to follow this energy. I’m very sensitive to feel the energy inside places.  That’s why in my work I use tape because if you use stencil, for example, you make the same size everywhere but when you use tape, I can have a good proportion for each place that I will work, after I see and feel the place.

Normally, before starting to work for a show in a gallery, I need to see the place. I try to make something special for this space. This is a very exciting part of a show. I’m an intuitive artist, so I can’t create a good show without seeing and feeling the place.

I use to read a lot of books about Taoism and I feel connected with this philosophy, where everyone can find their own personality and that even in this philosophy there are no rules, it’s flexible, different to the monotheistic religions, which don’t respect your individuality.

In your manifesto you say that you have your “seven daughters”, or seven canvases that you always take on your travels around the world. What does it mean to you?

It’s about my first seven canvases that I did in 2001. In Greek mythology Atlas has seven daughters, and the constellation of Pleiades is the symbol of the universe in movement.  My idea was to travel with the canvases and make pictures of them everywhere, in each city that I passed by, always in the same way. I used to do it with graffiti when I was working on the street. With the seven daughters it’s the same thing because my name is painted onto the canvases. It’s the most ephemeral action that you can do on the streets.

On the other side it was to provoke the story of art and the way we value it. Normally canvases are very well protected and well packed, like a sacred thing. I want to break that rule, that’s why I never protect the “seven daughters”, they always travel like people there are scratches on them, like us. My idea is to transform those pieces into human beings.

In the beginning, 10 years ago, I use to travel with the seven canvases. Nowadays, I travel with just one or two, because I have problems with my back. But I always change the pieces, because I don’t want that they become jealous.

I’m editing a book, which being released soon, with 400 pictures from 40 cities with the seven daughters.

L’Atlas, Strasbourg. Photo: Fat cap

L’Atlas creates a giant compass in front of the Pompidou Centre, the world-class modern art museum. The compass was in response to a crackdown on graffiti by the Paris authorities, which left him feeling lost in the city

How do you mix the street and the gallery, what distinctions do you make between the two?

I’m trying to mix the two things. I have to say that it’s cool what’s happening with street art today, but it didn’t make any sense in 2001. At this time, it was really good to do it because nobody was doing it that much. But now, it’s a kind of a trend, I mean you just put two stickers up on the street and you’re a street artist.

But street art didn’t come from another planet, graffiti and street artists know the history of art, they just created a new movement with that knowledge. It regroups all the people who make photos or pictures or stencils or graffiti, and it’s a specific movement for me because in their own way people working in the street continue to develop the art. It’s important for me to say that, even if at this time my work is more a “studio work”, sometimes I spend one month just on one canvas.

I make the choice to work with galleries, but sometimes I need to go to the street and make big things, big walls. Sometimes I miss the street because before I had the right balance between the street and the studio. Now I’m working in a big studio with Tanc and another artist. I work for several galleries around the world so I’ve to spend a lot of time to create exhibitions. The street is a good thing to show your art, because if you sell a canvas, maybe 50 people will see it, but if you work is on the streets, maybe a thousand people or more will see it.

What I mean is that the power of the walls is huge. Writing a name, using graffiti, for example, is a really a strong action. It was really natural for me. I had the opportunity to create my own show with Agnes B. when I was 21 just because I used to tag her truck in front of her gallery. So that’s why one of my favourite quotes is, “actions speak louder than words”.

Inside of L’Atlas’ studio in Belleville in the 20th arrondissement

 

About the Author

Fernanda Hinke went from Brazilian fashion marketing entrepreneur in Brazil to Toronto, Canada. And, then Paris. Current focuses are biking, street art and Buddhism. Check her out at mylifeonmybike.com.

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