Interview with French abstract graffiti artist Nelio

by The Alternative Parisian on July 2, 2014

Nelio street artist paints Le M.U.R. XIII, Paris 13th Arrondissement graffiti mural wall

Nelio had been staying in Buenos Aires for five months prior to painting on the Seine’s Left Bank at Le M.U.R. XIII, pictured above, learning Spanish, collaborating with local artists, and avoiding the north European freeze.

Here’s an in-depth interview made with him in the Argentinian capital, which sheds light on his development as one of France’s leading post-graffiti artists.

Thanks to Kasey Kinsella for her assistance with the interview.

What’s your background as an artist?

I’ve always loved to draw, but when I was 13 my cousin introduced me to graffiti and my interest spiked; when I was14, I began to design t-shirts, and learned screenprinting, a technique that still influences my painting, in the way it relies upon a few selected flat colours.

Playing with letters, shapes and colours, led me to graphic design, which I studied for a while at a school, and quickly began working as a freelance graphic designer. Illustration, photography and painting for me came later.

After one year studying, my desire to travel and be independent led me to quit my studies, and I went to sunny Australia to learn English instead. While there, through encountering other young artists, I realised that it was possible for me to survive by painting. I also saw that community and institutional support for the arts in Australia was much stronger than in France. I gained confidence, and at the same time became more interested in the purpose of my graffiti and in not just writing my name. I started to think about the message and to be more aware of my art’s presence.

When did that transition from writing letters to creating a message begin? 

At some point in 2004 to 2005, I had a body of work that was all imbricated characters, with strong links between them, the eyes of one was the mouth of the other, for example. It was the first time that I was happy with the message, and it was when I felt ready to start sharing my work with others and making it public. Before this point, I mostly used to paint in abandoned spaces, and alongside highways.

Nelio with Carlos Paz graffiti in Argentina. Photo copyright Nelio 2014

Nelio, Carlos Paz, Argentina, 2014. Photo by Nelio.

(Top) Nelio paints at Le M.U.R. XIII, 2014. Photo by Nelio

Your first experience painting outdoors was at abandoned spaces, rather than tagging in the streets?

Yes, I grew up in a very small town, without buildings but only houses – not the best for tagging. Also I liked the atmosphere of abandoned spaces, somehow apart from the real world. A good place to practice.It was only when I moved to a bigger city and felt more confident about my paintings that I started to do it in the streets. Tagging then became a drug; I was addicted to graffiti.

With this new way of painting, this new feeling, it was more interesting for me to paint purely for the action, more than for the result; it changed my approach to painting; when I go into abandoned places or I get commissioned to do murals, I can spend a few hours, a whole day or even a few days on a painting, sometimes, because I want to do my best. But getting back out into the streets is really exciting, the quickness is like a sport, a dance. I need it.

The first pieces I did in abandoned factories were in 1998, and I became more active with street graffiti in 2005.Whereas, before I was apprehensive to offend the public, I began to care less. When I began working in the street was when I developed the capacity to be able to say or express what was inside of me to the public.

If people get angry, my understanding is now that it’s just paint on a wall, and so not a big deal. I think that the streets should be for everyone and it’s better to have colours, shapes, and letters, than just grey walls or advertising, but I still have respect for certain spots. Even if it’s not my main priority when I go bombing, I am often trying to make a place look better, nicer than before. However, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and some people will never like illegal paintings.

Nelio street art in Moscow Russia 2013 graffiti artist interview

Nelio, Moscow, 2013. Photo by Nelio.

Tell us a little about the development of your present art practice.

What I’m doing now is just a part of the evolution of my early paintings. It’s still connected with the characters that I spoke about before. But it has evolved, and I hope that in five years it will still be linked with my actual work but completely different, too.

I have mostly been influenced by my graphic design experience. I loved to create logos, to communicate an idea or a message in one simple image. This what I’ve been trying to do with my paintings. However, painting on walls is different to painting on paper or canvas. You have to deal with existing elements. So, architecture had an important influence on my artwork, which is one of the reasons for progressively introducing geometric elements into my paintings. Very often, I integrate a shape that represents a brick, but I’ll mutate it. The symbol itself, though, represents my conversation with the space where I’m painting.

For a long time, I needed to be able to articulate why I painted a certain image. I didn’t feel comfortable working with abstraction. But, now I’m starting to be more confident with it. Abstraction is really powerful, you force people to use their imagination to apply meaning to unusual subject matter. It’s easier to touch people with Pop Art, or by painting a face, because they know what it is the second they see it. Abstract art requires interacting with the unfamiliar, to leave what you know behind. It’s more about feelings and emotions.

With regards my art training, I’m an autodidact so there is a lots of stuff I do wrong. For a long time, I was following rules I set for myself. It was like my own Lego game. There were certain shapes I needed to incorporate, steps I had to follow. At a certain point I’d created my own visual language. I knew that I would never be stuck, that the possibilities are endless to make each artwork connected, but different. But, at the same time, I want to integrate into my works more power, rawness and spontaneity. This ambition comes, perhaps, from being bored by my own rules and wanting to grow. I also want to incorporate the atmosphere of abandoned spaces into my work, texture created from the passing of time; natural elements that grow on and around the wall. And, not only with texture but also with shapes. When you have a wall that is falling down, there are random lines that form, energetic, organic. I’m trying to integrate these elements into my painting. I hope that in a few years, I will be able to create a personal balance between pure geometric forms and random, organic shapes. It might change on the way, but this is the direction I’m heading now. I just go step by step.

Nelio Xuan Alyfe Somao Spain 2013 street artist interview graffiti. Photo copyright Nelio

Nelio & Xuan Alyfe collaboration, Somao, Spain 2013

Please tell us the names of any artists whose work has played influenced on your practice.

In terms of classical artists, I have been really interested by the work of painters like Miro, Kandinsky, Vasarely, Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, Malevitch, El lissitzky, and many others. I also love the installations of Kurt Schwitters and Gordon Matta Clark.

There are a lot of contemporary artists that are doing great work. But the first one who had a strong influence on me was Eltono. About ten years ago, he made me want to experiment with minimalism. Before him I would completely fill the page. If I made a mistake, I could always hide it with the global composition. But then I realised it was more challenging, interesting and powerful to make something pure and minimal. You have no room for mistakes.

Remed is another big influence. He’s one of the best, because his minimal and geometric forms never lack a strong message.

These two guys were for a long time my biggest influences. However, during the past few years, I’ve discovered the work of the two geniuses, 108 and Momo.

Concerning graffiti, I really like the work being produced at the moment by ErosieOutsiderEditorDjobXvlfBiletosAbcdefRoyerFridaTomekNoteen. These artists are great in terms of minimalist lettering, expressionism and faux-naivety. I love the power of their paintings. It’s really inspiring.

And because I love to collaborate with other painters, friends who have influenced certain paintings include ThtfGeometric BangAlexey LukaRubinDrypnzXuan Alyfe, and many others.

However, one notable recent influence on my work has been Duncan Passmore (see below). He is also really good friend. At first it was really hard to paint together because we have completely different styles. We had to try and adapt to each other, but by doing this we found new directions in our work. It’s always good fun to paint with him. He opened something in my mind on how I was always following rules. Because of him, I’ve learned a bit how to let go, to just go crazy and not necessarily be sure of the results.

Mural by Duncan Passmore, Nelio, Reek, Thtf & Blo in Lyon street artist interview. Photo copyright Nelio 2013 Duncan Passmore, Nelio, Reek, Thtf & Blo collaboration, Lyon, 2013. Photo by Nelio. (Click image to enlarge).

Nelio & Mart graffiti in Buenos Aires street artist interview. Photo copyright Nelio 2014
Nelio & Mart collaboration in Buenos Aires, 2014. Photo by Nelio
Nelio & Amor graffiti in Buenos Aires street artist interview. Photo copyright Nelio 2014

Nelio & Amor cllaboration in Buenos Aires, 2014. Photo by Nelio. (Click image to enlarge). 

We met in Buenos Aires by chance, where you lived for five months this past winter. Tell us your experience of painting in the streets of this extraordinary city.

The people there are really friendly about painting the streets. Even the police don’t really care. I painted an illegal wall with Cisco, a friend visiting from Panama, and a policeman came to tell us to stop because a neighbour called the police. He was really cool, so we get cheeky and asked him if we could finish the piece with 5-10 min more. He told us that for him he didn’t really care, but because the neighbour was probably watching he didn’t want to get in trouble, so he told us to come back later to finish. Except a few grumpy neighbours, or passers by, the feedback is often positive. People here see it more as art or a gift to the community, rather than vandalism. I guess this is because they already have a relationship with wall painting through the legacy of the Latin American muralist movement.

How does Bs As compare to Paris in terms of painting outdoors? 

In Buenos Aires, it’s easier to get permission to paint what you want. If you ask first, in most cases the owner will happily let you paint his walls. It’s very different in France, where the owner will prefer his wall “clean”. I can understand when it’s about a very old and authentic building, but still I don’t understand the neighbour who makes trouble when dirty walls are painted that aren’t even their property. I guess there are conservative people everywhere, but for sure, in Argentina it’s more chill to paint than in France.

Tell us what led you to live in Buenos Aires for five months.

The first time I thought to come here was in 2007, while I was in Australia. I wanted to keep traveling because I was learning so much from it. In Australia, I thought I’d have to find a part-time to pay for the basics, but finally I managed to survive nine months with just the money I’d saved in France, and from a little bit of art commission work during the last four months of my stay. Without a job, I was always free to paint, meeting other artists, going to exhibitions. It was great. I wanted to keep up with this kind of experience and learn another language. At the time, I don’t remember why exactly, but I had in mind an image of Buenos Aires, as even crazier and more relaxed than Australia. I wanted to go, but at that time I didn’t have enough money to buy a flight. Every year I wanted to make the trip but I had to keep on postponing it. Sometimes I didn’t have the money for the flight, sometimes I had important projects planned in Europe.

How does Buenos Aires compare to the way you imagined it? How has that inspired your painting?

The atmosphere is similar to how I’d imagined it. I’ve met and painted and made friends with a lot of great artists, like, PoetaMartRomaGualichoElian and Amor. The collaborations will make a mark on my future paintings. Often, when I travel I’m more inspired by people I meet, and the atmosphere of some specific place than the country or the city as a whole. As I’m generally an optimistic person, I can always find the good things, and then focus more on them, without thinking too much about the bad things. And my work is probably a reflection of that, trying to improve spaces with a positive message.

Nelio - Paris 2013 - street artist interview graffiti in Paris - Photo copyright Nelio

Nelio, Paris, 2013. Photo by Nelio.

How do you see your work in relation to the term “graffuturism”, which aims to capture the style of post-graffiti made by you and many of the artists you’ve mentioned?

Graffuturism is a term that tries to classify a group of artists. As I’ve never felt like I was a proper graffiti writer nor a street artist, rather just a guy creating stuff, I don’t feel comfortable with an “etiquette” that places me in a specific category. But, I like most of the work of the other artists associated with this movement, and there is a nice energy around it, so I don’t mind to be a part, and was really happy to take part in the Graffuturism exhibition that was exposed  in Paris and San Francisco.

I think the link between us is that we all come from graffiti. Ultimately, we probably all started to play with letters and experienced the same energy of painting in the streets. Over the years our work has evolved, and we are all approaching our subject differently, but still dividing our time between the street and the studio. The more you work in the studio, where you have more time than in the street, the more you can develop your style, your ideas, and experiment with different media and techniques. This then shows in your street work. Painting on walls can also influence your studio work, so I guess it’s the dialogue between street and studio work that makes this group of artists specific.

For example, the Cubist school was comprised of participating artists whom were often following a very specific style and using a similar technique. With Graffuturism it’s a bit different, as if you show a person the works of two “graffuturist artists” a priori, it’s possible that they’ll see no connection. It’s not as much visual, it’s more about the energy, the mentality and the production process. Graffuturism is a vague term, because, for example, concerning my personal style, I feel it’s closer to Constructivism.

However, I think Graffuturism also presents an opportunity to introduce art criticism into graffiti and street art. Although Graffuturism is not actually graffiti, because it exists also in a gallery, it can be another reason for the existence of this term, to try to name an art form that is derived from graffiti but that has evolved into a hybrid, present both  in public space and galleries.

Nelio - Santiago de Chile 2014 street artist interview graffiti in Chile South America. Photo copyright Nelio

Nelio, Santiago de Chile, 2014.

Nelio street art in Lyon 2013 graffiti artist interview - Photo copyright Nelio

Nelio, Lyon, 2013. Photo by Nelio.

Nelio Valparaiso, Chile 2014 street artist interview graffiti in South America. Photo copyright Nelio

Nelio, Valparaiso, Chile, 2014. Photo by Nelio.

There lacks a critical discourse on street art and graffiti, especially when compared to coverage given to contemporary art. Why do think this is?

Probably because street art is not institutionalised and is often made by self-taught artists, so it’s not taken seriously. Another reason could be that it’s still considered as a new movement. It might need time before critics can understand what is happening. Other traditional and classical art forms have a long and rich history which allow both artists and critics to study it and develop an intellectual approach. Street art is a little bit out of control, most of the artists in this movement didn’t study art, so there is a lot of fresh air in their actions, but also probably a lack of awareness about classical art.

Most institutional contemporary art now is way more elitist and speak for a very limited audience, which is the opposite for street art. It directly touches the people; they don’t need to go to a museum, be shown by a parent or a teacher to have access to it. I think that a lot of apprentice journalists, who started reporting on graffiti, did it because they where confronted by it everyday and find it interesting to share, and then started to get passionate about it. It’s like me; I am an apprentice artist, I started with graffiti. I didn’t study art but I’m evolving step by step. I think all these new journalists are similar, amateur photographers, too. They take photographs because they like it, and the more they do it, the more interested they become in taking better photos.

At the moment street art is like a ‘hot fashion’, a lot of webzines and blogs post photos of it every day. But there aren’t many that go much deeper than that. There are only a few blogs and magazines that make an effort, to not only post photos, but try to speak about the art, try to spark debate and discussion about the work. RJ at Vandalog, for example, often gives his opinion and seeks to create a debate. Gorgo, an Italian website, always describes the work it publishes. But these are isolated examples, it’s kind of new in this field. Rebel Art have a selection more oriented on conceptual street work, that’s interesting too.And many other magazines make reports or interviews, that help outsiders to understand the genre more and give them the possibility to analyse and criticise.

For the moment traditional art media outlets are not covering street art, or when they do, they often reduce everything to Banksy. They may be starting to investigate more, but maybe they don’t feel that this is their field, I don’t know.What I see though, is that there is an alternative media growing up at the same time as the art movement itself.

Nelio Argentina street art in Cordoba. Photo copyright Nelio 2014

Nelio, Cordoba, Argentina, 2014. Photo by Nelio.

Vandalog blogeditor-in-chief, Michael ‘RJ’ Rushmore, has published an in-depth study on the interrelationship between street art and the internet, Viral Art (free e-book). What is the relevance of the internet to your work as an artist, and as a professional?

I don’t use the internet as a medium for making artwork, although I’ve thought of some possibilities. For the moment, I use it mostly to share my work and be in contact with other artists. This could change in the future, but for now I’m more focused on creating artworks that you can see in real life, that you can touch. I feel often more like an artisan than an artist.

But the internet is interesting for showing my work to a large audience. People won’t see most of my paintings in real world, either because they’re hidden in abandoned areas, or because they’ll be buffed shortly after I get them up. With the internet the paintings are no longer ephemeral.

Professionally, the internet is a really good tool because it offers me the freedom to work independently. It’s how I receive job offers. Before the Internet, I imagine that it would have been harder for an artist to sell work. Especially if, like me, you don’t like the commercial part of this career, and promoting yourself. Putting my stuff on the internet enabled me to avoid all of that.

When I was younger, I worried a lot about my future, hesitating about what to chose as a job: something I like that would give me security, or something I love, but that is financially uncertain. Society teaches you to get a real job, save money, buy a house and to do all of those other things that will help to keep you in a comfort zone. But with my numerous travels and meetings with other people, I discovered another way of thinking and living. I learned that’s it’s always when you take risks that your world expands. The more you confront yourself with new experiences, the less fear you have, and you can move forward. At the moment it’s important for my lifestyle but also for my artwork. I need to experiment and always think about new directions to head.

Collaborative works are great for that, for me this is my education, in the street with other artists. You can learn a lot if you try to understand and complement the work of the artist with whom you are collaborating. Specifically, if the artist comes from an other country, another culture. What is interesting with graffiti is that it’s a big family. Everywhere you travel you can connect easily with other artists. And of course the internet made it even easier. You can discover the work of an artist living in an opposite part of the world and be in touch with him. The world becomes smaller, and sources of inspiration expand.

Nelio urban artwork in Arrabida Portugal street art interview. Photo copyright Nelio 2013

Nelio, Arrabida, Portugal, 2013. Photo by Nelio.


Check out Nelio’s website.

Check out Nelio’s Flickr.

Check out Nelio’s Tumblr.

About the Author

The Alternative Parisian - part street artist, part photojournalist, part chickpea.

  • Abstractart Lesson

    graffiti art is itself a radical movement. Nice interview.

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