The United Nations climate conference, or COP21, has been happening in Paris, and meanwhile, London-based artist and muralist, Louis Masai, has been here promoting consciousness on the degradation of our coral reefs by painting beautiful coral hearts inside Montparnasse station and on walls in the 11th and 10th arrondissements. We’ve been out in the streets documenting his production and interviewing him on his practice.
Detail of one of Louis Masai’s spraypainted coral reef hearts at Rue Saint-Maur in the 11th arrondissement.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you became an artist.
Well I guess the cliche of ‘I was never good at anything else at school’ is how it all started. That combined with the fact that my parents were art school sweethearts meant I was born with artists’ genes flowing through my bloodline. Actually, the vast majority of my family are creatives, so the cliche must have context in there somewhere. But, ultimately whilst living in cornwall for ten years, minus the four years spent studying fine art, I became fed up of being a big fish in a small pond and so plunged deep into the depths of London, which is where I’m based now, working half the year in the studio, and the rest, painting outside around the world.
Does one become an artist, I’m not so sure, I think that ultimately its either within you, or not. I’d agree that one can get better at being an artist, and the survival game can get easier or harder, but just because you can paint, draw or create doesn’t make you an artist; being an artist for me is about lifestyle and accepting that your addicted to it. I get grumpy if I don’t create for more than a day or two, and I can definitely bore the tears out of someone that doesn’t love art as much as me, by talking about how important it is to society.
What inspired you to start painting images from the natural environment?
I guess it’s harder to run out of ideas when you create directly from what interests you. For me its the natural environment. I’ve always admired wildlife and the softness of nature, so as I’ve grown older my desires to encourage other people to reflect upon the natural environment has taken a heightened interest for me. I feel like it would be strange if that was not reflected through my art. I feel like visual images can be used as a way to provide a voice to the unheard and so my art is that communication for endangered species.
What inspired your recent trip to Paris, and why are all your paintings of coral?
For the past twelve months or so I’ve been working alongside an amazing environmental agency called Synchronicity Earth. The first project was called This Is Now, for which we created a short film about British wildlife, highlighting invasive, endangered, and extinct species.
This is Now, a short film chronicling the production of a series of Louis’ community-based paintings by filmmaker, Toby Madden
The current project is about coral reef decline. The idea behind the project is to both spread awareness of the present reef situation but also to support regeneration of corals. The first stage is crowd funding where by we are currently editing the film that documents the mural I painted in Shoreditch in East London in October. That film will encourage investors to support the redevelopment of reefs around the world via Synchronicity Earth’s coral campaign. The campaign will also gateway for me to create more murals around the world which will raise awareness for corals and encourage more people to be environmentally aware of the damaging effects that we have upon the oceans. The most important factor to remind everyone about is that CO2 emissions are destroying oceanic life, and if the ocean temperature rises the reef will die.
The reef is a living biodiversity that not only protects the earth from flooding but will also be the first step of a domino effect that could destroy the planet’s sustainability forever. That’s a scary prospect and I don’t think many people are aware of it. In fact, it still amazes me how many people think coral is a plant instead of an animal.
Mural painted in Shoreditch, London by Louis Masai as part of Synchronicity Earth’s coral campaign
So, that first London mural, in the centre there’s a hollow heart shape. The overall coral formation is a padlock and the heart shape in the centre is the keyhole. The keys are now being painted around the world as heart-shaped corals. These are what I’ve been painting in Paris, the keys are symbolic of the need to unlock the heart of the situation by joining together and tackling the threats faced by it. It’s definitely a very flowery artists perception of how to enlighten a critical situation, but I hope it’s one that can unite people globally to take a little more action in researching how to actively reduce their own carbon footprints, if you want to pursue that investigation watch the film Cowspiracy on Netflix.
The reason I was in Paris last week was because whilst I was there the United Nations conference on climate change, COP21, started. I’m creating a film about this trip juxtaposing the City of Love in a heartbroken state with me painting coral hearts to hopefully raise some thoughts about the oceans.
Coral adorned with a #LOVECORAL hashtag at Rue de la Fontaine au Roi in Paris’ 11th arrondissement. Photo: Louis Masai
You add hashtags to a lot of your murals to try and create online support for this and other environmental causes. Does this strategy impact the purity of the artwork itself in your opinion?
Well, I’ll reckon with you, I personally loath social media and all the paraphernalia that adorns it, however I also recognise the importance it holds, both for me as an artist and as someone who wants to spread awareness on the environment. I use it to my advantage as best I can: hashtags have become a well-known way to collect images, data and thoughts from all different social media outlets.
Hashtags neatly organise this information for people around the world to stumble upon. Unfortunately, not everyone follows the same thought processes as each other and so I try and encourage viewers to follow a ‘yellow brick road’ and in this instance it’s #LOVECORAL. I write the tags on the walls with my paintings to lay the foundations for the brick road, and they work. I don’t always adorn hashtags to my work but in cases like the corals I feel it’s relevant. On other occasions, I write messages or statistics, and although it might make the painting become an advert for my cause, I’m okay with that because it’s promoting a higher level of consciousness, and if I can seed consciousness then my art achieves far more than just being a pretty picture that brightened up a dingy street corner. I guess this is why people will title my style of work as ‘activism’, but for me its just a modern way of shepherding people’s thoughts and movements.
In my opinion, painting on small walls functions as an advertising tool for an artist and it’s only when the wall is large that it becomes a mural of some sort. I feel that the majority of my work is not just an advert for what I do on canvasses, but also an advert to raise awareness. If the hashtag or statistic written in conjunction to the wall painting becomes visually un-aiding to the image’s purity, I’m okay with that because my studio work doesn’t have those issues and holds 100 per cent purity.
I also think as a whole viewers become far too precious of art outside; paintings have shelf lives outside and more often than not the artist accepts that more than the fans. If, as a viewer, you are disturbed by an impurity of visual language then I think you need to let go of it and remember control is for art indoors.
What is the difference between what you paint in the streets and the work you sell?
Both deal with the same issues of species awareness. Indoors I work with brushes on reclaimed wood and selvedge paper and fine-tip pens. Recently, I have also started sculpting with resin and toys. Outside, I’m using spray paint.
I can’t achieve identical qualities from one medium to the next, so obviously there is a difference between the two outlets for the image. What I do notice, though, is that each style informs the next, whereby I’d like to be able to do exactly the same with both mediums, so we will see what happens in the future.
I guess the other difference is, as I said earlier, when I paint outside I’m advertising and in the studio I’m not – I’m creating decorations for the home.
Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis and Rue de la Fidélité
Rue de la Fidélité in Paris’ 10th arrondissement
What goes through your mind when you paint in the streets and how do you feel about your work being painted over or removed?
When creating a painting, the course of time, from start to finish, encompasses many different thought processes. I feel extremely passionate about what I paint, so there is a lot of sentiment and emotion that goes into each painting. Usually, I listen to music when I paint also. This provides another creative level which I find hard to salvage from other sources as it enables me to concentrate with individual moments during the piece. I actually didn’t listen to much music whilst in Paris. I think i did this intentionally to feel the emotion from the city itself more. Ultimately, painting is my meditation and I become totally self-absorbed and free from my own personal issues.
If i get painted over I actually really don’t care anymore, it used to upset me, but these days I just accept it as a part of the way that humans treat their surroundings. When my paintings get wiped out it acts as a metaphor for the actual animal being endangered – here today gone tomorrow.
Please can you tell us a bit about your plans for 2016.
I have a few group shows already penciled in and I potentially have an international solo in the talks. I will paint more walls around London and I’m working on a USA tour for end of 2016.