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C215 finds truth, beauty, and freedom abroad

C215 stencil art Colombo-streets-in-Sri-LankaC215 stencil portrait in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Christian Guémy travels to bring his work to environments that remain virgin and pristine, meaning they haven’t become trendy hubs of street art culture. We discovered that he’s quick to dismiss a few obvious ones, like New York or London, but it’s his criticism of Paris, that really resonates. Calling in from Sri Lanka, we got the straight talk on what drives this artist off the beaten track.

The resentment that has propelled Guémy out of his own city is situated in what he describes as the ‘trendy scene’, where graffiti and street art have been transformed into something fashionable, and who can blame him? Despite the fact that Guémy is no little-league player — he’s certainly been around the block a few times — he stays remarkably faithful to the original sentiments characteristic of May ’68, a date attributed with the birth of street art in Paris:

C215 street art Rome photo copyright c215Rome

In a historic moment of true social upheaval, students and workers went on strike together, unified under a critique of capitalist society and all it unraveled. This subsequently informed a street art movement and a generation of artists concerned with freedom of speech and personal expression.

In this light, Guémy’s global mission to get his intricate stencil work up in cities everywhere brings with it commendable altruistic appeal; his creative drive knows no boundaries, physical or otherwise. His work is passionate and meaningful, not to mention visually stunning, but the real intrigue lies in the intent behind the action.

It’s quickly clear that Guémy isn’t simply bringing his work to new locations, but is actually out spreading the gospel; that is, the almighty street dogma of personal virtue and integrity. In a constant rejection of the potential corruption that commercial success may entail, this artist seeks new territory in an effort to stay true to the art form, and to his unshakable sense of self.

The word C215 repeats the most is ‘freedom’, which, if psychoanalysis has anything to tell us, is suggestive of at least some level of personal complex:

His constant preoccupation with those he never blatantly labels as sell-outs or fashion-victims (and yet the implication is clear) suggests an inner tension. Especially when indirectly pitted against his own projected cred— “this is a lifestyle, fashion or not”… “some say I’m fashionable, some say I’m not, personally I don’t care” — C215 reveals a vulnerable underbelly, perhaps denoting a struggle with similar issues.

The question at hand though is whether this hang-up on ‘freedom’ has to do with a perceived insufficiency-of or a carousal-in.

c215 street art haiti Photo: copyright c215Haiti

This determination to remain free from constraint or imposition is the result of a calamity that is currently running deep in street and graffiti culture. Artists increasingly gain fame and success through institutional recognition, as opposed to overcoming the realities of creating (illegal) art in the streets. As a tribulation that is clearly here to stay, this happening represents a delicate area for artists like C215.

When questioned about the personal versus commercial nature of his work, Guémy is visibly irritated: at first he quickly snips “this isn’t advertising” defending the candor of his work, and revealing how close the association between commercial success and total implosion is for him. But in the next breath, perhaps realizing the futility of denying the list of gallery exhibitions and painting sales trailing his name, he suddenly becomes reflective, gently acknowledging this contradiction with the quiet concession, “we all have a job”.

In the headstrong and yet impulsively wavering nature that I have come to assume are simply part of Guémy’s character, he quickly retracts any inadvertent admission, drastically switching his tone and returning to the critical stance he holds against those who are “all about the exposure”. Not surprisingly he goes back to throwing some serious shade on the cities that, in his own words, have since lost their potential for any real experimentation. He underscores the fact that he is currently half-way across the globe, in an effort to live and work by his principles.

C215 street art Tunisia Djerbahood - Galerie Itinerrance - Photo: copyright 2014 C215Djerbahood, Tunisia

Guémy’s main issue and concern is that the spirit of his work remain ‘true’, by which he insinuates free from commercial, spectacle, or otherwise generally frowned-upon sanctioning. He is rebelling against an invisible compromising force, embodied (at least for him) in the ever-increasing popularity of the movement. Freedom to Guémy clearly means total individualism.

In a last attempt at poking the bear, I questioned Guémy about his use of social media and received a response that again, embodies a fascinating adherence to a morally-guided personal vocation combined with some clear inner tension.

Guémy’s nearly 400,000 likes on Facebook do not suggest an artist on the fringes, deeply antagonistic to society— an image it seems his self-concept is tempted to put-forth, but he does hold a truly unique ideology in terms of his digital exposure:

“I don’t think you can separate street art from the internet. I take a picture from reality and then transform it into a stencil, but it always retains it’s virtual roots. But then the painting itself is real, but then it gets photographed and returns to the digital. Its a constant transformative process. It feeds into itself, it’s cyclical. It’s all about sampling and looping, sampling and looping”.

C215 India street art Delhi photo: copyright C215Delhi

For Guémy, social media is his primary method of outreach, but it also acts as a way to expand the viewable base of his work (see his carefully curated and organized Flickr, a true work of art in itself). He emphasizes that it’s also a method of maintaining his integrity. In the sense that his social media remains autonomous and fully controlled by Guémy himself, it’s indisputable that any disseminated message remains his own; “this isn’t Shorditch, its not just a matter of hype.”

Guémy contrasts his social media following with blogs and journals where “you end up working for an end that isn’t even your own”, associating this external source of media validation with a distinct risk: “what happens if they decide you aren’t It anymore? If they boycott you? I don’t ever want to be dependent on any establishment or institution. I want to stay myself, and never loose my dignity to being fashionable.”

It’s clear that C215 acknowledges the conditions that characterize the scene today and chooses distinctly to remain unassociated, preferring instead the conditions he finds in areas like Sri Lanka. Whether this continues to make him an innovator or a deserter is up for debate, but regardless one thing remains true: he’s not compromising diddly-squat while he’s at it.

C215 street art Paris Photo: copyright 2012 Demian SmithVitry-sur-Seine, Paris

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Interview with C215 aka Christian Guemy

C215 Paris Vitry-sur-Seine Street Art Photo: copyright 2012

Tell us a little about your artistic background and how you go into street art.

I haven’t had a formal artistic education, but my natural mother drew and left me her materials after she died at the age of 18. My grandmother drove me to reuse her materials and I would draw every Sunday at her place. This was when I was six, and I also used to draw a lot at school for fun – things like comics for the school journal and caricatures of kids and teachers. When I was fourteen, my uncle commissioned me to write Midnight Dreams in the NYC graffiti writers’ style, which was also around the time I first tried using spraypaint.

I’ve got a master’s degree in art history from the Sorbonne, about Franz Marc and Romanticism, and another master’s degree from CNRS, about XVIIth century religious theory of architecture and painting, but I’ve never been to art school, I’ve never taught or studied fine art.

C215 Paris Street Art Vitry-sur-Seine Photo: copyright 2012

Where and when did you put up your first street piece and how did your style develop?

It was of a colourful portrait of Ava, the mother of my daughter, Nina, in 2006, which I’d already made, without a computer.

Your friends and family are featured in many of your pieces. How do you go about selecting your subjects? Are they all people you know and what is the process to get your work onto the street?

This is a very natural process – I don’t believe that much in ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’, and when I think about my future, I want to remember my feelings and the people I met, so most of my recent works are based on pictures I took during my trips, pictures from my life, representing people that I loved. I am also working with friends like Jeremy Gibbs and Jon Cartwright. I think the most important thing in life is friendship.

C215 Paris Street Art Vitry-sur-Seine Photo: copyright 2012

How do you choose which walls to paint on?  Do you prefer certain contexts over others?

It depends on the stencils I‘ve been preparing. I used to prepare my stencils and my colours according to the places I visit. After that I try to interact and make my works blend as much as possible into the environment.

Tell us about some of the reactions that people have had to your work on the street.

Most of them are nice, but it does occasionally happen that someone will have a stupid reaction. I remember once in Marseille a very bad feeling: a family of Arabic people began abusing the friend with whom I was painting because she was Italian. This happens, but rarely. Most of the time people come and check what I’m doing and are surprised, and then compare it to writing and love it.

C215 Paris Street Art Vitry-sur-Seine Photo: copyright 2012

You live in Vitry-sur-Seine in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris, which is covered by your work and the work of several other well-known street artists including Roa, Jimmy C, Nunca and Pixel Pancho. What has been your role in making Vitry a street art ‘destination’?

I don’t know, it has also been very natural, just inviting friends of mine to paint in my area, with neighbours and city institutions providing walls. No sponsor, no project, no flyer – just artists working, relaxed in the streets. This is the good side of not being in Paris, intra-muros.

C215 Paris Street Art Vitry-sur-Seine Photo: copyright 2012

Having travelled extensively presenting your art in cities around the world, where did you have the best and worst experiences?

It has been great to paint all over the world and I’ve had mainly good experiences, and just a few negative ones. I especially like to go painting in places that are not yet familiar with street art.

C215 Paris Street Art Vitry-sur-Seine Photo: copyright 2012Photo: C215

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced while putting up a piece?

I think it was great to paint a copy of Caravaggio’s Medusa in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, during the anniversary of the Carabinieri: hundreds of cops busy with a ceremony. I did it, as I did many other stupid risky paintings in the last few years.

C215 Paris Street Art Vitry-sur-Seine Photo: copyright 2012 Demian Smith

How does the street art scene in Paris and the surrounding arrondissements compare to that in the other cities?

Paris gave birth to street art, as New York gave birth to graffiti, and I guess in future Paris will be involved in this movement in a big way, like no other city in the world.

Where in else in the world would you like to put up pieces?

I want to go to South Africa quite soon as well as a few other exotic destinations.

C215 Paris Street Art Vitry-sur-Seine Photo: copyright 2012 Demian Smith

Tell us about your latest exhibition that is taking place in the XVIIth century Saint-Louis de la Salpêtrière church in Paris,“Prophètes”.

Basically I’ve been transferring my main kids’ portraits into religious icons, and placing them in a church, as ecumenical symbols.

My art is anthropocentric and I believe every person is a cosmos, with a certain divinity. I want to give this through my art as a symbol of a new iconology. Instead of old classical religious icons, I selected kids’ faces as an ecumenical symbol of faith and hope.

Stained glass is a new medium to me and follows from, firstly, painting white on dark surfaces, and then, my exploration of colour. This is the first time I’ve tried exploring light as a medium; although, the stencil allows light to pass through it.

Light is also linked to religion, however, for the people who would have a certain inhibition to visit an exhibition taking place in a Christian church, they can still visit the light box which will be displayed outside the church, on the wall of the City Hall of the 13th arrondissement of Paris, creating a “universal” space, which acts in a different way from the religious space of the church. Maybe for me, as a street artist, it is even more important to see the reception of this one piece, than the rest of the light boxes that will be inside the church. Every night, along with the city lights, the light box will be turned on.

C215 Paris Street Art Vitry-sur-Seine Photo: copyright 2012

You have said that the exhibition is “a call for religious tolerance and ecumenism”, and many of your street pieces carry the slogan, “MAKE ART NOT WAR”. What role should politics play in urban art?

Painting in the street is already a political act, because it helps to fight against standardization. You can have a more specific message, but for me “Making Art” in the streets is already something

C215 Paris Street Art Vitry-sur-Seine Photo: copyright 2012

What do you think is the importance of street art?

Street art is as important now as was Rock ‘n’ Roll in the 1950′s. So, it’s just the beginning, and it will change the world.

C215 Paris Street Art Vitry-sur-Seine Photo: copyright 2012

What are your plans for 2012?

Being happy, travelling as much as I can with my daughter and to enjoy life.

C215-Christian-Guemy-credit-photo-agnes-gautierPhoto: copyright Agnes Gautier

C215’s latest exhibition “Prophètes”, organised by Galerie Itinerrance, opens on 22nd March 2012 at 6pm at the XVIIth Century consecrated Parisian church Saint-Louis de la Salpêtrière:

Chapelle Saint-Louis, Pitié-Salpêtrière
47 Boulevard de l’Hopital, 75013

C215 Paris Street Art Photo: copyright 2012