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Reflections on the multifaceted ‘flower guy’ Michael De Feo

Michael De Feo Flower Guy Goncourt Belleville Oberkampf graffiti - street art paris Brightening up everyone’s lives with flowers at rue Robert Houdin in Paris’ 11th arrondissement.

Words by Jess Zimmerman:

Michael de Feo feels just as much at home getting in trouble with the cops in Amsterdam as he does dishing out the art world jargon. This multifaceted artist —part street, part gallery—manages to walk a fine line between the hoity toity art world and the comparatively unaffected urban scene.

De Feo comes to Paris with a mission he’s repeated literally countless times before: he’s here to paint flowers. This should come as little surprise for an artist working under the moniker “Flower Guy”, and he’s been at it for a mind boggling twenty-two years.

Does this warrant our respect or should we question his mental health? The real question is whether the sight of his now iconic imagery makes him want to hurl his daisies? Fat chance. This New Yorker is staying true to the perennial that brought him fame.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy photo reportage - street art paris De Feo roller paints a new flower at rue Robert Houdin in Paris’ 11th Arrondissement.

With slight modifications that clearly bring this flower-zealot some reprieve in an endless cycle of archetypal reproduction, De Feo creates his blooms with a seemingly obsessive compulsive adherence to detail, precision, and repetition. It’s definitely neurotic, but undeniably prolific and eye catching at the same time.

He may have gained his cred and paid his dues as a characteristically poor art-student scavenging blueprint paper from dumpsters on 17th and Broadway, but this artist has found a comfortable new niche — one that’s peculiarly divided between the gallery and the street, and which brought to light more than one paradox in a whirlwind trip spent putting up work in Paris.

De Feo’s art practice ranges from the illegal to the commercial, making him both a bad boy and a gallerist’s wet dream. It’s no new trend that the fine art world likes to keep a pulse on what’s ‘hot and trendy’, and New York city can indeed boast the first move on bringing graffiti and street art into the gallery world back in the 70’s. But has De Feo lost sight of the rebellious nature and guerrilla mystique that so formed the heart and character of the original movement?

He’s definitely straddling a fine line, flip flopping between two distinct personas. In his own words, he retains an innate penchant for “rattling the status quo, doing something that perhaps shouldn’t be done or isn’t expected, or that somehow is violating something”, but his squeaky clean white converse may reveal otherwise.

It’s one thing to talk the talk, but another to walk the walk, and while De Feo gets up like all the beloved outlaws, writers, and artists out there, his change of clothes, finicky preferences in terms of paint, and distinct ease in the public spotlight, may or may not put him in quite a different camp.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy Belleville - street art parisThe Flower Guy ensures he gets the perfect shade at rue Robert Houdin.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy Canal Saint Martin Belleville graffiti - street art parisMichael De Feo blends his flower with the wall’s pre-existing artwork at Rue Juliette-Dodu, in Paris’ 10th Arrondissement.

Michael De Feo artwork for sale at Rush Arts Gallery New York - street art paris ‘Bloemen (A bedtime story)’, 2014, 53.5 x 40 inches – acrylic, urethane, spray paint and maps on canvas. New indoors work by Michael De Feo exhibited as part of his recent show at Rush Arts Gallery, New York, ‘Pocket Full of Posies’‘.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy Rush Arts Gallery New York flower paintings - street art paris Michael De Feo poses in front of work from his most recent show, ‘Pocket Full of Posies’ at Rush Arts Gallery.

All judgement aside (find me an artist without his quirks, or for that matter, that maintains a firm black and white stance on commercialisation) De Feo embodies a divide much talked about in the street art world these days. Does graffiti become commodity in the gallery? And does this rob it of something? How does a predominantly illegal movement change when it gains social acceptance and is deemed culturally enriching?

Its a mucky grey area with no clear answers, and many distinct opinions. But at the end of the day, De Feo, as both celebrated gallery king, and floral replicator extraordinaire, hasn’t totally lost the plot in terms of his fundamental motivation:

“The intrinsic value isn’t about what happens when you encounter the piece, but what happens afterwards. It opens your eyes, makes you notice your surroundings. When you’re on the usual commute maybe you won’t be so tunnel visioned anymore. Maybe you aren’t looking at street art, you’re looking at anything else in your immediate environment, but regardless things become a lot more engaging”.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy pasted artwork Philadelphia - street art paris Philadelphia.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy mural painting street art - street art paris Painted onto shutters. 

Michael De Feo Flower Guy wheatpasted street art in New York - street art paris Michael De Feo, paste-up, New York.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy wheatpasted street art in New York - street art paris New York. 

San Pedro, Belize - Michael De Feo Flower Guy - street art paris The Flower Guy gets up in San Pedro, Belize.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy wheatpasted New York street art - street art paris Paste-up in San Francisco

Children Museum of the Arts in New York City Michael De Feo Flower Guy - street art paris Children Museum of the Arts in New York City.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy street art in Buenos Aires - street art paris Michael De Feo pastes-up in Buenos Aires. 

Michael De Feo Flower Guy pasted street art in New York - street art parisPaper flower juxtaposed with actual flowers, New York.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy mural painting in Greenwich Connecticut - street art paris Mural painting in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy The London Police street art in Spring Street in New York City - street art paris 11 Spring Street in New York City.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy Saint Remy-de-Provence - street art paris Saint Remy-de-Provence. 

Michael De Feo Flower Guy New York - street art paris New York.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy canals of Venice - street art paris Michael De Feo gets up on the canals of Venice.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy - street art paris - Homage to Caillbotte’s rainy day in Paris is in Tarascon-de-Provence Homage to Caillbotte’s rainy day in Paris is in Tarascon-de-Provence.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy - street art paris Freehand painted flower.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy stickers - street art paris Stuck on flowers: Michael De Feo holds up an iconic flower sticker. Photo by Joe Russo.

Michael De Feo Flower Guy wheatpasted street art in Turks and Caicos - street art parisA flower pasted in its natural habitat in Turks and Caicos.

 

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Listen to Underground Paris interview Michael De Feo on Radio Marais, here.

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MDF’s website, here.

MDF’s Instagram, here.

 

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Jorge Pomar paints at Le MUR

Jorge Pomar art exhibition Paris street art graffiti interview Le MUR OberkampfJorge Pomar uses naive imagery to bring attention to harder issues such as capitalism and the arms trade.

Interview by Jess Zimmerman

Naively painted animals toting guns on a public wall in Paris? Chatting with Argentinian artist Jorge Pomar (AMOR), reveals he experiences little anxiety over the potential clash of such imagery.

In Paris to paint at Le M.U.R., the three by eight metre billboard set aside by the city council for the purpose of promoting urban art, his latest painting is child-like and colourful, but actually serves as a vehicle for a much darker message. You may be drawn in by Pomar’s work at Le M.U.R. with its chipper rays of sunshine, but this mural is certainly no wallflower.

Jorge Pomar art exhibition Paris street art graffiti interview Le MUR Oberkampf

Jorge Pomar art exhibition Paris street art graffiti interview Le MUR OberkampfJorge Pomar is commissioned to paint at the renowned Le M.U.R. space in Paris’ vibrant Oberkampf district in the 11th Arrondissement.

Jorge Pomar art exhibition Paris street art graffiti interview Le MUR OberkampfJorge Pomar painting at Le M.U.R. (detail)

Interview by Jessica Zimmerman:

How did you get started in the world of street art and graffiti?

What motivated me was how easy it is to say things in the street, how simple it is to connect with others. The common space that we all share is the best space to work in. When you want to say something the best way to go about it is to make it in the street, like advertisements.

Jorge Pomar Catálogo de armas Buenos Aires street art graffiti interview Le MUR Oberkampf (4)Catálogo de armas, AMOR, Buenos Aires, 2014.

Is your work put up purposefully to reach people? To convey a specific message?

Yes, these days I often find myself wondering about conveying a message, but the question is what exactly. Should it be something positive? Should it be about change? Or do I just want to draw? I think I’m in between both, because I like both. Maybe it depends on the place and context, as well as the people who are going to see the piece.

My very recent work is all about guns and the business of guns. Nations like France for example produce cars, wine, cheese and guns. It’s another part of the business; they sell guns to every country in the world to kill their people. I can’t find the sense in that. And I definitely don’t like it.

So are you taking a distinct stance on that?

Yes sure, but I don’t know if commenting on it is going to change anything. There’s a chance that by just expressing something about it, or even by just straight up denouncing it, it might change something, but I’m not sure.

In a broader sense, would you say you have one message or one philosophy behind your work?

When I started painting, I started off doing graffiti like everybody else, by which I mean just going tagging. That scene is all about the street aspect, about creating a name. After a couple of months, I realised that there was absolutely no sense in just saying my name, just saying hello. There is no point in just saying, “Jorge Jorge Jorge”, over and over again. I decided I wanted to say something more transcendental, so that’s how I started writing the word Amor, which means love, and which began to open a lot of doors for me. Maybe it’s a little bit ‘cursie’ – a very special word in Spanish – its means lovely, but in a stupid way. Kind of sickly sweet, tacky, or cheesy, but sometimes I just feel like that. Other times I feel that there is a heavier responsibility in writing that name, but I’m comfortable with it. I think it’s important to express whatever you want to say in the street, and if it happens to be positive, then great.

Amor street art Buenos Aires graffiti artist interviewBuenos Aires, 2014.

So now under the name AMOR, you’re painting guns?

Yes, and that’s a big contrast isn’t it? A big difference, but I don’t have any problem with that, because it’s all part of the same language in some way. Guns come from hate and hate is the opposite of love, so I actually feel that it’s very normal. But I see the potential disparity, this guy is painting “LOVE LOVE LOVE”, and it’s not about loving the guns, it’s just the opposite, but I like that contrast.

In my most recent work there are a few specific characters that have evolved around this theme. They are all very innocent and naive animals: bears, lions, all done in pastel colours to give a jardin d’enfantskind of feel. Except of course that they are carrying guns. There is no way an animal can carry a gun, especially not an innocent animal, so I like to use it to create a strange sort of sensibility, an odd little image to make you think about the use of these guns.

León con botas street art Buenos Aires graffiti artist interview“León con botas”, Curuzú Cuatiá, Provincia de Corrientes, Argentina, 2014.Gato con botas street art Buenos Aires graffiti artist interview“Gato con botas”, Argentina, 2014.

I’m glad you brought up the animals, I wanted to ask you about the imagery you use. It ranges from animals, to figurative to more abstract stuff.

This entire year, I’ve been trying to formulate a clear line or statement about the aesthetics of my work. I just try to use these animals, abstractions, geometric shapes, cities, plants, and organic elements to open as many doors as possible. When I’m in front of a new mural I just paint what I feel in the moment, but sometimes it’s better to have a clear line to follow. I think I’m at that moment where I need to locate that line and respect it for a couple of months at least to make a series of works and be more responsible to one subject.

Is there a specific symbolic value behind the images you choose?

Yes sure, of course, actually. It also depends on where and why I’m painting. For instance if I’m working on a commission, I’m not going to paint animals with guns, I’m going to choose something funnier and more innocent, like plants. Everyone loves plants. They can pay me and okay great, bye bye, I’m off. If I’m working on an abandoned wall then I’ll do whatever I’m feeling in the moment. And now it’s animals. Animals with guns.

Clearly context is super important for you.

Sometimes when I do graffiti, just graffiti, I don’t worry too much about the context. It’s just about having fun and marking a territory; about a symbolic presence. It can also be like a logo or a brand, and within that specific context I can utilise the same aesthetic, but it’s always just going to be graffiti, that kind of fun.

You have this whole outdoor practice that is so evolved and so elaborate, and then you have all the work you do on paper, do you see those as two separate practices? Do they inform each other in any way?

I feel that there is a big difference. Again all the subjects are related in some way, but paper is in it’s own sense a separate subject, where I can paint abstract or get into typography, or even start drawing cars from the ’80’s. Maybe there is no sense to it, but a lot of people see connections between my outdoor and indoor work. I don’t see it yet, but I’m essentially trying to make a whole globe out of my stuff.

So it’s a kind of little mini world you’re creating?

Exactly, like a personal one, with a lot of elements, very different, but all within the same world.

Would it be fair to say that between your works on paper and in the street you are creating a personal universe?

That’s exactly it, all the elements, wherever and however they are made, exist in the same reality.

Marfa, Plumas & Amor street art Buenos Aires graffiti artist interview“Marfa”, Plumas & Amor, Buenos Aires, 2013.

Alright, now a totally different question: who inspires you?

There are a lot of artists of course, my friends from Argentina, my crew members, garbage on the street, PixaçaoJoan MiróHorphée, a lot of writers from France.

Children’s books also play a huge role in my work. I love the childlike imagination in all the imagery. Specifically I think the book Moon Man by Tomi Ungerer, the French illustrator, is amazing.

I also look towards Heráldica, which is the study of medieval shields. I’m actually really interested in the middles ages when all families used to have their own shields designed with specific symbolic elements. I find it fascinating, and so mysterious. It was a dark moment in time, all the castles and mystics.

Patricio, 19 pájaros y Mu street art exhibition Buenos Aires graffiti artist interview Underground Paris“Patricio, 19 pájaros y Mukenio”, Plumas & Amor, Buenos Aires, 2014.Amor & Plumas street art Wynwood Walls graffiti artist interviewPlumas & Amor, Wynwood, Miami, 2013.

Can you talk to us a little bit about your publications? There are three separate books, how are they different?

The first was made with my friend Nadia Patrian at Jellyfish, its a publication about magic and mysticism. She selected twenty artists from Argentina, the US and Europe whose work deals with the subject, and from there made a nice big book, very colourful and published in hardcover. I really love the work she did. The second book is a collection of pictures I made with a few friends while taking a photography course led by the Argentinian photographer Guillermo Ueno. The book has no text at all, its just images.

The last book I made with P. Vector Codierer, a very good friend from Berlin who lived in Argentina for some months. He’s a writer, a very good writer. He’s done a lot of work in Germany and Argentina with a very special style, he’s really a very delirious guy, so we decided to make a book about a large mosque in Argentina. We started to develop a concert about Arabic graffiti based on the idea that graffiti is something occidental that comes from the Greek alphabet. You can read it from left to right, but in Arabic you read right to left, and with the lettering, you can’t read it unless you speak the language. We found that difference interesting and decided to physically ground the concept around the mosque.

Jorge Pomar art exhibition Paris street art graffiti interview Le MUR Oberkampf Buenos Aires street artist (28)Jorge Pomar art exhibition Paris street art graffiti interview Le MUR Oberkampf Buenos Aires street artist (25)‘Orientalist’ graffiti zine produced with Berlin-based artist, P. Vector Codierer.

And was it well received? What was the public reaction? 

It was very well received, people were really intrigued by the unfamiliar and it turned into a very strange book indeed. We only made fifty copies of it, so just a few people actually own it. We also made a large presentation to launch it, which was very well attended. People were curious because it was something very delirious, but very serious at the same time. We approached it like a weird job. Its amazing how in the span of a couple of months you can go from having an idea in your head to having the realised version in your hand.

What is the main difference in producing content or work for a book as opposed to the street? 

The main factor is time. Making a book can take a year, maybe more. Creating a mural takes one or two days, maybe a couple of hours, even. Being outside painting is an immediate experience; it’s about living in the moment, while the book is a much slower process.

The idea of making a book of only images also sometimes struck me as odd; it doesn’t always make a lot of sense. I like to write, so I think the dialogue between the text and images, if it’s well done, can be really interesting. Maybe next, I’ll make a mural about these texts with an image added onto the side.

Jorge Pomar art exhibition Paris street art graffiti interview Le MUR Oberkampf Buenos Aires street artist (25)“Where Da Track At”, AMOR.SAMOR street art exhibition Buenos Aires graffiti artist interview Underground Paris“SaMoR”, AMOR and SAM, 2011. SAMOR street art exhibition Buenos Aires graffiti artist interview Underground Paris AMOR Buenos Aires graffiti artist interview

What is your favourite city to work in?

Buenos Aires, because it’s my city and I know it very well. I know where to go, at what time, and how to move. That’s maybe even more important than where to go; it’s all about how to move. Attitude is probably the most important thing in this street world. Buenos Aires is a very relaxed city in that way, there are lots of people who happily receive graffiti and street art, unlike other parts of the world where rules are so strictly imposed.

So you are less afraid of repercussion and getting caught in Buenos Aires?

Nowadays, I’m actually less afraid of getting caught anywhere. Maybe in the US I still feel nervous, just because its rules are so strict. You can easily have a very bad experience. In Buenos Aires is so simple, you can talk to the police like a human being. You can explain what you’re doing. In the US I don’t think you can talk to a police officer because of this stance they have on authority. I understand it, because that’s the kind of society they want, and that’s how they work. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but talking is the best way of communicating, if you can make it happen of course.

Orbita antigua de la luna Amor street art Buenos Aires graffiti artist interviewOrbita antigua de la luna (Old orbit of the moon)”, Buenos Aires, 2014.Naive graffiti street art Brazil by Buenos Aires graffiti artist interview “A verdadeira fortaleza se encontra dentro de nos”, Festival “Concreto”, Fortaleza, Brasil, 2013.

So how would you compare working in Paris to Buenos Aires?

There are a lot of painters here, I think people are maybe getting sick of it? Maybe not sick exactly, but there are so many urban artists that have had such a strong presence here since the 90’s. In Buenos Aires, it’s something newer, so with that freshness you can do whatever you want… well maybe not whatever, but almost. Here, I don’t know, its just a different feel. Maybe you need to ask more, seek permission more often before painting. There are so many rules, and different rules than I’m used to. More bureaucratic I think. Well like in every city, bureaucracy is present everywhere, especially in the kind of movement we are talking about, the painting of public and private space.

I was talking about this yesterday in Atlanta while attending this festival, Living Walls. It was well attended by many artists from around the world, really great artists who go there to paint huge murals. I painted while I was there, but didn’t participate directly. A lot of people like it, but then again a lot don’t. They see it as something very invasive, an encroachment of on the visual panorama. Personally I think that’s stupid because they complain about someone who is just painting a wall and it’s just paint. Maybe right beside the wall, on the corner, there’s a homeless guy, or maybe ten homeless guys asking for money to eat, or to feed their kids, but people just see the paint. They don’t see the poverty, they don’t see the people.

That’s one thing that’s very common now in Buenos Aires, these rich old ladies complain so much when I’m painting in the street, they often call the police. Then the police come and I explain that I have permission and then they immediately leave me be. But the old ladies keep complaining. I just want to say, hey come on man, it’s just paint. Don’t worry about it. Worry about your stuff, your life. Or if you want to complain, use that energy to go buy some rice for that guy who is dying in the street. I think the same situation is happening in every city. I think we are very ignorant, sometimes, very stupid.

So you want to wake people up a little bit?

I honestly don’t know if that’s possible, but I do want to shake them a little bit, if I can. To wake up is very difficult, even I can’t wake up, it’s tough to wake up about certain things. !

So you think we all have a little waking up to do? 

Sure, that’s very sure. I was thinking about all this stuff when I was getting here … the world is really fucked up in a way. I was wondering while on the plane for example, where are all these people going after the airport? Where is all the garbage from this plane going? I mean someone gave me three plastic glasses of water, I just need one, not three. They were throwing away all this shit in a bag. I was wondering how many planes will fly in one day, and how much garbage they will throw away, how many dollars they owe to these companies, I don’t know, we are in a very special moment here in the twenty-first century. War is still here, poverty is still here, difference in still there… individuality, materialism… what’s happening with all these aspects to society? Sometimes I feel worried about it, but then I just forget.

Forget out of pessimism or optimism? 

Sometimes I don’t know if it’s good to forget. Sometimes it’s cool, because you can’t live with that weight, all those thoughts I’m thinking now. That’s when I think I prefer to go to sleep and not to wake up. Maybe I need it, like everybody, unless you are Gandi or Mother Theresa or somebody like that.

So do you think we’re headed towards total implosion and eventually we’re really gonna screw this shit up, or we’ll suddenly realise “hey, we need to make some changes fast”? And then maybe we’ll see a shift for the better?

Well I think about that all the time. I don’t know how it’s going to develop. I think it’s likely it will go in the same w, more consumption, more ignorance. And all for the masses. Maybe some people, artists, pacifists, and specific groups of politicos will start to change a little bit, but I think that the outrage of the people will continue on the same path. I don’t know, I’m just looking at the way we are evolving as a human race. I guess time will tell.

Yes, it’s always like that, time will tell. Time is very sage, very knowing, very wise.

While you are in Paris, are you hoping to get any work done?

Yes, I came here first of all to do Le M.U.R.. Before arriving I contacted a lot of Parisian writers, like Sonic. There are a lot of walls I want to make. In fact, I want to make one wall a day. That’s how it has to be this trip, I’m not here to be a tourist. Not this time, it’s all about work.

Proyecto Tenis, Gomo & Blem & Amor street art exhibition Buenos Aires graffiti artist interview Underground Paris“Proyecto Tenis”, Gomo & Blem & Amor, Buenos Aires, 2010.  Creo & Amor, Buenos Aires street art exhibition graffiti artist interview Underground Paris Creo + Amor, Buenos Aires, 2012.               Amor, Buenos Aires interview “Pixoamor”, AMOR rooftop graffiti in Buenos Aires.

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Visit Jorge Pomar’s website. here.