He told me that it’s in making his art that he’s most happy. The brighter, more complex and interesting he can make, then the better. He specifically says he isn't interested in making art that a person can look at just once, quickly, and then understand all sides to it. Instead he prefers to make work that takes some time to understand, a lengthy viewing, or more than one viewing, and that has a message behind it.
We went to visit Epsylon and see his art studio, where he makes his stencils and also creates pieces on many other mediums, such as canvas, board, glass, and even furniture. Through this meeting and discussion I was able to get a really good grasp on his views, passions and style of artwork, which I’m happy to now share with you.
Question 1: I asked Epsylon where his inspiration to create street art came from.
Response 1: "I used to do performance art instead as I wasn’t much happy painting on canvas. One day prior to a performance I was going to do I realized I wanted a white wall for it. So I got a can of white spray paint and began to paint that wall. In that moment it was like lightening had struck me. I really had an epiphany with the spray paint, because I don’t like brush painting as much. I discovered the spray paint, and it was really eye-opening. For me painting on the wall with spray paint is a type of performance art, and I use my body to make it such."
Question 2: So doing street art is like a performance art to you?
Response 2: "Yes, exactly! That’s why I don’t have a problem painting in front of people. I’ll be painting but not paying any attention to what’s going on around me, I don’t care."
Question 3: Do you have reactions sometimes, people who tell you, “Wow, that’s really cool what you’re doing!”
Response 3: "Yes, sometimes…"
Question 4: And what about “you’re a vandal”?
Response 4: "Now a bit more, people talk about vandalism because there are a lot of tags, so tags and stencils get mixed up. I haven’t had any [bad reactions] in a long time. Besides, now I often work on paper and do billboards. Because there are laws that prevent us from painting directly on the wall and you’ll have to pay mad fines…"
Questions 5: So you’ve already had fines?
Response 5: "Yes, for a while I did, it pissed me off."
Question 6: And what about being taken to the station?
Response 6: "Yes, that has happened, but the worst is that they take your stencil. That’s ok once or twice, but if you spend 20 hours cutting a stencil, if the guy keeps it, now I would want to kill him! (laughs). But I’d rather not… So I do that on paper, then I go glue it, if the guy is unhappy about it you can always tear off the paper easily, that causes less problems. But clearly I prefer painting directly on the wall, I find that more interesting, the granularity of the wall, the medium… but I’d rather paint on paper than not paint at all."
"Recently a large piece of mine, a collage of paint and stencils and abstraction, was on billboard in Oberkampf...but that was commissioned and a new street artist puts their work there every 15 days. So now that piece isn’t there anymore."
Question 7: Are there any specific political undertones or messages?
Response 7: “Yes, of course there is. I like to use newspaper photos and stories in much of my art, as well as sex scenes.”
(Then he went on to discuss how he likes to use political themes, stories and photos from the newspaper. When he finds an interesting story that highlights some event, both past and current, then he would use that. While in his studio we were able to see the rows and rows of stencils he’s made. It would be impossible to highlight them all. Epsylon has covered everything from strikes in the early 19th century to the Vietnam War to current modern day events, and everything in between. He literally had 1000s of different stencils he’s made over the years for his street art that represented a political anarchist view of historical events.)
Question 8: Are these drawings that you do freehand?
Response 8: "No. They’re usually images that I take in the newspapers, or in books. I was a photographer originally. When I was in art school, about 30 years ago, I did photography, audiovisual, diorama, that kind of stuff. So I kept a photographic eye. I don’t draw well naturally because I never draw. If I drew often I would do it well, like everyone, but I never do it. But I have a good eye to see black and white."
(For just one example: he had a piece that used Nick Ut's famous picture of young Kim Phuc running from a Napalm attack. Above it, on the same piece he used the photo of the twin-towers in New York just prior to their collapse. These two photos used together have a powerful message indeed.)
Question 9: “Why sex? Is there any message behind those stencils?”
Response 9: “Yes, I like it! [sex]” (And we laughed about that.)
(He also had 1000s of stencils of different sex scenes and poses. The Kamasutra would be jealous!)
Question 10: A lot of your work seems to have a very bright appearance, and has a collage or even somewhat abstract style to it?
Response 10: "I love color. The more colors I can put in my work then the happier I am. If I think only 20 different colors will fit in a piece then I try to put 21. "
"It’s true that stencil art work seems very precise and exact, and yet I prefer abstract work. That is why I mix both styles. I usually start a piece with a very abstract painted background, and then I put my stencils on top of that. I don’t cut out 3 or 4 different layers/stencils for each photo. Instead I just use one stencil for the entire picture I’m using, and then just spray the different sections of it with the colors I want. I don’t mind if colors mix a bit, as that is the look I want to have in the end. I like having a collaged, mixed and abstract look to my work."
Question 11: I asked him about the current trend in tagging and vandalizing urban street art, and how he felt about that?
Response 11: "Oh I don’t much care. Let them destroy it. Even a tagger is a form of a street artist, though in my opinion a very immature one as their work is lazy and very uninteresting to look at. When I create my street art or collages on billboards and walls I don’t care if it lasts a long time."
"For me the most important aspect of my work is the creation. It’s the process that matters to me, not the outcome. Nobody is more happy than me when I’m painting and working on my art, and so doing more work is all that matters to me, not preservation of old work."
Question 12: So you think stencil and tagging are two modes of expression that are different, and almost antagonistic…
Response 12: "Not for me, it’s simply an expression in the street, there’s just one, stencils that have more style than the other, tags. The tag is good when you’re 14 years old. It’s more narcissistic, because when you’re 14 it’s all about saying, “me, me, me, I exist!”"
Question 13: So you not only spray your work on to walls, but do billboards and other surfaces as well?
Response 13: "Yes, I will paint on most anything I can get my hands on. I think anything can be one’s canvas. I’ve painted on window blinds, glass, windshields, metal, wood, cotton canvas, walls, billboards, tables, shelves, and much more. Anything can hold my work, and I’ve particularly liked working on glass and the window blinds. The window blinds are fun as when you turn the levelers then you can have two pictures on one! And glass is a real challenge as you much change the order and manner in which you paint your layers onto it, as the person will be looking from the other side to view it."
Question 14: Have you done any work in other cities?
Response 14: "Yes I was in Turin, Italy, for 6 years, I have friends there, pretty much every stencil artist there was once one of my students. And, at the beginning, when I was doing freehand work, I had friends in Hong Kong so I painted in Hong Kong, but only because I was already there and I had a couple of cans of spray paint… But I wouldn’t travel just for that. I was in Canton because we were visiting friends there, and I liked the area, I stayed in a hotel and met some lads, and ended up painting in Canton."
Questoion 15: Do you have any particular slogan or saying that you put with your work that you’ve most liked?
"Oui, Allumer l’extrémité de la mêche et se reculer vivement"
(Light the end of the fuse and run away quickly.)
(This is very subversive –though you might not catch onto it at first. Keep in mind that he’s an anarchist. It’s the instruction for destruction. Someone who wants to destroy something needs instructions to do it. Like a pamphlet or ‘user’s manual’)
Question 16: It seems to me that in recent years street art, and particularly, stencil (Pochoir) art is starting to get a lot more attention and respect than it did in the past. Would you agree with this, why?
Response 16: "Yes, well, I think with the clever work of people like Banksy and others that society begins to see the value in street art."
Question 17: What do you think of the commercialization of street art, such as Miss Tic merchandizing her work, or Banksy’s work getting sold for millions?
Response 17: "It’s always the same, but it’s getting worse and worse. 20 years ago she was making texts that were a lot more striking, politically as well as socially, and when you work in the street it’s good to have things that are striking. But now it’s just the same thing, over and over, never changing. Just the same stencils, and only puns. It’s only good for friends of Lacan…for a psychoanalysts it’s great: “oh yes, what a brilliant pun!” Well, alright… but I’ve read Lacan and it really doesn’t interest me. Only one out of ten puns is good, so it’s not really interesting. If you compare with Banksy. When you see his work, it’s a lot more subversive, creative, clever, and for very simple things. His rat with a camera, it’s silly but it’s relevant. Next to that, Miss Tic is small."
"For Banksy, it’s the placement work, the political game of what he’s saying, and it’s really subversive. And I think it’s great that it gets sold, and that when a Banksy piece was cleaned off people were outraged! Because the stencil itself was really subversive, it was like a cop who was spray painting a wall… The idea of the rioter who is in a posture as if he was throwing a stone, but in his hand there are flowers, that’s a perfect idea. It’s relevant, it’s clever, if the same guy had been throwing a stone of a molotov cocktail, it would have been good in terms of drawing but not as clever as putting the flowers."
"That’s why I like his work. And I love that people buy it. Because we live in a society where everything is so structured, when someone manages to do something like that, you say “wow, cool, good for him”. If were making money, I wouldn’t be unhappy either!"
Question 18: Do you sell your pieces?
Response 18: "Very few. I have been living simply for a very long time, as all I care to do it paint, and I’m not much of a businessman to try and sell my work. I care more to just create it."
"I have in the past displayed in galleries, in squats, but I’m really bad at that. If I don’t have an agent to take care of me it doesn’t really progress."
Question 19: But you have a bunch of stuff here!
"Yes, plenty, come see this…"
We spent hours with Epsylon looking at his work. There were rooms upon rooms of canvases, tables, window blinds, boards, glass and more that he had painted...all just sitting there.
If you ever get a chance to chat with him be sure to do so. You’ll never meet a more 'real' anarchist in all your life.
To see some of Epsylon’s work at Flickr:
See the Urban Art Tour of Paris
Check out the latest stencil book, which highlights Epsylon in it:
Stencil History X: https://www.flickr.com/groups/stencilhistoryx/
**Photo Credit: Flickr CC - Some rights reserved by starkart.org