Saturday, November 7, 2009

Interview with Jef Aerosol: French Urban Artist

Paris, like most cities, is "chalk full" of urban art. And a lot of it, in Paris, is made up of the work of Jef Aerosol.

In Paris there is graffiti art, political art, stencil art, poster art, paper cutouts, and more. The history of stencil art in Paris commenced with Blek Le Rat in the early 1980s, who had recently graduated from l'École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.  His work engendered a new generation of stencil (or ‘pochoir’ in French) street art in Paris where graffiti art had never taken off as it had in New York. He was the first to put stenciled rats around Paris, something that Banksy is also now doing.  Blek le Rat then moved on to life-size figures, and many have followed suit in their own style.

But Blek isn’t the only pochoirist that came out of this era. Other street artists of note in Paris are: Jef Aerosol, Speedy Graffito, Jérôme Mesnager, Miss Tic, Mosko et Associés, Némo, and more. Their work can be seen in and about Paris, and Gadabout will highlight a new one of these artists in each subsequent issue of Gadabout articles.Jef Aerosol

I created a walking tour map of these artists' urban art in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. You can get that here .

Video we created of Jef at work in the streets of Paris:

So, now let's meet Jef Aerosol.

Jef Aerosol began his first street side stenciling in the early 1980s, but his inspiration came before that out of  the rock stars of the 70s and recent technological developments, such as a copying machine!  His work has been composed of film, music and literature idols such as Patti Smith and Alfred Hitchcock, and often come with slogans and poetic phrases that make you stop and think a moment.  One may now view Jef Aerosol's work in many cities, such as Paris, London, Chicago, Tours, and many more.

I interviewed Jef Aerosol on his work.  Jef is French, but happens to have fantastic English, so the interview responses below are exact quotes, not a translation.  In this interview Jef highlights his work for us so that we could get to know his history, style and inspirations a little better.  Enjoy!

Question 1:  What inspired you to start doing stencil street art? Was there anyone, or any particular moment or event that motivated you to begin?

Response: “Actually, I had stencils on my mind for quite a while… When I started in 1982, I had never seen any on walls before, except a tiny anti-nuclear symbol on some walls in Brittany, meant to protest against a new nuclear plan. In fact, what made me want to use stencils was The Clash ! I had been a fan of the band since they started and had noticed their stencilled shirts and leather jackets… I loved that ! I think this was the real starting point, way back in the late 70s… But it took a little time before I cut my first stencil in 1981, and first hit the walls in 1982.Jes Aerosol

The fact of having moved to an unknown city (Tours) for professional reasons helped me start. I didn’t know anybody there and wanted to “introduce myself” ! For a year or two, I had worked on record covers and posters for bands in Nantes, but without using stencils… I wanted the “rock scene” of Tours to know me, but thought I had to find an original unusual way of getting acquainted to bands and venues there.  Having collected and worked on photobooth / photomaton self portraits for a while, I decided to select one and enlarge it in order to make a stencil out of it. On the following night, I emptied a dozen spray cans on the walls of Tours ! I added “Aerosol” to my first name Jef and that was it ! Within a week or so, lots of people knew me or wondered who that Jef Aerosol was… Pretty soon, I found myself painting on stage with bands, showing my work in bars and music venues, in festivals and street happenings, etc.

I had never seen any American style graffiti then… I had never seen other street stencils either!  I learnt later that Blek le Rat had started using stencils on the streets of Paris about one year earlier. But I never went to Paris at that time. No, really, I started from nothing…there wasn’t any street art then. The only things you could see on the walls were political slogans, that kind of stuff. The only thing interesting I had noticed on the walls of Nantes, in the late 70s, were silk screened posters with surrealistic messages, poetry and pictures, that “sold” nothing. They were signed “clic clac”.

Together with The Clash’s shirts and the anti-nuclear sign, those posters were what got me started. There’s another tremendously important influence : the great Ernest Pignon-Ernest whose silk screened life-size characters struck me. I’m a total fan and respect that artist a lot. I was lucky to meet him and be in a show with him, I felt proud and honored to share the bill with Ernest. My other obvious influence is, of course, Andy Warhol. Jes Aerosol I decided to uses stencils because it was an easy and handy way of reproducing a picture again and again. It was also the best means to paint on walls in a fast and clean way. I loved Warhol’s silk screens and I got to stencils quite naturally to get that separation of shade/light, black/white … I’ve always been keen on what I call “photo-graphic” art. To Warhol, I might add Roman Cieslewicz and some other pop artists. It’s true that I got kind of “hooked” to the technique of stenciling, because it suits me well, but I don’t worship any technique.
The spray can is handy too, but I often use brushes too, especially on canvas. In the 80s, a lot of other people started using stencils and we often met for shows or happenings, I still have a lot of friends from that time (1983-1990). People like Miss Tic, Epsylon Point, Speedy Graphito, VR.

Question 2: Would you say there are political undertones or messages to any of your work? What kind?

Response 2: “I don't want my messages, if any, to be too "obvious" or "blatant". Painting on the street is political in itself, I suppose. But you won't find real political slogans in my work. Only pictures or words made to make people think or react. And a lot of my stencils are only tributes to people I like. Some are also essentially poetical rather than political. Some are more subversive. Depends on the period, on what's going on in my life and in the world.”

Question 3: A lot of your work focuses on famous icons from film, books and history. Is there any particular reason for this?

Response 3: "I have two main sources of inspiration. The first certainly is Rock’n’Roll icons! I’ve been into music since the early 70s, when I was a teenager, and my “art gallery” consisted in my record covers, rock posters, gig tickets, music magazines, fanzines, etc.  I am a musician myself and music is as vital as painting for me !

I’ve got more than 2000 vinyl albums at home and they are still my main source of inspiration. I also have tons of books, papers, zines of all kind. I can’t seem to get tired of those pictures of Dylan, The Stones, The Stooges or T-Rex. I’ve worshipped them for 40 years!  To musicians, I have to add writers, poets, actors, movie directors, rock critics, photographers, rebels and public characters I admire…Jes Aerosol

The second source of inspiration is the man in the street : passers-by, elderlies and kids, beggars, hookers, busker, homeless, schoolboy, housewives and businessmen, cops and punks, black or white, poor or rich, freaky or ordinary. I often say that my life-size street stencils are like stills from a movie, the movie of street reality.

I guess I’m motivated by all the people around me ! My family, my friends, the crowd in the street, my favorite musicians, writers, actors and actresses, etc…

And all the artists I like…"

Question 4: In one article I read you said you quit doing street art in the mid-90s due to the increased tagging issues and the subsequent crack-down on ubran art by city officials. Would you say this is still an issue?

Response 4: "About NY hip-hop style tag and graffiti, I saw some for the first time in 1984 or 85, in Paris, about 2 years after I had started stenciling. People like Bando, for example. But I was a million miles away from that. I’ve never been into rap and hip-hop at all, this is a totally different culture which I don’t belong to.

Later, in the 90s, I almost stopped painting on the street because I didn’t want to be associated with tags. People tended to mix up everything, and I was sad to see the cities spoilt with tags. I agree that some “pieces” are awesome, but I hate tagging! I often call it “urban graphic terrorism".  I was in Lisbon in August and I was deeply shocked by the way taggers have damaged the Bairro Alto, for instance. I believe that street artists should respect the city: it's our partner, not an enemy that we should hurt and destroy."Jes Aerosol

Question 5: Of all your work is there one piece, or one location, that you feel highlights your best work in Paris? Why?

Response 5:  "I like the mural we did on the music venue L'Européen (place de Clichy, 17e) with Jérôme Mesnager and Mosko et associés."

Question 6:  It seems to me that in 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 6: "I don't know why street art is getting attention again. There was that first "stencil wave" in the 80s, and it's starting again... cycles, I guess...

The hype somewhat weakened in the 90s and I thought stenciling was dying.  Today though, a whole lot of new young stencillers hit the walls and some of them are awfully brilliant! I’m interested in seeing what happens, but I can’t say they really influence me, since I started so long ago and rather see myself as one of the pioneers of the genre.  But rather than influence, I can talk of inspiration. We all have a lot to learn from each other and I love some of the younger street artists' work. So it must have some sort of effect on my own work, sure.

Why is street art so popular and successful today? Probably because it takes time before a form of art really becomes accepted, understood and developed as such. In the 80s, street art was more of the "avant-garde" of what's happening now. There's also the incredible success of  Banksy: I suppose many young aspiring street artists are dreaming of becoming tomorrow's Banksys!"

Question 7: What does your artistic future hold? Do you plan to continue doing stencil art of famous people? Or will you move into other realms?

Response 7:  "I'll do what my imagination and feelings will lead me to ! Probably some famous people and also some unknown ones ! :)  I'm always ready and looking forward to new things, new directions and I have lots of plans for the future: which include several exhibitions this next winter and spring, some new prints, some festivals and other art events, etc."
Jef Aerosol

Question 8: If you have to say just one line, one thought or one phrase about your encompass what you thought it stood for or was about...what would it be?

Response 8: ”My art is the expression of my need for communication and action. I guess that stencilling my lifesize characters everywhere is a way of being everywhere myself!”

Jef's Website:

See the Urban Art Tour of Paris 

You can also check out Jef Aerosol’s book:

Check out the latest stencil book, which highlights Jef in it:
Stencil History X:

**Photos, all, Credit: Flickr CC - Some rights reserved by biphop

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