We caught up with French artist TILT while he was over in Stavanger, Norway, painting things for NUART Festival. The mural he painted is also available as a print release. Here’s what he had to say for himself…
VNA: What is your piece here in Norway about?
TILT: That’s kind of odd, the crazy thing is that I didn’t know [Stavanger] was an oil city and I originally did this piece on a canvas. It’s called Blue Pétrole (Blue Oil) because it was an idea about having this stupid American flag with pink stripes instead of red and then the top of the grenade was all blue. The thing is, it’s more of an excuse for doing graffiti, my work today, especially cos of street art. I just want people to stand in front of something they don’t really understand, because of the letters. Everybody will understand the grenade and people will make their own interpretation of the American flag and, for me, it’s just putting them in the same situation and letting people ask their own questions, and most of my work is like that. It’s like the bathroom, it’s the same thing, because it’s tags and throw-ups, it looks dirty, it’s dripping, it’s toilets and sometimes I do that on garbage cans or containers or stuff. And people shouldn’t like it, usually if you show them a garbage can, people don’t like tags and throw-ups. They will go to the city to clean them or to buff them, so I just try to work above that. But in this kind of festival, because of street art, everybody is critiquing stuff, talking about society or about capitalism. Actually my work is really, really not about that, but it was funny that this piece was about oil.
VNA: That’s crazy (laughs). I didn’t know before I came here that it was a big oil country either, cos it’s green and clean and there’s fresh air.
TILT: Me too, I thought exactly the same. But this is a really rich country because of oil. But then I thought, ‘oh that’s cool, so you should have super cheap oil’. And they said, ‘no, absolutely not, it’s fucking expensive’. And I didn’t understand, because in the Emirates, water is more expensive than oil in some places. But here it’s a lot of ecology stuff, they want people to get rid of their cars so they say, okay, oil will be super expensive. That’s understandable.
VNA: So tell me a little more about your toilet installation. What is the significance for you of having this shiny clean toilet and then bombed out other half?
TILT: I think there are two meanings. The first one will be exactly the same as my work when I do the bubble stuff, the figurative accumulation of letters. Same thing as putting people in front of real graffiti and then have them look at that with a new perspective. I was in Istanbul and did a bus, they cut the bus in half, we put it on the wall, I destroyed it and then the people there were, like, ‘oh, it’s beautiful!’ and that was full of tags and throw-ups and drips and stupid written stuff. So trying to have them thinking about that and then when they walk through the city and see a tag on a garbage can they might think, ‘oh, it reminds me of the installation in the museum or the festival’ and I might maybe change their way of looking at a tag, maybe… And if not, in that installation, it’s more about the idea of schizophrenia, like everybody has these bouts of chaos and calm. So when it’s going to be done, you’re going to have a perfect line in the room that’s going to cut and there will be talking about which part you prefer or if you could live in the destroyed part all your life? Of course not, but could you stay in the white part? No, of course not too, because it looks like an insane hospital – it’s clinical, it’s depressing. So you have to be in between, but in between it’s really straight and it’s not really real; you don’t even feel comfortable on the edge, because it’s too straight. And people who feel comfortable on that edge or in one of those two parts, they are kind of freaks. It’s also talking about what people don’t understand; should they be afraid of it? My work, it’s not understandable, it’s a little bit like that.
VNA: So do you look at the way people cross borders as well, like refugees?
TILT: Yeah, I was talking a lot with the guys from Iran [Icy & Sot] and they were explaining their situation. That’s something that touched me, but that won’t be something that I want to express in my work except, like, ‘okay it’s not a stranger or a foreigner or refugees, it’s something you don’t understand’. It should be something more global than this. For me, as a Frenchman, growing up with ninety per-cent of my friends who don’t understand English – and at that time they didn’t – we loved the Beatles, we loved the Beastie Boys, we loved hip hop but we didn’t understand a single word except ‘bitch’ and ‘fuck’, you know? Like, ‘oh, did you hear the last Public Enemy [track]? Oh fuck, it’s super cool!’ But we don’t understand. Or we have birds singing in the morning and ‘oh, it’s so beautiful’, but you don’t understand. Maybe they talk to each other, but you don’t understand? So when I was starting to do graffiti, people were saying, ‘oh I don’t like what you’re doing, we don’t understand, it’s just names.’ Like, what the fuck? Do you really need to understand something to be into it? I don’t think so.
VNA: How was it growing up doing graffiti in France?
TILT: It was really cool. There was one really cool thing, because I was sixteen and this was completely underground in my city. Before me there may have been five writers, the old school guys who started in ’87, like two years or one year before me, but they were the Kings already. That was so new that we had to look at documentaries like Style Wars and there wasn’t that big trend like there is today. I really felt I was part of the secret society. Coming from skateboarding, it was exactly the same thing, like ten people doing skateboarding in the city, wearing the same clothes, watching the same videos and feeling like when you’re a kid, you’re like five guys and you do a little cabin in the trees. That was exactly the same, it wasn’t about anarchy or being special, it was like, ‘okay, we are a group of people and we do something different’. Then that was really interesting and the only bad thing was all of our old-school people, from Paris, not from Toulouse, they have always been like strangers for us. Mode 2, Bando, all the old school BBC crew, all those guys, we started like four or five years after them. And they never have been like our daddies, like, ‘okay here is the culture, we’re gonna share, let’s paint’, they’ve been like, ‘no, no, no, we want to keep it for us. We started in ’85, you guys started in ’88. There’s a big gap and we cannot share anything.’ And for me that was really hard when I noticed that. Then I moved to New York in ’94 and I met T-Kid, Cope 2, many old school guys – today they are almost sixty years old, like Futura – and they have been showing me everything; taking me to the trains, taking me to the Hall of Fame, telling me stories. And I was like, ‘okay, cool, I have my daddies.’ They’re really super cool, like my friends and they really took me like their son, you know. Like ‘we started something in the sixties and you are doing something in the Nineties in France, you’re painting whole cars and trains? Oh, come on then, you are part of the family.’ And that was really intense for me. When I came up in New York, I had been painting eight years already but then I knew it was going to be my life. I was, like, ‘oh fuck, this is something strong’, you know? You’ve got this guy who’s older than you and every night he takes you to the train station because he’s scared something’s going to happen to you and he’s telling you the stories of the trains and this and that. I was, like, ‘wow, this is culture, it’s not only like painting and writing my name, I’m part of a big culture’. Then I went travelling, I went to Asia and then I realized it was so global and I said, ‘okay, I feel good in my family’.
VNA: It’s interesting, because if you had perhaps been in New York growing up with them, but from a different borough, they would have probably hated you.
TILT: Exactly! And that’s what happened in France. But you can decide to act like this, or you can decide to act the opposite. Like now I am from the old school in Toulouse and every kid I saw back in the days I told, ‘oh if you want to rack paint, go to this shop’ or ‘if you want to rack markers, go there’ or if you go to the Hall of Fame, be careful because there’s neighbours and they are kind of stupid. But you’re right, that happened in New York, that happened in Paris. It’s like you can be super open-minded and super cool with foreign people, but in your own city you want to protect something, it’s like competition.
VNA: Do you find with street art that because it’s such a global thing now it’s lost the essence a little bit, that it’s lost that core? Because I grew up with BMX and punk music and stuff and I wasn’t part of the cool kids at school but it was like our own cool set. We were like outcasts but then it became cool later on, after when I was too old for it…(laughs…) but it was like it had this sort of secret society thing. Do you think it has lost that?
TILT: Yeah, I think we lost the secret society thing, but there’s good things and bad things about that. The fact that it became so open, there was maybe five years when it was confusing; what is street art, what is graffiti, what are murals? Now I think people are starting to be more educated and they will make the difference between graffiti, muralist graffiti and real hardcore – not like between real or bad and fake – but real outside bombing trains. And then real muralism, Etam Cru and then street art. I think because of Banksy there was a big mess, cos it was like, ‘oh, this guy is doing stencil but it cannot be the top of graffiti, we need to find a new word. Oh, let’s say street art. But now I think it’s okay. But people now that will be interested in Barry McGee won’t be the same people that will be interested in Etam Cru or Aryz– well, even Aryz can be hardcore – but you know those big muralist people? You need to know a little bit about Ben EINE’s history if you want to understand those kind of letters. So I think we lost a lot, but I’m happy because I never did it to be mainstream. So if it’s only five per cent of people into my graffiti, Ben EINE’s graffiti or Barry McGee, Amaze, or all those kind of people that I love, that’s okay. Because it’s this ten per cent that’s already a lot today and you cannot say, ‘oh fuck, this is not graffiti, this is not street art, I fucking hate this, that is fucking cheap’. No, it happened, it’s open now. What about us, I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be and I’m trying to represent what I want to represent. No matter if some other people are doing some more mainstream stuff, nice painting stuff, more political stuff, it’s okay. And then it’s even better when you see all that mainstream stuff because it makes you want to go back to that secret society stuff and talk about it and that’s why I was doing those big buildings with big sky and characters and hyper-realistic blah blah blah. And then I was like, ‘I don’t like that’. I like doing my throw-up at night, why shouldn’t I try to make this kind of illegal night-time graffiti become my day time paintings? So I try to do this but I think it was also because lots of the writers started to become more painters. And I was thinking I like fat cap tags, I like Barry McGee’s fat cap tags, I like to rock stupid block letters on the rooftop. So I think it’s better for me to keep what I started with because today it’s what I want to show.
VNA: And how was that process been for you, switching over?
TILT: It was just like I told you. I was painting with those guys in Paris, the Mac Crew, they used to do big concept murals, like German painting from the 90’s, 2000. Like Dane, Lune, and it was okay painting with them during daytime, music, barbecue, big walls. But the painting I wasn’t comfortable with because it was super technical, you have to do crazy outlines, cut everything, think about what the guy close to you is going to do for outline because you don’t want to smash his piece with a crazy neon outline. So I was kind of frustrated and, at the same time, compared to those guys I was doing a lot of bombing throw-ups in my city. I was still doing trains and I was thinking, ‘woah, that’s what I like’. I was excited when it was 1am and I was thinking, ‘okay, you should take your cans and go out tonight.’ So I spent all day painting and feeling frustrated and feeling like I was working. And at night I was having fun and even my body language changed, my body moves were cool with the throw-ups. So I said, ‘fuck, I have to switch to that’, you know. And that was kind of hard because people start to say, ‘hey man, it’s too simple. You do Wildstyle, complicated characters and backgrounds and now you do bubble style? It’s easy, it’s simple, it’s cheap, it’s gay’ because I was using colours like pink and blue and pastel.
VNA: I can see Cope’s influence in there too…
TILT: Of course, of course. And then I was saying, ‘come on, it’s my choice, I want to have fun doing my painting, I want to have fun making it’. So after so many comments, I think I did it a little bit more my way and then I had the opposite reactions, like some people from Germany or New York told me, ‘that’s really cool, we have a guy representing bubbles and symbols, graffiti style’. And I was, like, ‘woah, done! Happy, cool, thank you!’ (laughs)
VNA: And how has it worked for you legally, like going from painting trains to doing big commissioned stuff, how has that been for you in terms of the law?
TILT: Oh, you know, I don’t care. I feel so lucky that I can make money doing my walls and selling my canvases, I can go through any trials, I don’t give a fuck about showing my face. I don’t do it like I used to do, like five trains a week – I’m not crazy about trains any more – I love them, but I only do them in other countries. I know this is the main dangerous stuff, talking about the law and fines and trials and jail, and some people say, ‘no, I don’t want to show my face because I did one throw-up last month’. But for me, I’m lucky to be able to pay a lawyer, to be able to pay a fine. And that happened three months ago, we had this big, big crazy trial in France. Twenty-one people, because we painted – not together but one after the other – we painted an army base wall. So the people from the city were, like, ‘fuck, I want you to catch the twenty one guys that did that wall, we’ll make a big trial and put it in the press and set an example.’ So they came to my girlfriend’s house, to my studio, they took my DNA, they took my fingerprints, pictures, they took my book, my friends’ computer, memory cards, everything, there was a big investigation for six months. And then we went to the trial and the judge, the one who was supposed to say, ‘that was bad, you’re gonna pay’, my lawyer was talking to him about my work and the show I was having in L.A., in Paris, in Japan. And so the judge said, ‘okay, we have to be careful, we’re not talking about vandalism, we’re talking about art, but made in the wrong place.’ So she changed the whole trial and I got a fine that was two hundred and fifty euros…for six months’ investigation, DNA…
VNA: That’s crazy, that’s not even worth their time.
TILT: Yes, that’s what they said. They said that in this trial the justice and the police made a big mistake. ‘You are making us lose our time, we have important things to do’ and they were in their suits, talking about that in front of us. It was kind of a big change. I know that if I go to Singapore, I will be so careful, cos I don’t want my ass to be beaten with a stick. But in Europe I think it’s okay. So for me, is it okay if you show your face? Of course it’s okay. I think for Banksy that was a really good idea.
VNA: Good marketing.
TILT: Good marketing for him, but at the same time in artistry that was the first time to have an unknown famous artist. It’s like we have one famous artist but we don’t know his face. Everybody knows Picasso’s face, Van Gogh’s face, but we don’t know Banksy’s face. Let’s say it’s interesting, but for a hardcore Spanish, New York, Berlin train bomber, it’s not so much…
Pictures courtesy Butterfly and Wallkandy