At the launch event of Shepard Fairey and André’s recent collaborations with Levi’s, held at the denim brand’s latest flagship store on the iconic Champs-Elysées in Paris, we had the chance to have an insightful chat with the legendary graffiti artists on matters about the historic European city, work both past, present and of course with Levi’s. The two also played live DJ sets afterwards treating us to an eccentric mix of their musical tastes.
The city of Paris celebrates public advertising, with “Colonee Morris” — columns designed for posters lining the city streets. What are your thoughts on this surface?
SF: I think it used to be a free-for-all and I think any body can put stuff up which is great. Now it’s relegated more to paid advertising, but I still think that they’re really great objects. It’s a really iconic piece and unique to Paris. It wast fun for me to work on that surface to do something to address the history of the city.
A: I think it’s amazing. it’s a perfect bridge. From Shephard’s work with all the posting and pasting. It can’t get more Parisian than that — it looks like the Effiel Tower looking like a scenic take back It was perfect to put it on that like they were calling each other.
What’s your favorite part of Levi’s new Champs Elysee flagship store? How does it compare to other retail spaces you’ve dealt with?
SF: Of course I really like that our art installations are in the front window — that’s a good aspect of the store! I think the way this store has a mixture of the heritage of the brand is really interesting. There’s been a lot of great posters and graphics done by Levi’s over the years — I like how that’s a permanent part of it. But also the collaboration that proceeded ours between James Murphy and Pedro Winter — that they have had different artefacts of theirs in store. The skateboard display in the front that Pedro put together and downstairs there was a selection of their music.
I like how the way they’re bringing the art culture into the store; I don’t know whether that’s going to be an ongoing thing. It’s a good blend of what’s going on in contemporary culture and the heritage of the brand.
A: I agree with you. It’s perfect!
The installation includes a large scale sculpture that forms a mock cityscape. Describe the inspiration behind this piece.
A: They contact us with the idea of France and America, and we’ve always been very urban and worked on an urban surface — the medium’s the city. So it was meant a normal way to get the idea and redo it that we could have a city to cover it. It was our vision, so it came like this and was very natural. And we ended up working on it for a bit.
SF: Yeah, Andre done a show in New York where he created buildings and a lot of them had nightclubs in them — it being his other hobby. It’s just a small part of what’s his doing. I think it’s cool that you [Andre] got your nod to Andy Warhol on the building, got a little frame that you left for me to put something of mine in there, and the disco ball. There’s all sorts of different things that relate to your [Andre's] life.
A: It’s like taking all the artefacts of your life and putting them on each other to make a little building built by a kid.
And what about the two-sided billboard? Tell us more about what went into that piece.
A: He [Shepard] did all the work and I just came after with some really bad graffiti!
SF: I love the way that worked — the idea of something in the space that reflected the spirit of the stuff that we do outdoor. I remember one of your [Andre] first trips to LA and you bombed the billboard down the street from my house. He’s a good climber and climbed up on the billboard, and did a character. Billboards are a great surface. I’ve always looked for blank billboards or had ads that were easy to add something that made it a good canvas for street art. It’s that rebel spirit of adding on to something pre-existing. I just created a foundation layer and Andre went back on top of it. It’s nice to do that with a friend. Sometimes people in the graffiti world go over each other, they go over ads, but that’s all part of it. So I think it’s a more good natured take on that.
A: It’s a good one. We should find somewhere to put it.
SF: I just said it’d be good if it was in a public space, whether it’s inside or outside, as long as a lot of people are going to see it — not just in somebody’s house.
A: Like in a bar or a restaurant.
What do you respect most about the other artists (Andre vs Shepard) work?
SF: I respect his blind quality and his typography — it’s incredible. But he can do his character [Mr A] and it looks awesome, very very quickly. It adapts to whatever location, whether it’s got his arm wrapped around a sign or coming out of chimney, or wherever he’s putting it. It’s immediately recognisable, but clever in the way he adapts it to the space, and he does it very quickly which is something that takes a lot of practice.
A: I like the graphics and aesthetics of the posters. I love the silk print quality of them. And what I respect the most is how many he puts all over the world, and where they are. It’s reputable. Compared to the places where I’ve done is not so many.
Can you explain your choice of words on the back of the jackets? ‘VIVE LE ROCK’ and ‘METAPHISIK’
A: It’s a reference to all the biker and gang culture. Putting ‘METAPHISIK’ was more poetic and beyond physics to make something very to the ground and even underground.
SF: For me, I wanted to use French phrases that I thought that English speakers would at least understand the essence of, if not, the literal translation. I’m a huge Sex Pistols fan and Vivienne Westwood designed a shirt that Sid Vicious used to wear a lot that said “Vive Le Rock” on it, so that was an inspiration for me. Like Andre was referencing biker and gang culture, I’m referencing rock culture with that same vibe, and it all crosses over a little bit.
You both have a long history of placing your art on apparel and partnering with brands. Do you ever struggle balancing street with more commercial work or do you have a different philosophy on that idea?
A: It comes naturally. It’s different work. What you do in the streets is not directly related. And at the same time, it’s also part of our work like graffiti’s painting on a denim jacket or print a t-shirt or even a sticker — whatever you can put your name on, so it was not a struggle. And of course, what you do in the street is illegal work and is not related directly to what you put on clothes. They’re just two different things dome by the same people.
SF: For me, the freedom of doing stuff on the street is more personal therapy, but it’s also sharing the work with an audience. Clothing is a very accessible way of sharing your work with an audience also. I made home-made t-shirts before I started ding street art. They’re both things I’m interested in. And for all the people who see art on the street and like it, and may be don’t have the courage to do it themselves to show their enthusiasm for that kind of work, it’s going to come in the form of buying a poster/t-shirt/jacket, and clothing’s part of street culture anyway. So for me it’s a natural thing.
I’ve always tried to pay for what I was doing on the street by doing something that I could sell as a poster, t-shirt or stickers of the same work, rather than having to do something else. To me, that’s a better use of my energy than working for someone else who’s that’s boss. I’d rather be my own boss and I’ve got more control of my own life that way.
A: Also if you see someone wearing your t-shirt in the street, it gives you a lot of pleasure. It’s as simple as that. As much as go through the graffiti you did, it even makes you feel like someone likes you, someone thinks it’s cool.
SF: With graffiti or street art, so have forced it on them. With a t-shirt, they chose to buy it!
What’s your favorite place to eat in Paris?
A: I like to eat in my hotel. It’s next to my house and I don’t have to pay! [Andre owns Hotel Amour]
SF: I don’t have a favourite restaurant that I know of here. But it’s easy to get food on the go here. It’s easier to get a ham and cheese sandwich in a baguette, and it’s really good. You can’t do that in the US. The closet thing in LA is to go to a taco stand, but I think the cafe culture here, like grab a cup of coffee and a sandwich is really nice.
Interview and photography: Denis Yong