There are probably not too many 57 year olds who can claim to have been consistently painting in galleries and on streets for the past 30+ years. But there’s at least one out there who most definitely can. Nantes-born – Jef Aérosol.
His stencil art comes predominantly in black, grey and white. Usually accompanied by his trademark strong graphic element – the red arrow – which is both a nod to urban signage and a tool for composition (but he’d rather you drew your own conclusion on its particular meaning), his work is among some of the most notable of the past 3 decades.
Having started painting in this way during the stencil art ‘boom’ of the 1980s, his reputation has grown like those of his contemporaries, Blek le Rat and Speedy Graphito. Drawing inspiration from pop, rock & folk iconography of his youth, his paintings primarily focus on humans, who he believes act as ‘silent witnesses’ once he leaves, communicating with the passers-by.
“Fisheye”, a self portrait of sorts – Jef Aerosol
A number of them are self-portraits (he jokes that these have led to accusations of being a “narcissistic megalomaniac!”) allowing for continued dialogue with the city and its inhabitants. Questions and statements are often evoked between the lines, either in French of English, which accompany his art. Though his works are generally poetically, rather than politically, motivated.
With a packed calendar of projects throughout 2014 (including his most recent in Rio de Janeiro) there doesn’t appear to be much letting up from Jef – so I was grateful for him finding the time to share his thoughts on everything from creating art with photocopiers whilst employed as a nightwatchman to painting large scale murals across the globe.
UKB: Before the stencils you’re probably most associated with, your career began through copy-art (using photocopiers to create artworks) which is gloriously retro now. What attracted you to that medium, and has it influenced your stencil work?
JA: Copy-art was the thing in the late 70s and early 80s. Using a tool that wasn’t made for creating art was quite interesting. But, I don’t think it influenced my stencil work, it was something totally different, except for the “speedy” aspect. I have lots of examples, but none are scanned. This is one among the millions of things I have to do before I die!
Jef Aerosol’s stencils appeared in Rio after his recent exhbition
UKB: So, you cut your first stencil in ’82 in Tours and describe the night you painted them all over as the moment you were ‘hooked’. How does that feeling compare to the feeling you get when painting now, is it still strong, or has it changed?
JA: Feelings do change with age and experience, of course, but I still feel excited every time I paint an image! The attraction to stencil and spraying was essentially because it was all new, at the time, and it was also directly connected to my age (25 years old) and to the period (the early 80s) etc.
But even if the sensations, the ideas, the feelings, the context, the age and period are different, I still enjoy using that technique today even though I also love some other techniques and tools.
“…I still feel excited every time I paint an image…”
UKB: I’m interested to find out your opinions of the web-based age of street art. You mention that you are trying to find early imagery of your first works – how do you feel about the age of the internet and its relationship with street art? Does the ability to share street art not on the street dilute the art? Do you believe some of the joy in street art that it’s not available to everyone everywhere, and specific to the people of that place and time?
JA: It’s an interesting question (edit: one he’s answered a few times before!) – so it would take a long time to develop. To put it in a nutshell, internet has changed everything! It has its excellent sides but also its drawbacks. I love the idea that everybody can share everything with everybody, but I don’t always like the fact that the web can level things down.
Jef Aerosol at the In Situ Art Festival in Aubervilliers, France. (Image: Gregory Lacroix)
UKB: Many think of you as one of the pioneers of stencil art alongside the likes of Blek le Rat. Do you feel there is an associated pressure that comes with this, or even an expectation? How do you make sure you’re constantly stimulated and therefore make fresh and exciting work for over 30 years?
JA: There’s no pressure with that title at all, but nothing really “special” either…I don’t really care about the hierarchy, age, fame, etc. As long as you follow your own road and feel you still have to do what you do, there’s no other choice. I don’t think I control everything, Art is a power that is stronger than the rest.
“…I never speak of my works in terms of pleasure. Creation can be painful…”
UKB: Would you say you create art for yourself, or for others? What do you think makes a good piece of stencil art, and are there any works you have been particularly pleased with, or not?
JA: Art is meant to be shared, but it isn’t ‘for me’ or ‘for others’, it’s much more complex than that! It’s just a way of understanding life, of staying alive. In the same way, I never speak of my works in terms of pleasure. Creation can be painful.
I have never ever been able to say that I was pleased or not with a piece. I never like or dislike my works – they are part of myself, of my life, of my art. It’s hard to explain. Painting is not fun!
A portrait of Jef Aerosol by stencil artist and fellow Frenchman, C215
UKB: Many others have since used stencil art and achieved fame in the street art world, most notably Banksy, C215…How does it feel to have potentially influenced such artists? Can you say you’ve been influenced in turn by them, or other street artists working just now?
JA: I don’t know if I have influenced anybody. I suppose so, as I get a lot of very touching messages from young and not-so-young stencil artists who tell me how much I have been an influence to them. It sounds a bit surreal. I have been and still am influenced by lots of artists.
Actually, everybody and everything influence me! Some young artists are so damn good, I feel very humble, old and shy when I see their work…
‘Shhh’ or ‘chuuutt’ at Place Igor Stravinsky, a stone’s throw from the Centre Pompidou
UKB: One of my favourite pieces of yours is the large ‘hush’ or ‘chuut’ piece at the Pompidou (painted as part of a larger team). Does the finished article feel like it isn’t quite as much yours as if you paint it alone?
JA: Size doesn’t matter at all! I don’t feel more satisfied when I paint a mural than when I paint a lifesize stencil on a wall, or a small portrait on a canvas. These are three different things :- muralism – street stencils – gallery and museum works. It’s all mine.
“…when I paint without permission, it’s always with great respect for the context, the people and the places…”
UKB: You mention that you have an appreciation of consistency of style – do you think you will ever move away from stencils? Are there any other media you’d like to work in but haven’t?
JA: I had been painting and drawing, collaging, copyarting, polaroiding, inking, acrylicing, crayoning and oiling etc…. before I started stencilling! I still enjoy all those techniques, but life is short, days are only 24hrs long and weeks have only 7 days. I have stopped playing music on stage and in bands, recording and touring because of time. I have stopped teaching too.
I’d love to be 30 or 40 years old again to have the time and energy to start new things again. I’d love to have several lives so that I could dedicate one to filming and making pictures, one to music, one to travelling, one to painting, one to writing…
Mural by Jef Aerosol in Bordeaux, France
UKB: Where do you go from here – what are your plans for the rest of 2014? You’re still involved prolifically with many exhibitions both solo and with other contemporary artists – will you ever stop painting outdoors? Do you feel that your artistic status helps you to paint outdoors without permission easier than others, and therefore helps you continue this work?
JA: 2014 and 2015 are now fully booked and several projects are already being planned for 2016. Outdoor or indoor, I enjoy both. The only thing is age, health etc… I still have the energy but the body doesn’t always allow! I know that I should slow down the pace, as my wife, friends and doctors tell me. But, as long as I can paint, wherever that may be, I’ll keep doing so.
When I paint without permission, it’s always with great respect for the context, the people and the places. I have never had problems so far. But, I don’t think it’s got anything to do with my status, in fact.
Mural painted during his time in Rio recently (Image: Gile Smith)
UKB: How would you say street art scenes varies within France, say from Marseille to Paris to Lille?
JA: I haven’t painted in Lille and Paris for ages, and I haven’t painted much in Marseille either. I don’t know much and don’t really care about the ‘street art scene’, to be honest! The terms “Steet art” and “urban art” are quite recent, they started to appear in 2003 / 2004, I think.
Labels and categories don’t mean much to me. I prefer “muralism” when I paint murals, “contextual art” when I paint my characters on the street, “stencil art” if you want to insist on the technique used… In fact this is just ART and it doesn’t need to be categorized, does it?