In Conversation: 2013 Living Walls Artists

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Joshua Ray Stephens wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo courtesy Brooklyn Street Art.
Joshua Ray Stephens wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo courtesy Brooklyn Street Art.

Since 2010 Living Walls: The City Speaks has brought international and local artists together to showcase art and create a dialogue around urbanism and the urban landscape. This year’s five-day conference engaged the community in free film screenings, lectures, exhibits, parties and bike tours. I was lucky enough to catch up with a few of the artists and talk about their inspiration, tag names and the always-important spirit animal. 


Joshua Ray Stevens

Alix Taylor: Can you talk to me about this mural you’re doing in Atlanta for Living Walls?

Joshua Ray Stevens: Most important to me is that I’m just trying to make something that raises questions for the viewer. Not just, what’s that? Not just any type of question, but trying to make something that has enough mystery to it that you can wonder about it, and something that has enough explicit narrative quality that you can also immediately get it. I’m kind of rethinking this as I’m talking. Something that as you first walk up you can be like, “Oh, that’s cool” or “Oh, I recognize what’s going on,” but … the more you look at it, the more you see in it. That’s what I generally am trying to do with my art.

AT: What influences your work?

JRS: Everything. I think about that a lot. I do have specific artists that are heavy influences. I try to maintain an openness to influence. It’s hard because in the contemporary art world and contemporary culture in general I think we’re so capital oriented that you feel a real strong push to find your niche or find a style and just do that. I have to resist that and try to maintain an openness to being influenced. I think if you look at my work, there’s a very definite style happening. It may not look like I’m doing what I’m talking about if you just see one piece, but I try to. Especially once you start getting in the part of your career that I’m in, the early middle stage of your career, [when] you’re supposed to know everything. So to answer your question, what influences me most heavily are artists and writers and filmmakers who have what I perceive as mythic power in their work. A kind of power that transcends mundane daily concerns. They can be dealing with daily concerns, but they’re talking about it in a way that relates to your entire life. I’m most influenced by people who have what I perceive as enduring value, that you could look at 100 years from now and it might not have the same resonance it did when it was made, but you still can see it as worthwhile.

AT: And you’re also a professor.

JRS: I taught at Pratt and Cooper [Union] and the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and Queens College.

AT: How has that affected or influenced your work?

JRS: It’s hard to say. When I started teaching I had just rediscovered my love for making comics. So I was starting teaching and, in a way, restarting my artistic path at the same time. So it’s hard to say how teaching affected it concretely, but I know that it has. For one thing, being around enthusiastic young people who are really eager and learning about what they’re doing. They’re at a different stage, an earlier stage, than I am. It’s exciting to be around other excited people. It’s nourishing, it makes you more healthy, I think, to be around that. It also forces me to keep up with what’s going on. That’s probably the most important thing for me, because comics, that’s what I spend the majority of my time doing. I’ve worked on a lot of other kinds of art process and product, but comics is what I spend most of my time doing and it requires a lot of alone time…. I kind of think [of teaching] as a form of Buddhist meditation, a way of being passively active.

AT: So how did you move from comics to murals? Those are very different scales.

JRS: They are very different scales, and that’s really tricky transferring. I work, relative to this, very small. So my fingers get used to doing certain movements all day long. I really haven’t done too many murals. The first one I did was in Brooklyn, through some friends who were former students at Pratt—not mine, they graduated before I started teaching. There’s a street artist named Swoon, she’s gotten quite big in the art world and she’s very socially conscious. She’s taken her money and celebrity and reinvested it into public-oriented art. Aside from her just making her art in public. She started this nonprofit arts organization outside of Pittsburgh called Transformazium. I knew most of the girls who worked for that. They’re helping the community make art and rebuild the community after they were abandoned by an industry. So they were having a fundraiser in Brooklyn, and one of the girls … who was [involved, Leslie, invited] me to do a piece. It was at this place called Monster Island in Williamsburg. So I did a piece on the wall there, and I’m always looking for other outlets for my work. I’ve always wanted to do that, but I’m not the type who’s going to go looking over my shoulder, doing it illegally. I’m paranoid, I just don’t find that enjoyable. Before that I’d wanted to do some type of large public art, and that worked out and spun into this. I met Monica, who started Living Walls, and showed her my stuff and we started talking about me doing a wall this year. Strangely, I’m sort of becoming a mural artist, kind of joking, kind of also being serious. I’m doing a mural in my son’s room, I’m painting his entire room based on the seasons. North is winter, east is spring, south is summer and west is fall. I also just got hired to do a mural—I’m not going to say for who because I don’t want it printed before it happens—but I got hired by a design and marketing group. That won’t be public, that’ll be in their office. They wanted something that would liven up the place.

AT: My last question for you here is, what is your spirit animal?

JRS: I think that my spirit animal is an owl. I’ve thought about that a lot and changed it a few times. I think I am striving for wisdom, and owls are a symbol of wisdom. I think they’re amazing creatures. About three months ago an owl got trapped in my neighbor’s yard, behind my house, and he called me to come help him. It was a barred owl, and it was the most beautiful thing. I grabbed its talons and saved it; I was terrified. For the next few weeks it kept coming back and I learned the call of the owl. At one point about a month later I made the call, and it called and flew over to my yard and we conversed for 30 minutes to an hour.

Pastel's wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Summerhill neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.
Pastel’s wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.

Pastel (translated from Spanish)

Alix Taylor: Can you talk a little about the wall you’re doing in Atlanta?

Pastel: What I’m doing is taking the entire wall of the building they gave me and representing a native forest of Atlanta, the land of the Cherokee and the Creek Indians, and over that I’m painting 15 small figures that represent the areas of Atlanta, and over them there will be 15 diamonds that represent the demographic growth in Atlanta in the last 150 years. It represents what the natural terrain of this area was like and how it went, populating and changing.

AT: How did you get your name, Pastel?

P: I don’t know, I don’t remember anymore. I think it came from the time when I was painting letters, doing conventional graffiti. It was a combination of letters I liked.

AT: So, did you start making art through graffiti?

P: Yes, painting graffiti. I finished school, started university, things started mixing and now I do this.

AT: You share a studio with another Living Walls artist, Jaz. What’s your work environment like together? Can you share any stories?

P: I share a studio with him and with EVER, another guy. We’re together almost every day, we’re very easy and familiar together—everything is in the moment. He’s a great example for everything, painting, how to interpret things, how to keep maturing on your path as a person, as an artist, and always trying to maintain focus. Those are the lessons he gives me from day to day.

AT: For this project did you have to do a lot of research on Atlanta and its history?

P: I had to study where I was going to paint. I have the problem of being an architect. I always study the area to see what’s interesting. It’s not the same as painting in Buenos Aires or whatever other place.

AT: So, do you always try and make your pieces specific to the area where you’re painting?

P: I do try. The wall stays where it is. I can’t take it with me. I take a photo, that’s it. It stays there, and it’s for the people there. I like to have the concept be based in where I paint.

AT: Do you have a spirit animal?

P: Yesterday we went to the aquarium. I want to be a whale, but I would be a dog. The identity of the dog is an animal that’s always there. It doesn’t speak, but it’s always there at your side. And always observing what goes on around him. I’d be a street dog, not domesticated.

Axel Void's wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Summerhill neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.
Axel Void’s wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Castleberry Hill neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.

Axel Void

Alix Taylor: Your name is also Alex.

Axel Void: Alejandro.

AT: So where did the name Axel Void come from?

AV: When I was a kid I did a lot of graffiti, and I had all these different names. At a point I wanted to put my own name [on my art], Alex, but I thought it wouldn’t be a good idea because everyone would know it was me. So, I switched it and made it Axel. Void came afterwards. I liked the name void. I was reading oriental philosophy, and I thought it would work to be Axel Void, and then little by little lose the Axel, but it stuck.

AT: Can you talk to me a little about this mural you’re doing for Living Walls?

AV: It’s a portrait. Most of the work I do, I try for it to be very cohesive, very tight, and to know the history. I do sort of documentary painting. Nothing is abstract or introspective, but it tells a story of some image that I found. I like to do research about the image, I usually like to find one that related to the place I’m painting. In this case it’s not [site specific]. In this case it’s an image that I liked a lot of this kid.

AT: Where’d you find the image?

AV: The Internet. The idea is that it’s an anonymous portrait, so I’m going to write Nobody on the bottom. That part is missing [right now]. It’s kind of a nobody/everybody type of thing. It’s not just one story or one person, there’s also empathy created because it could be anyone.

AT: Did you start out on the path of fine art or with graffiti?

AV: It was both for me. I painted as a kid. My family [was artistic]. My grandfather was the painter for Franco in Spain. I’m half Haitian, half Spanish, and my Haitian family [members] are also painters and musicians. I’ve had that since I was a kid. At 12 I started doing graffiti, and I linked that with the classical drawing I liked. I really hate naming or labeling things because it winds up being very firm, very closed.

AT: How do you feel about having a relative who’s so linked to Franco?

AV: I like it. I’m not on the right side but I think there’s things to learn from every side, what to do and what not to do. My family is very interesting. My great grandfather was a painter for Franco and a lot of royalty in Europe, but he considered himself apolitical—like, nonpolitical. He was a bohemian somehow. He really traveled all around, and every time my grandfather would see him, which was rare, he would be with Miss USA and Miss Brazil or something like that. He was kind of an eccentric man. And then my grandfather fought in the Spanish Civil War and was definitely on the right side, but as time passed he started to see things differently. But my father was in the Partido Comunista, and on my mom’s side it kind of happens the same…. Traditional family, but my mom is mixed and she’s with the New Black Panther Party and civil rights movement in Miami.… I’m ambiguous, for me it’s just really nice to have contact with both worlds somehow.

AT: What inspires your work?

AV: People. Stories. It’s very existentialist. It talks a lot about life and how it works for us, but not in a spiritual way, not “what is the meaning of life,” more in a daily life way. I’m really interested in the undocumented story.… The work is very rootless, it doesn’t have a flag or a context. I like it to be more open.

AT: How did you come to do these large murals?

AV: It was just a mistake. I didn’t really decide it, I just like to paint. When I started painting graffiti with friends I got really into it, started painting every day at abandoned places and whatnot. Really young, we squatted this cultural center and we would go paint there every day and hang out, that’s what we did.… I started painting, and then I started to get invited to pretty good events from when I was really young. My first big event was in Barcelona, and I was 14.

AT: Do you feel more inspired by commissioned works or spaces that you find and you just want to paint there?

AV: It’s all the same to me. There is a certain type of commission work that I do—I try not to do it very often, but I have to survive. But I try to talk them into doing something from their background and [that] is also interesting for me to work on. Murals, at least for Living Walls, are no different from what we did growing up. The only difference is, it’s well organized.

AT: What is your spirit animal?

AV: Oh wow, I’d have to make one up. Do people really think [about that]? Do most people have a spirit animal before you ask them? I don’t know, humans. Why not?

Sam Parker wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo courtesy Complex.
Sam Parker wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo courtesy Complex.

Sam Parker

Alix Taylor: I was hoping you could talk to me a little about your mural.

Sam Parker: I was trying to get away from recognizable objects or objects that were figurative, things that exist in this world. I wanted to experiment with geometric forms. I’ve been curious about sacred geometry and geometry in general. The premise of it was to create these mandala shapes. So, roughly based on things found in the Hindu tradition. As much as I think circular shapes are found in all cultures and may be innate to the human experience, I think that the flower shapes and spirals and rings and trees, circular structures, occur again and again in nature and then in architecture. They’re kind of the basic structure of life. I was kind of playing with making a sacred art, maybe not placing that on the viewer. Creating these mandala shapes that reflect something that occurs in the natural world.

AT: How did you become interested in Hindu traditions?

SP: I’ve been interested in Eastern philosophy for 20-something years, initially in Taoism, Buddhism, Confucius. When I started practicing yoga I got really interested in meditation and mantra. I’ve been making mandala shapes and sacred circles for a long, long time, at least 20 years. Just recently they’ve started coming out.… I’ve been seeing these circle shapes in dreams for a few years, and they’re becoming stronger. As I draw them, they become stronger in my dreams. I think they’re something everyone can relate to, or almost everyone can relate to and enjoy. They can be profound without having content.

AT: So many of the Living Walls artists are from out of town. How does being an Atlanta resident change your experience with the process?

SP: I have no idea. I think it’s great to see what people are doing in other countries or other states. I don’t think being from Atlanta really influences me, though seeing other people’s walls, especially scale-wise, where these pieces are three, sometimes four stories tall, is really exciting. By the same token, it makes me curious to see how far I can push the form I’m currently working in.

[Tattooing is my career,] and it’s a popular culture art and so is street art. You’re making art that doesn’t exist in the white space of a gallery or museum. In my opinion, it has to be effective or accessible to average people. A lot of times work that’s in the gallery is conceptual, and it only speaks to a few of the viewers, even of people who go to a gallery or museum. With public art, because you may have 10,000 people who pass that wall every day, in my opinion it’s my responsibility to appeal to everyone. So a five-year-old child can look at it and say, “That’s beautiful,” and someone else can look at it and have a different experience of it. They can relate to it through sacred geometry, or a spiritual practice, or color and form. For me the similarity between tattooing and public art is that you’re speaking to an audience that may or may not be educated in some kind of art language, and that’s exciting. It’s almost more exciting to me that I may influence a five-year-old than other street artists around the world.

AT: What is your spirit animal?

SP: Spider. In my early 20s I was doing a lot of sweat lodges, Lakota sweat lodges out in Alabama. I was doing a vision quest, and the hallucination or the thing that kept coming to me was a spider. That was the creature that kept coming to me again and again for the fast.

3TTman's mural in the Summerhill neighborhood of Atlanta for the 2013 Living Walls conference. Photo by Alix Taylor.
3TTman’s mural in the Summerhill neighborhood of Atlanta for the 2013 Living Walls conference. Photo by Alix Taylor.

3ttman (Louis)

Alix Taylor: Can you tell me a little bit about this mural and the thought and inspiration behind it?

Louis: Basically the story is about nature in the middle, and it’s being attacked by the machines. It’s like a storybook, like a fairytale. There are magical beings, the woman and man on the side, and they’re being helped by animals and fighting back. I connected the nature with this symbol of a tree in the middle. But I’m telling it in a way so the colors and things aren’t too aggressive for the people. I prefer to disguise my message through an imaginary style, fairytale style and folklore.

AT: Where does the name 3ttman come from?

L: It’s because I always do a man with three heads. He doesn’t appear here, it’s weird, he should appear. Maybe he’ll go over there. In French TT can be pronounced tete, so it’s 3-head-man. Then it gets to 3-TT-man or tresTT-man or 3-PP-man because someone joins the two Ts.

AT: You’re French, but you live in Spain. How does being an expatriate influence your art?

L: What I love about Spain is you can feel the life. It’s a bit like Mexican [culture], where you can feel the vibe. I think it shows in my painting because the colors are bright and there is good energy.

AT: What are the three things you miss the most about France?

L: Not much. The good bread, my family, and maybe wine. I go a lot.

AT: How did you start doing murals and large scale public art?

L: I started in [1999] with stickers. At the time no one was doing this. I was doing the three-headed character on stickers and putting it on the street with my friend Remed. From there, one thing [led] to another. I started painting before that. It was my passion from a young age. My friends were going [off] to play soccer, and I just wanted to paint.

AT: What is your spirit animal?

L: That’s a good question. I would say a bird right now, but I love the tiger—it’s too aggressive. Now I would be a seagull, because I love the sea. I could watch the sea. And you’re flying, I would like to fly.

Trek Matthews's wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Summerhill neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.
Trek Matthews’s wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Summerhill neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.

Trek Matthews

Alix Taylor: Can you talk to me a little about this wall?

Trek Matthews: Okay, well this wall is facing Turner Field. It’s the [wall of the building closest to the stadium of the four walls being]. It’s the biggest piece I’ve done. Usually I’m used to [doing work that is about] 10 feet tall, and this is a little larger than that. It’s a nice challenge because I’ve been trying to do things a little more color based, for any type of mood or narration. I’m trying to evolve right now. I’m doing larger color blocks with aerosol, just to speed it up, on this decaying wall. [Living Walls artists have] all four walls going, and it’s a vacant building, and we have some others in Summerhill. I am basing this off of a brief history of Summerhill, just through a really loose and abstract narration. So I’m creating three figures which, at the moment, are not very apparent because they’re just color blocks right now. There are key elements that I’m putting in towards the end that should tighten up the narration. It’s basically just going between the initial development of Summerhill as, I think, one of the earliest Atlanta black communities post-Civil War through the failure of the … development through corruption. I tried to base it [on] anything like that, anything from vacant properties that came in or false or failed constructs that came in, and corruption up through the Olympics in the [1990s]. I wasn’t here then. I was four years old and in Milwaukee [then], so I don’t know much about it but I know it really caused a lot of infrastructure that died out because it was the Olympics in Atlanta and they tried to make Atlanta look nice. I’m going to be adding shadows of buildings or empty buildings with loose and subtle color shifts. So now, it’s a baseball stadium, there’s a parking lot, but the buildings around here are still vacant. It’s interesting because it brings money to certain people, but it’s still a super underdeveloped area. I’m using this color triad to keep it peppy, because it’s huge and facing the baseball stadium, but also to reflect what the community should be like and to try and brighten it up. It’s a story you can take my way if you ask me, but you can take any other way because it’s a very minimal abstract style.

AT: You were involved with Living Walls last year.

TM: I’m on staff. I’m on staff now, I was on staff last year, and I was volunteering the year before that. Last year we had all women, but I was just an all-around person doing whatever. So I was helping out Miso with her wall. Now I’m doing social media and still kind of lingering around. I’m painting, so I’m not doing too much during the conference as a staff member. I do what I can and hang out.

AT: What inspires your work?

TM: Lately I’ve been referencing off … a lot of woodblock prints from Yoshitoshi and a lot of other good woodblock printers. So, anyone from the Kano School I think is super phenomenal. I’ve been going off that, and bringing … more traditional aesthetic into a contemporary point of view with this cultural pluralism that I’m trying to begin to explore. We’re in 2013, and everyone is everywhere instead of this culture being with their culture in a certain place. So, I think with me being a white male, taking on these other cultures might seem sort of lame because it’s like, “You’re a white person appropriating other people’s cultures,” but I’m trying to show my view, my lens, on these cultures running together. I want to bring them all together in my fun illustrative style that I do. I’m really into illustration, and I’m a printmaking major [at Georgia State University].

AT: What’s your spirit animal?

TM: Someone told me I looked and lived like a ferret and I thought that was kind of insulting. I don’t know if I should think it’s insulting; they said it’s endearing. [Ferrets] live in their poop and stuff. Maybe [my spirit animal is] something like a snow leopard. They’re pretty chill because they explore a lot, and they move around the mountain and [are] adventurous, but they’re still super secretive and relatively rare. I guess because they’re endangered.… I don’t know anyone with my first name, so I’ll pass it on as an endangered species.

Know Hope's wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Summerhill neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.
Know Hope’s wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Summerhill neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.

Know Hope

AT: Do you want to talk about the wall you’re doing a little bit?

KH: You can see the flock of birds going downwards, and now I’m writing the sentence “the sound of a waving flag” to correspond with the image. It’s about patriotism and homeland. I try to examine them less from a directly political standpoint [and] more to look at them as an emotional mechanism. I think a flock of birds brings up the associations of migration, being homesick. I try to think of the idea of homeland as an abstract concept and how a flag is used to lead groups of people bound by certain identity and how that can be manipulated into, I wouldn’t say … a blind following, but the flock of birds is being led into the ground. To try [to] create parallels between … the collective sense of longing that people feel. That void is filled by a national identity or patriotism. It’s not really a deliberate message so much as an observation.

AT: Do you try [to] make your work site specific to the cultural landscape you’re working in?

KH: It’s both. I deal with a lot of recurring iconography and narrative. So, in a way it’s very consistent, but I think it’s impossible not to take that into consideration. It’s inevitable for the location to not influence the work that you do. I try to think that the ideas … I deal with … are universal. The things I mentioned before I think are very international, very universal. So, in a way it’s nonspecific, but it’s very specific.

AT: How’d you get started making urban art?

KH: I just started at a certain point. I just realized it was possible that you could take your art and put it in a place that is happening and exists in real life and becomes part of this collective reality. It allows so many more layers to be created and given to the work. The dialogue [and] vast amount of possibilities that it offers and allows—one thing led to another and the research got deeper and more consistent.

AT: You were talking about these recurring images. I see the birds here. What are your other staples?

KH: Well, there’s the character that I use in a lot of my work. Because I deal with a narrative, I wanted to have a character that the viewer could follow and develop a long-term relationship with. My work is very rooted in symbolism, and a lot of times stuff like that is not necessarily [comprehensible] for the outside viewer. By having that recurring imagery and the character, it allows the viewer to develop a long-term relationship [with] all the nuances and understand the symbolism a bit more and [lets me] create a common language through which I communicate.

AT: Does being based out of Tel Aviv, and having a relationship to Israel, limit the way your work is perceived to only being about Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

KH: I don’t really mind. I can’t control through which eyeglasses people look at my work. I think that’s what I want to do with my work. I don’t want to be didactic, I don’t want to be specific or illustrative in a way. My creative process is about finding ways to suggest ideas as opposed to imposing them. It’s all about people making their personal connections and finding the relevance to themselves. A lot of times people read into it that way, and a lot of times people don’t think of it at all. It’s all about how much they know about my personal background, and in reality the majority of people don’t. It happens in a public space, and I’m not even there. It just becomes part of the overall scenery.

AT: Do you have a spirit animal?

KH: I like birds, but I don’t think I have a spirit animal. I guess a bird, yeah; a messenger bird.

JAZ's wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Summerhill neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.
JAZ’s wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.

JAZ (in Spanish)

Alix Taylor: Could you tell me a little about this wall? And you have another one on Memorial [Drive]. Could you tell me about both of them?

JAZ: The first one is about identity, or the lack of identity. I used popular iconography of Argentinean culture. The culture around what we eat, specifically meat. It’s a sign of the little identity Argentineans have, and I like working with that theme.

AT: Do you mostly focus on Argentinean culture in your work?

J: No. I work mostly with clashes and permanence. That’s why working in the street is so important to me, because it’s the place where we encounter each other. It’s where we all live together, and it’s the marker of the idiosyncrasies of a country or a place. My work is interested in that. This wall if a little more about the place where we find ourselves, geographically and historically, in this place. It’s about the battle of Atlanta in the Civil War. It’s a very, very light interpretation because it’s on the side of a condominium. I couldn’t do what I wanted, I had to win over the neighbors. It’s way more “soft.”

AT: How did you want to do it?


J: My idea was a much more graphic representation of the burning of Atlanta and the battles that took place here, but both sides without their armies. Just the horses, that’s the idea.

AT: You work with horses and animals a lot.

J: I do that precisely so that the characters in my work don’t have identity. They’re reminiscent or used in place of the identity I want to represent, or as allegory. Here I also used them to make the theme more “soft.” Everyone will look and say, “Oh, the horseys,” but they’re a ton of other things.

AT: How did you start working in the street?

J: I started like most, with graffiti, without any pretensions. But I was always studying art, and my family are artists. The road to murals, outside of graffiti, was easy and direct, but in the beginning it was just graffiti. JAZ, JAZ, JAZ everywhere. Without any ideas or pretensions. I didn’t have the pretension of being an artist, just a graffiti artist wanting to be known within an airtight and limited circle.

Graffiti doesn’t inspire me at all anymore. The opposite [is true]. In some way I guess it’s related to notions of identity. Graffiti is surrounded by the mystery of your identity. I liked the double identity, my identity and the identity graffiti gave me. But the world of graffiti doesn’t interest me, above all classic graffiti.

AT: You share a studio with Pastel. Do you have any funny stories about him to share with us?

J: Pastel is very calm, very calm and very mellow. This is our first time traveling together. I don’t think we have any crazy stories together. Our work environment is very calm. We share the space really well, without any problems, and get along really well. We both ride around on bikes all day. We’re both “sick with” bikes. We spend all day talking about bikes. We also share the space with EVER, another guy who isn’t here but has participated in the festival before. He’s a little crazier.

AT: Do you have a spirit animal?

J: I used to use a tiger as an allegory for myself in my work. I like all animals. I think I’d be a dog, very calm.

AT: Pastel said the same thing.

J: He’d be an even more low-key dog than me.

Roti's wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference (on top of a 2012 JAZ mural), Summerhill neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.
Roti’s wall for the 2013 Living Walls conference (on top of a 2012 JAZ mural), Old 4th Ward neighborhood, Atlanta. Photo by Alix Taylor.


Alix Taylor: Can you tell me a little about your wall this year?

Roti: There are many levels of comprehension. I had to cover a work by JAZ. He’s an Argentinean artist, but the problem was that I really liked the piece and didn’t want to cover it. The same thing happened with this ad on the side, it’s for local artist Radcliffe Bailey. In France we have a game called cadavre exquis [exquisite corpse], and it’s a poetry game. You write the first word and you hide it, then the next person writes a word. I wanted to do this [game] with this wall; I wanted to play with the history of this wall. It was too easy to buffer [away] everything and start something else. That’s the first level of comprehension. We’re in Edgewood right now, which is a really depressed area that’s becoming really fancy. Graffiti is from depressed areas, [and] I’m from a really bad area too, and I guess how we’re putting art everywhere in this neighborhood makes it better but there hits a wrong point. It’s becoming too fashionable. I’m going to try to make concrete the spirit of Edgewood. … I spent a lot of time here with the local people, and I want to honor that. And everything is on a whale because I was here a year ago, almost day for day, and I’m back. The whale is the only mammal to spend a year to return to the same point. It’s the biggest mammal too. For me it’s a really powerful symbol of universality and nomads. For me the whale is mother, and it’s holding everything up.

AT: When you were here last year there was some controversy over your piece, [which] got painted over by the neighborhood. Do you want to talk about that?

R: I’m really happy about it, actually. When I was 14 and I started painting graffiti, I just wanted to shock rich people and find a way to try and exist in society and not be selfish but color on concrete. I painted letters for years and years in that spirit, and I started to explore more styles and images and found you can do exactly the same with the spirit without commercial things and paint realistic things, seducing things. It’s possible to keep the freedom and to shock. I don’t paint in the street to be there forever. If I wanted to do that I would do it inside a building, I do it to go deep in the local society. It’s a beautiful way to communicate, it’s a beautiful language. My English is pretty bad. You can talk about really deep emotions in any level of society, that’s why I keep doing it, for the exchange.

I have tons of stories about the wall [from last year]. One day a judge was asking a [crackhead] and a child if they understood the mural on University Avenue. It was on a Sunday. [The crackhead was totally fucked up] and was explaining everything, and the judge was really thankful to have the explanation by a sensible guy like this one and he understood how that guy and the kid were really rich inside them. He understood what he missed in his life. A judge is a serious person in this country. That’s a really quick story of how it was when I was there. Everyone was really friendly. I have tons of crazy stories, in a good way. At the same time I was living in Capitol Hill, so every morning and every night I was walking to go to the wall and back to the house every night. I was a part of the local population, and people appreciated that. I spent a lot of time drinking whiskey with [hobos]. I saw the real American misery you cannot see when you’re a tourist. Honestly, after that experience I was someone else. I heard guns [fired], I saw dead people, I saw a beautiful misery. I saw reality. I’m really happy for that.

This year is 20 times less. I really like it, but I really love the ghetto. Here is a cool place but it’s not that intense.

AT: You also work in stone and other mediums.

R: I’m a sculptor, definitely. … I’m about to stop the murals. This work is too speculative for me.

AT: What do you mean?

R: When you go in the market it’s really successful now, and everyone paints murals. It’s hard to be sincere. I need to be sincere. I started [painting murals] because it was the only way to stay alive. I want to keep that. I want to keep my freedom and not go inside the market. I want to disappear and have a studio and make tons and tons of sculptures. That’s the plan for the next year.

AT: What inspires your sculpture?

R: Everything. I come from stonecutter family. I grew up in the stone. Specifically marble. Stone is my wife. Pierre means stone in French. My last name is Sasson; sasson is big stone in Italian. It’s vibrations. It’s physical. I’m just in love with it. I spent all [my] whole life inside it, holding the chisel when I was 10 or 8. I spent a lot of time working with my parents just to give a hand. It’s my life. I can keep my sincerity. When you work like a sculptor, if you really want to do something for you have to make a thousand-hour piece, it’s not two days, it’s not a week. You have to give all your love and all your energy to the materials. It’s emotionally powerful. [You have to] respect the testimony you make about your generation. I’m pretty young now, nobody does that, not with the same sincerity. I have to.

AT: I have one more question. We ask everyone, what’s your spirit animal?

R: A moth. In French it’s the butterfly of the night. It’s attracted by the light, and it’s something really ethereal. They only live for two days. You see them like a spirit flying in the dark.



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