With New York businesses closed, the gates are down. The only upside to the pandemic lock down is endless street, graffiti and mural art exploration. We start to notice details we might have missed during the busyness of the hussle. The quietness of the city displays artwork like a gallery would, and I can’t get enough. On one of my most recent mental health neighborhood walks, I became attached to one particular mural. The artwork is located on St. Marks Street, known for its history of influential musicians and artists. It gets a lot of notice from locals and visitors alike. The artist is Moi One, and the artwork is called “Sympathy For The Devil”. The French artist agreed to doing an interview, and for me, that kind of willingness to be vulnerable makes his art even more powerful. In today’s climate of uncertainty we are yearning for more color and inspiration. We draw strength from escape, and art provides exactly that.
Cultivated: Tell me more about your upbringing and how your life became immersed in art and culture?
Moi One: I grew up in Paris with a rather classic background, but both my parents have creative and open-minded personalities. On my father’s side, the artistic influence was strong; my grandfather was a fairly renowned painter in France, and I grew up surrounded by his work. My grandfather had started his career in the 50s as an ad illustrator when ads were still painted. He was actually quite famous back then, alongside Savignac and Villemot. On my father’s side, my great great- grandfather is opera composer Charles Gounod, who is most famous for his Faust and his Ave Maria. My father used to draw a lot when I was a kid, too, he was quite gifted. He also picked up sculpture about 15 years ago.
I grew up in an environment that made creation, and artistic expression, a natural part of living. As a child I was constantly drawing, and have never really stopped since. I always enjoyed drawing but there was never really any purpose to it until I started writing/lettering in ’99.
Cultivated: What drew you to graffiti, and do you have professional schooling in art?
Moi One: I was 17 when I first encountered graffiti. A friend of mine used to tag, and he introduced me to the art of lettering, typography, and flow. The mix of the thrill from doing something illegal, and the skill it requires to be able to write a stylized, and visually impactful signature in just a few seconds, got me hooked instantly. I was very lucky to learn from a friend who is genuinely skilled in typography, and calligraphy. I had no clue what I was doing, but he gave me very solid bases to start with and continue on that path.
The first few years – I would say until 2005, I was mostly bombing the streets, dropping tags and throw ups on gates, trucks, etc. It was mostly vandal bombing. I was caught a couple of times, one of which had pretty serious legal repercussions. After going on trial and having to pay an enormous fine, I stopped for about a year. I was still sketching but I did not want to get into further trouble.
That’s when I met my mentor, Drone. Drone is one of the most old school graffiti writers in Paris. I met him completely randomly; he saw some of my sketches, liked my lettering style, and pushed me to start painting, that is doing actual pieces. I remember the first time I met him at a spot to paint, I showed up, and ended up painting with guys I had been admiring since day one, and who were some of the finest writers in Paris. I remember one of the guys telling me my tags had a killer style. I was completely amazed, in awe, and that’s when it all started again.
I have been painting with Drone for 15 years now, and he taught me everything I know about painting – from color theory and the importance of contrast, to how to layer colors and structure a piece. Drone is a living encyclopedia about art. He also taught me patience. You need patience if you want to do good work. I have never received any academic training, but I don’t necessarily think I miss that. I have been lucky to meet very influential people who have taught me the fundamentals. The rest in my opinion is just hard work. I can’t count the number of pages I have gone through writing my name with a gazillion different fonts, practicing muscle memory until drawing letters became my second skin.
Cultivated: If any, what type of message does your art communicate, and what should art admirers pay attention to when enjoying your work?
Moi One: There is no message in my art. It is the opposite. I have always been bothered by the fact that as an artist you are expected to sell your work as a bundle where you have the visual and the conceptual, with the idea that you need the conceptual to be able to appreciate and understand the visual. My art is purely visual. There is no message. I write my name. I strive to perfect my craft, which is writing and designing letters. I strive to be creative and come up with new ideas. Ultimately the purpose of my work is to create something beautiful, harmonious, elegant. Something that swings and has jazz, both in the flow of the lines and the choice of the colors and how they resonate. When people look at my work, I hope they pay attention to the curves, the lines, the dynamics of the letters, and the overall coherence of the letter structure. I also put a lot of thought into the color contrasts that I use in a given piece – making sure the colors echo one another and help the letters stand out in the most impactful way is something I am very careful about. But it is all purely esthetic, and is not meant to have a meaning.
You could however argue that what graffiti writing says to and about society carries a political message, and I would agree. I, individually, do not carry a torch, or pretend to have a message. But the graffiti culture does send a message. What is graffiti? Unlike street art, which is really any form of art on the street, graffiti is a specific hip hop discipline which consists of writing your name with style on walls that usually do not belong to you, without permission, as big and as much as you can. Graffiti is inherently illegal, and it challenges a capitalist society in that it says: “I am doing my own advertising campaign to promote my talent without paying for the advertising space. I play by my rules. It’s all just a game.” It is also – to a degree – a quest of identity and singularity in grey urban environments, and an attempt to bring colors in urban landscapes that need to be relived.
In my opinion graffiti questions society because it says a lot about the fundamental need to revitalize entire urban areas and make them more human.
Cultivated: How has the pandemic effected you, your work and future plans?
Moi One: Painting had definitely been a challenge lately. I normally paint 3 walls a month; needless to say my productivity has dropped since the beginning of the lock down. Two important projects that I was working on are postponed until further notice. I have managed to do a wall for my pleasure, and a small project, but otherwise my work has been indoors lately. I have used the time locked in my Brooklyn apartment to work on a few canvas for orders I had lined up. I have also been sketching a lot lately, so I guess overall I have managed to stay fairly productive.
Cultivated: The colors, lines and illustrations you use seem effortless. Does it come to you naturally? How long has it taken you to get your lettering and illustrations to a point where you were satisfied with them?
Moi One: I would say it took me about 5 to 10 years to become a good tagger, that is being able to produce strong letters consistently with a chiseled tip. I was already doing advanced sketches with a ball point pen after about ten years of practice but it took me the past five years to learn the art of coloring, which is fundamental in any illustrative work. At the same time my letters and outlines have become increasingly sharp and advanced over the past decade. About 3 years ago, I added the last layer, by introducing characters in my illustration. Interestingly enough, I realized characters came fairly naturally after working on letters for all these years.
Cultivated: What advice would you give to young street artists who are just starting out?
Moi One: Practice makes perfect. It takes thousands of hours to perfect an art. And it is never ending. I would recommend they spend as much time as they can sketching and developing their style. Also, while it is natural to be inspired by others, and inevitable to bite off of graffiti writers you admire when you start, it is important after a while to develop your own style. I would add that a lot of writers reach a plateau after reaching a certain level because they stop challenging themselves. In my opinion it is fundamental to constantly try new and challenging things. It keeps the passion alive.
To get in contact with Moi One, visit his Instagram or email email@example.com.
Main Image: “Sympathy For the Devil”, Wall designed for David’s Café, a local Street Art institution on St Mark’s Place