12ozProphet caught up with French graffiti artist and urban explorer Saotou CTGM. In this exclusive interview he shares the creative process behind his dark monochrome style and talks about how the underground networks of the city have become his artistic playground.
For those who aren’t familiar with your work, tell us about yourself and the CTGM collective.
I am Saotou. I’m French but I have lived in different cities. At the moment I live in France in Bordeaux. I started graffiti in 2001 and photography in 2004 to capture my passion of unknown places.
In 2004 a collective composed of 7 artists called “the CTGM society” was born; 4 graffiti artists Thrtn, Infest, Aerosept and me, 2 photographers Xxc and Kent157 and a sound engineer Czh. We have the same definition of the underground; we create from the same vision of underground culture. We travel 40 meters underground under cities to find inspiration of an alternative movement.
You have been writing Saotou since 2001. Why Saotou and what inspired you to first pick up a can of spray paint?
I discovered graffiti as a kid during a long trip with my father. I do not really know why it intrigued me. At the beginning, I drew and worked from classic influences from 90s New York graffiti and painted mainly in streets with a crew.
In 2004, an arrest made me realize that I had to be little more thoughtful about my identity if I wanted to tag something. So I changed the name to SAOTOU, a combination of two names, and guided my work to a visual more original style influenced by my passion for typography, history, and urbanism. To feed all this I painted in unusual places.
Your style is very distinctive. Skulls feature heavily in your pieces and you always use a monochrome color palette. What influences the underlying dark theme of your work?
I paint in black and white for several reasons. I want to incorporate an architectural style into my paintings that fits best with the wall and place. With black and white there is also a better distinction of the letters, I find it simple and powerful at the same time. It brings a nostalgic character and romance. Using a small color palette is faster; I don’t like to spend more than two hours on a painting. And finally, most of my cult films are in black and white.
All my work is influenced by what fascinates me in the environment of the painting: catacombs, architecture, protesters, people, simple signatures, candle workers who worked underground as convicts, the Inquisition in the Middle Ages and music like The Smiths, Thom York, Roots Manuva, King Krule, Flying Lotus, the Doppelgangaz and many other things that I listen to while painting.
Can you describe the creative process behind your pieces?
I choose walls that are very often virgin and fairly old surfaces in large spaces. I use black and white and I write my name using things that are in my head inspired by the sounds that I have in my ears. I trace each letter with different typography for whatever rhythm I draw; objects that symbolize an era or a specific moment. I add effects that will make it look raw and a bit dirty; I only look at the overall result when I have finished the piece. My painting is improvised, a large mix of what I like and the black and white brought together in one energy. The last step is the photography. Sometimes I like the place so much that I am satisfied just to take a picture of the blank wall.
As well as graffiti, you are also passionate about urban exploration and photography. How does your interest in architecture and urbanism affect you artistically?
The space that I paint is important. The site should give me disorientation, total darkness, silence, time cues, an area that is disconnected and almost non-existent and not connected with the usual urban network. An ideal place would be a spot that you can paint when you’re in a hurry and somewhere that is away from your traditional system. These disconnected places provide a balance. Go where nobody goes for centuries and follow a path that is non-compliant; this is what I need.
Second aspect, I really know my city and do not see it only as it would be seen by others. In the CTGM approach, the principle of the history of a city, its heritage and its mutations are very important points. Every detail fascinates me. It moves in the empty underground, which was used to build a city to develop its economy. When you love a city, you like to know what she has inside. This underground is a big museum of different times and different cultures. To benefit people who do not know about these places and are always in the same areas every evening, we organized CTGM nights underground with good music for over 150 people.
I like architecture and urbanism as I have lived in different cities rich in architecture, both new and very old. I lived 4 years in an old city that was destroyed during the Second World War and rebuilt with a neo-classic style. I am passionate because I know the heritage of a city can be a rare and precious thing and that pace and planning defines our lives tremendously.
The CTGM “The Day After” videos were beautifully shot. Can we expect any more documentaries from the collective?
These three videos were a lot of work because the conditions underground are very difficult to film in. At the moment we are preparing shorter videos that focus on each member of the collective.
If you could explore and paint anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
I would like to go to New York, possibly this year, and stay there for some time to paint, explore the city and take some good photos. I would like to travel to other places but for others things. I have to make the distinction between my artistic life and my private life.
Who is inspiring you at the moment? Are there any artists that you would like to collaborate with?
Many different things inspire me. At the moment I listen to a lot of King Krule and the Doppelgangaz. Woodkid inspires me too. I would like to work on a visual collaboration with these artists. Collaborating with Broken Fingaz crew would be good too!
What is next for Saotou and CTGM?
For me, always painting and more photography. Now I am doing illustration I am contributing to fanzine publications and collaborating on album covers with various graphic designers.
For CTGM, as I said we are to prepare short videos of 2 minutes per member of the group to make a portrait of each and we are trying to find a publisher that is complex but will keep us all at heart.
In September Aerosept, one of the graffiti collective, has a big exhibition in Bordeaux. Czh is releasing an alternative electro EP with sounds recorded in our underground session. Thrtn is creating graphic design around the orthodox symbols using a bitmap graphic style. Infest, in addition to painting heavily rides fixies and has started an association encouraging people to ride bikes. Xxc and Kent157 are still photographing the underground in the real sense of the term and have accumulated a large collection of photographs since 2004.
And lastly, are there any writers hitting the streets of France that we should look out for this year?
Many! Come to France.