Outside Influences: Sowat DMV interview.
“This whole graffiti culture looked like an awesome secret society to me, with its unique alphabets, codes, rites of passage… More than to just learning how to paint, that’s what I really wanted to be part of.”
Sowat is an artist for whom graffiti represents only the tip of the iceberg in his love of expression & creativity. An integral part of the celebrated european crew DMV, his progressive work has led him from the depths of the city to the walls of prestigious contemporary art centers. I caught up with him to chat influence, collaboration & how he feels existing in permanent collection alongside the mainstream art world.
Could you please introduce yourself and provide some background information to how you started in your craft?
My name is Sowat and I’m part of the Da Mental Vaporz crew. I grew up between the south of France and California. As a city kid, graffiti has always been part of my environment. The mystery that surrounded it back then attracted me early on and I started spraying a long time ago, when I was 15 or 16. I didn’t draw before, so these first nights spent painting along the train tracks behind my high school were my true gateway to the world of arts.
After studying political sciences I wrote the book ‘La France d’en bas’ with Gris1, which documented the rise of the graffiti movement in the south of France. I later moved to Paris to work as a Writer in the video game industry for a few years, painting as much as I could in my free time with Bomk, Kan and Blo from the DMV. In 2009, I finally managed to quit my day jobs to focus back on painting and met Lek, a true local Urbex legend. For over a year and a half, we secretly put together the ‘Mausolée’ project, with 50 french iconic graffiti writers. We’ve been working together on a lot of other projects since.
What were your influences when you started?
Half of my family living in California, I discovered Chaz Bojorquez’s work and Cholo writing in general quite early. It made a real impression on me and had the same influence that New York style graffiti had on my friends. It really developed my taste for calligraphy, inks, brushes, things that weren’t necessarily made with a spraycan. Coming from a pre-internet era I was mostly influenced by whatever was happening in the streets of my Mediterranean hometown; people like Abel, Seek or Cam from the 313 Crew, for example. Finally, like a lot of French kids of my generation, the book ‘Paris Tonkar’ played a crucial part in my visual upbringing. It was as important to us as ‘Subway Art’ or ‘Spraycan Art’. It’s through these pages that I discovered the work of the BBC’s, Mode2, Bando, Number 6 and so on… if you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend you check out this link.
(Sowat – Picture by Hone)
There’s an element of there being something sacred / divine in your work and graffiti can definitely become this almost religious thing, is there anything you’re reaching for in your work?
You could probably say that about any human activity that’s taken a bit too seriously, of course there is something religious about Graffiti, at least in a primitive sense. I mean, just look at the name of its most famous site – ’12oProphet’… I’m pretty sure the urge that pushed me to explore and paint abandoned spots is close to what my stone age ancestors experienced when they braved darkness and painted in the deepest reaches of caves.
The mystery was the initial magnet that drove me into this mess. I wasn’t initiated by anyone before picking up my first spray can so back in those days, from the outside, this whole graffiti culture looked like an awesome secret society to me, with its unique alphabets, codes, rites of passage… more than just learning how to paint, that’s what I really wanted to be part of.
(Sowat & Lek – Mausolee)
How long did the Mausolee Project take?
Mausolée took over a year and a half of our lives. Lek found this massive, abandoned supermarket around 2010 and we went there almost everyday to paint abstract murals with 50 french graffiti artists we admired. People like O’Clock, Jayone, Dem189, Bomk, Jaw… I made a time-lapse video of the whole experience, bringing a year of work down to a few minutes of frantic film. We also made a book about it, put together a show. What we never expected is that this would open the Palais De Tokyo’s doors to us, France’s biggest Contemporary Art center. We’ve spent the last two years working there with Lek, curator Hugo Vitrani and a lot of urban artists on what has become the ‘Lasco Project’.
Your work is characterized by taking over an entire space instead of following the traditional graffiti method of applying a piece to one surface, why is this?
It comes from the insane places we find while exploring the city. Cyclopean fabrics on the outskirts of town, derelict asylums, boat cemeteries, world war 2 bunkers… the more you find these spots, the more you want to rely on their inner strength, to free yourself from the restraints of a rectangular wall, specially when you work with Lek, who’s studied architecture and has an eye for these things. I want my art to feel like an organic part of these environments. I want it to look like it’s always been there, like I’ve discovered some ancient civilizations artefact.
(Both above: Lek & Sowat, Mode2 & Futura 2000
Underground Doesn’t Exist Anymore at Palais de Tokyo – Photo by Nicolas Gzeley)
Theres a mix between large and small forms within your work, and with it being executed on such a large scale a lot of the time – is there something you particularly enjoy, especially with the smaller forms, about having to spend a lot of time on the more detailed elements?
This has a lot to do with the way we like to divide the work with Lek when we start working on a new spot. Since he’s really good with architecture, he’ll cut up the space in graphical zones that I work inside of. If I’m lucky, repeating the same pattern over and over for hours will take me to this special “zone” that we are all aiming for, where the exterior world slowly starts fading away. Also, when you’re working with juggernauts like Futura and Mode2, like on the ‘Underground Doesn’t Exist Anymore’ installation we did under the Palais De Tokyo, going small can be a wise survival tactic.
Do you find there is anything outside of graffiti that feeds into your artwork? Music, other types of art etc.
Even if I was slightly obsessed with traditional graffiti for years, I always looked for inspiration in other artistic fields. I’ve always read books, went to museums or to the movies. Experimenting with photography, film, installations, fashion and things like that, sparked my curiosity for these disciplines and their history, just like it opened me to modern and contemporary art, architecture, abstract painting and so on, the list is endless. Since I never went to art school, I kind of had to educate myself about these things, meaning I always feel like I’m lacking some of that knowledge.
(Sowat – ‘Underground Doesn’t Exist Anymore’ – Photo by Nicolas Gzeley)
From what you are saying, there appears to be a large emphasis on creative freedom in your work – less concerned about ‘getting up’ in the traditional graffiti sense but more about exploring the possibilities that mixing art and environment can hold, is something you agree with?
To be honest, I’m not sure what I’m doing myself. What was Mausolée? Graffiti? Urban land art? Were we curating an exhibition? Does it have to be just one thing? Am I doing street art or contemporary muralism when I’m painting a building with the Da Mental Vaporz? Was the Direct Outlines film we shot last year with Lek and 20 iconic French writers (Jayone and Skki from the BBC, Seb174, Baps U.V TPK, Jacques Villeglé…) a post-graffiti cartoon or performance art? Were we “getting up” when that project entered the Pompidou’s Center’s permanent collection? Besides should there even be such a thing as ‘traditional graffiti’? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?
What do you think of the supposed animosity between ‘street artists’ and ‘graffiti writers’ ?
“What you got is a whole miserable subculture.” – Skeme’s Mother
What appeals to you regarding abstract forms rather than letters?
I think it’s the exact same thing. By essence, letters are abstract forms. It’s culture that gives them meaning. Tags are abstract scribbles for those that can’t read them, just like i’m surrounded by abstract typography each time I travel to a country that doesn’t use the Roman alphabet. Since no one but my writer friends could read the words and letters I painted, I quickly stopped caring about doing “readable” things anymore. I’m more interested in deconstructing the alphabet, breaking letters down into small cursive pieces I try to fit in whatever site-specific installation I’m working on, seeing how far abstraction can take me. That’s what really maters to me.
(Above left: ‘Fire On Lake 2’ – Ink On Paper)
You work collaboratively a lot, do you have a formula for this? Or do you decide depending on the space and work in tandem?
Graffiti is a collective sport. It’s something you practice in hounds. It’s part of the cultures DNA. As for having a formula, I’m not sure there is one. It’s a bit like if we were jazz musicians doing improvisations. Everyone brings their instruments, harmonies and rhythms to the table and we try to create something that’s more powerful than the sum of our parts. Lek is really good at sparking and structuring that kind of flow, you can clearly see that process in the video we shot with him and Jonone last year at Agnes B’s Gallery in Paris.
You have worked in contemporary settings quite a lot, how do you find your work changes going into that environment? Does that then reflect on the work you create in the street? What exactly is it you enjoy about working in those places?
In order to renew yourself, you’ve constantly got to challenge what you do, to step outside of your comfort zone, so that’s part of what made Lek and me so eager to work in the contemporary art field in the first place. We really wanted to confront ourselves to new things, to meet and work with new artists. We’ve been more than lucky that people like Jean de Loisy, John Giorno, Agnes b, Jean Charles De Castelbajac, Jacques Villeglé let us do so… All these experiences have been humbling and helped us put certain things we’ve been living into perspective… I hope that we’ll have more opportunities like that in the future.
Now that we’ve entered the new year, do you have any specific plans for this year?
We’re looking for a publisher to tell the story of the two years we spent at the Palais De Tokyo with Lek, Hugo Vitrani and all the incredible guests we admire and were nice enough to come and work on the collective shows we’ve put together over there. We want to reveal all the secret installations, invisible art and weird animation films we made there, so that’s a big part of what we are pursuing right now and we’ll see how that goes. Also, I’ve been spending a lot more time in the studio lately, slowly transitioning from working exclusively outside to something a bit more balanced. I’ve started working with la Gallerie Lefeuvre, who’s offering me my first solo show in a few months, in a new space he’s opening in Geneva. The BC Gallery in Berlin and David Bloch Gallery in Marrakech have also helped me lately make that transition as challenging and interesting as possible.
(Above left: Lek, Sowat & Liard – Contrebande. Ink on Paper for David Bloch Galley)
(Above right: Lek, Sowat & Liard, Derb Riad. Ink on Paper for David Bloch Gallery)
What has graffiti taught you?
To use a spraycan!
Any people / artists / musicians you think the world should know about?
First and foremost, all the member of my Da Mental Vaporz crew: Bom.k, Blo, Brusk, Gris1, Iso, Jaw, Kan, Lek and Dran. I’ve been truly blessed to come across and work with such an amazing group of artists. Also, I think that photographers are the unsung heroes of our culture. Without their passion and dedication, no one would know about most of the things we do and places we visit to paint. We’ve been lucky enough to have really talented artists follow and document our work with Lek or the DMV throughout the years: good people like Butterfly, Thias, Nibor Reiluos and more recently, the awesome Nicolas Gzeley. They really deserve to receive more credit and love for the work they’ve been putting in this game! Finally, Arnaud Liard has been killing it in the studio lately…