At a point in time Southern French city Montpellier was one of the graffiti capitals of Europe, but then the city tried to bring a halt to it and many streets artists were jailed or condemned. Nowadays the city has opened itself up again to the art of graffiti and city hall is even commanding street art projects. One of the artists in the now thriving scene is graffiti master Kesa. We spoke to him about Montpellier’s entanglement with graffiti, his love for art and a near-death experience.
Montpellier is France’s fastest growing city at the moment and the student town is booming on multiple levels. One of its thriving area’s is the creative scene, with street art as a frontrunner, but it wasn’t always like that though: “Like in many French towns, graffiti appeared in the 70’s and the 80’s. It also did in Montpellier with its first graffiti painters of which some are still active. With time, many people started to be passionate about this art”, Kesa says. “It is true that some graffiti painters who had painted a lot here in Montpellier have been arrested and condemned. For a while the city tried to slow down the graffiti and tag development in town a little, but I think that today, even if this art is annoying them, they realized that the general and public opinion’s favor for street art is growing which let us more freedom.”
As a Montpellier resident Kesa’s been part of this scene for several years now, but he was born in Paris. There he saw the graffiti on the street for the first time. The biggest influence on the young man and his love for art however is probably his mother country, Yemen, where he’d spend a lot of summers: “Those trips remain unforgettable moments. I think that those travels have deeply influenced my way of thinking and being. Having two cultures is an immense wealth and it is there that I discovered my passion for calligraphy in my childhood. From this moment on I started to be really fascinated by art. Back in Paris I saw the lettering on the streets and found it cool. At some point this passion for graffiti I have now just kind of hit me at the back of my head and I started drawing letters myself.”
Starting in Paris
In 2002 Kesa started painting outside in his neighborhood in Essonne, a suburb of Paris. At the time there wasn’t really a graffiti scene in his town, but he and his friends found a safe place to practice: “Many years I used to paint on the same wall to train myself and to have fun. This wall was illegal, but hidden in a big forest so it was pretty nice in the beginning. I used to go there with my friends most of the time but I went often alone too. At the time I used to paint just letters, without any underlayment or anything and it was pretty horrible!” Over time Kesa got a lot better of course and he started to spread is letters across different areas of the French capital.
As with all graffiti artists Kesa had to balance the temptation to put your pieces in places few have gone before and the rules of the law. Running away for the police while leaving your gear behind is part of the game, but one of his antics got Kesa nearly killed and that scared the crap out if him: “I was about 16 or 17 years old and back then I was painting along the RER C train lines and I was stuck between a wall and the railroad to do my graff. A friend was warning me when trains were coming to give me the time to go in a small concavity not far until the train went. Freight trains make noise, they are heavy and we felt the ground’s vibrations before it comes, but the RER trains are fast and more silent. At one moment a RER train approached me very fast and my friend didn’t have time to warn me so I nearly got hit by it. I still don’t know how I managed to be in the recess on time. There were 20 centimeters between the train and me and I had to catch on to a wire along the wall to not being drawn towards the train and I saw my bag and spray flying away. This big scare remains a lesson to me.”
Moving to Montpellier
Seven years ago he traded Paris for Montpellier where he is still settled. He notices a big difference between the two cities when it comes to graffiti. Compared to Paris, Montpellier is more easy going and freer he says: “In Montpellier there is less of this kind of dark atmosphere that you can find in the Paris region. Even the graffiti painters are different here, more opened to the others. I think that the fact that Montpellier is a city ‘on a human scale’ make also easier for anymore to meet people and everybody knows the other at least by sight, which is completely different in Paris. Many events linked to street art are organized regularly in Montpellier. Even some mural paintings have been ordered by city hall and art galleries regularly exhibit street art paintings.”
Nowadays he does less and less vandal’s, as he calls the illegal graffiti pieces. He is now a fulltime artist with a passion burning as bright as ever: “Graffiti is a way of life, an all-consuming passion. When you start, you cannot stop it anymore, it’s like an addiction. I don’t know why it is so important to me but it is now part of me. When you’re passionate, you don’t realize the risks you’re taking anymore, the only thing is to remain cautious. My dream and aims for the future are to live and bloom thanks to my art and my passion for graffiti. I’m not really expecting to be famous or anything, but just doing exhibitions, go painting at each occasion, be happy and spread the good around me. The most important for me in being an artist is to carry on your life by doing what you like and being free.”