by Alex Wells (CD-News Program Coordinator)
The ICD News Team sat down with Victor Ash, an accomplished street artist who was influential in the Parisian graffiti scene and has since turned his hand towards authorized installations on city walls. The Astronaut/Cosmonaut in Berlin is probably his most famous work, but his playful additions to the urban environment can be seen throughout Europe—and even in galleries or documentaries. Interview has been edited for concision.
Please tell us a bit about your artistic process, to start off with—how do you go about your projects?
Usually, I get propositions from either institutions or people who work for the cities and organize walls and projects where I can make a piece. I go there and I look at the environment and what’s around it, then I get inspired and do something that matches the neighbourhood, the people that live around it and the architecture.
Once I get more or less an idea of what I want to do, then the technique is straightforward: it’s just tracing the outline and painting it, and that’s the way it goes.
You’ve worked and lived in many places over the years—with what cultures do you identify, personally and artistically? As a street artist sans frontières? Or as French, Danish, Portuguese, European?
I was born in Portugal, I grew up in Paris and I live in Denmark; and I keep on moving around, especially in Europe, so I don’t really identify myself…well, maybe as a European. It’s great to be inspired by the European traditions and I try to keep the intellectual and artistic side that we have in Europe. But at the same time I mostly work with human nature and how people in general react to how society is developing: how we’re reacting to technology, to nature, to modernism—that’s what inspires me most. I don’t really look at one specific culture.
But surely you have certain influences, artistically. With the images and styles you use, you must be drawing off certain cultures—or are you just cosmopolitan in that sense?
When I did the astronaut painting in Berlin, I used the idea of the Cold War; I wanted to do something that related to the location where I was painting. And I thought of this huge astronaut because, for me, one of the most important things about the Berlin was that it was an icon for the Cold War. So I made the astronaut in relation to the space race between America and the USSR, to the idea of fighting for something that isn’t with soldiers, that isn’t here on Earth—it’s in another dimension. That’s the kind of idea that inspires me: it’s more global, more human.
You say you make an effort to get it out there, so your art is democratic and visible. Does that mean that it’s intercultural and universal because everyone can see it—it’s stuck up on a place where it automatically unites people that have different tastes and different lifestyles?
Street art is the medium for artists who want to interact directly with the people; you don’t have to go through the institutionalized art world. Art has become a business, you know, where you have the artists who want to make a living from what they do, then you have the galleries, the art dealers, the critics…whereas in street art you don’t have to deal with all these things that filter or distort what the artist wants to express.
I don’t know if it’s democratic because you’re sort of imposing your art on people when you do things in the street; I always have to keep in mind how people’ll react, because I make these huge walls and they stay there for a long time. But for street artists that do illegal work, it might be actually less democratic than any other form of art because you really impose your art on people—though at the same time, the regular art market business also does that, but in another way which is based on money.
Then, does street art’s existence outside the academy allow certain non-mainstream cultures the kind of attention that they wouldn’t get if it were filtered through art institutions?
In my case, it was certainly like that: I started painting in the streets when I was 14 years old because I didn’t have the possibility to go to art school. It was just me—there was something pulling me towards that. I had been drawing since I was a little kid, so when I discovered graffiti it was straight away something that captivated me and made me happy. I didn’t have the chance to go to art school, but I went out and painted directly and learnt from that. Then [people] came and they asked me to paint on canvas so they could buy what I was doing, so for me it was a school: it was my way to get into the art milieu and express myself without having to go through all these institutions and stuff.
Do you look at your work as political or subversive—with a certain social aim—or is it just about a gift of beauty?
No, it’s not a gift of beauty; it’s mostly some kind of comment on society. Look, it’s very difficult to make something on the street that will please everybody. To use the example of the astronaut again, it’s a work that pleases people who don’t understand the deepness of that because aesthetically it looks good—but for someone who is studying art and who is more intellectually involved, there is still a deepness to it. So in general that’s what I try and do when I work in the street: I don’t do things to please people, I do them to make people think, but I try to make my art do both.