L’Atlas is a French painter, photographer and video artist, who has become a major force in French street art. Born in 1978, he began working with spray paint on the streets of Paris in the early 90’s. A fascination for the history of calligraphy led him to study the subject in depth in several countries. He went on to create his own typography. He lives and works in Paris, and his work is exhibited widely across the world, from Marrakesh to New York and New Delhi. In our interview, we discuss the irony of an artist's freedom, and what it means to work for oneself.
Fresque by l'Atlas. July 2012. Strasbourg, France. Photo by Fat Cap.
Tell us a little bit about where you grew up.
I grew up in the east of Paris, around the 18th and 11th arrondissements. I discovered graffiti and hip hop culture when I was a teenager, and started painting graffiti in 1990, when the first French rap albums came out. We weren’t part of the first generation of graffers, so when we started painting, people were calling us 'La New School'. We were kind of the second wave of graffiti artists, really.
The roof terrace of L'Atlas' work studio in Paris. Photo by Rosie Osborne.
Do you remember the moment when you realised that you wanted to do this for the rest of your life?
I do actually. I was around 18. I had been doing graffiti for a while and had started practising calligraphy. This was when I met Agnès B. She had seen my tags in the street and taken photos of them. She invited me to do an exhibition and to make some t-shirts with her. I think meeting her, knowing already the kind of artists she supported, knowing that she had already bought canvases from Basquiat 20 years before, that made things very real for me.
Untitled. L'Atlas. 300 x 800 cm. Spraypaint on advertisement. 2011
Is there a fundamental difference between painting in the street and painting here in your studio, and that feeling you get?
Of course. There always is. Whether it's legal or not, there’s always a kind of adrenaline rush. Here in my studio, I’m on my own, so it's a more meditative process. I can spend more time on my work.
L'Atlas' studio. Photo by Rosie Osborne
Street art by L'Atlas. Paris. 2010. Photo by l'Atlas.
Do you remember the first piece of artwork that you ever sold?
Yep, it was to Agnès B. Right here for example is my first canvas... I kept my first seven works and never sold them. I went on to do a project where I photographed these seven canvases all over the world, in every place I visited. The idea was to take 400 photographs of the canvases in 40 cities. My name is on the canvases, but the only things that still exist are the photographs. I find that the most ephemeral type of thing that you can do on the streets.
L'Atlas art in India. Photo by l'Atlas
So, if there was a fire, these are what you would save, right? Your first 7 canvases?
Gosh, yeah I think so. I’m so anxious about losing them, and at the same time, I think I would feel relieved. It’s weird. They give you strength, but at the same time, they're a weight to carry. I know a painter, he’s a friend of my grandfather's, and his whole atelier burnt down. He had 740 canvases in it. He was 80 years old when it happened. And he started painting again. I guess every painter wants to be eternal, but we know that at the end of the day, nothing is, not even our paintings.
L'Atlas' first canvas in his studio. Photo by Rosie Osborne.
What has inspired you the most?
Calligraphy - I spent a lot of time in Morocco, Syria and China, three to six months each time, learning from calligraphy masters. I did that for five years from 1998. That really influenced me. I have always been fascinated by optical art and geometric abstraction. Daniel Buren influenced me a lot. He created a real link between public spaces and conceptual art. Even back in the '90s, I never did big colourful pieces, I wasn’t really a graffer. I only ever did tags, with calligraphic effects. My characteristic is being the intersection between calligraphy and graffiti, geometric abstraction and minimal art.
Street Art by l'Atlas in Dakar, Senegal. 2012. Photo by l'Atlas.
Do you collect art?
Yeah, I do. I buy, but I also exchange works with other artists. I think that all artists have a collector's soul. To collect something is to unveil links between objects, to expose their similarities.
L'Atlas. Beirut, 2012
If you could add any work to your collection, what kind of art would you choose?
A very minimal piece I think. Something geometric. It’s what I find restful to look at. When I create my own paintings, I see them as meditatitive objects.
Untitled, Spraycan on canvas, L'Atlas. 165 x 165 cm
Talking of meditation, do you follow any rituals when you make art?
Well, I have been practising Tai-Chi for a long time. I'm very inspired by Taoism. I went to live in China for a few months in the mountains to learn more. I find that my painting process is a lot like Tai-Chi, with repetition of certain gestures. You repeat and repeat until you reach a certain perfection.
To be an artist is a little bit like being your own boss. Could you have had a boss, do you think?
Impossible. I tried! I tried working when I was 17, 18, and I couldn't stand it. I grew up in a family of artists, with an unconventional home life, so that seemed pretty normal to me.
L'Atlas installation. Washington Square, New York
Do you think that as an artist, you're free?
You are free. But you’re also a victim of your own freedom. Just because you're working for yourself, it doesn't mean that you don't lock yourself away. I spend most of my life here in my studio. We, as artists, are completely enslaved to what we have chosen to do in a way. But at least we’re doing what we love. If we want to take a siesta, we will. If we want to take the afternoon off to go to the cinema, we can. But we don’t do it often. We work constantly. But, the thing is, when you love what you do, it never feels like work.