CLIQUE STORY: Azyle Speaks – part 2 by @Karimboukercha1
Azyle is one of the most enigmatic and creative figures in French graffiti. An active tagger since the start of the 90s, this lone wolf has a penchant for the metro, where he worked secretly for some 15 years. Now a legend in the graffiti world, he’s steered clear of the media, refusing the advances of the art and street art markets, but agreed to let Karim Boukercha tell his story in two episodes for Clique.tv.
(Part 1 is still available here.)
From punishments to saturation…
Azyle was reborn during the great strikes of 1995, when he stumbled upon a small shop selling spray-paint cans near the Gare de l’Est in Paris.
Walking through the door, he is astonished to discover a shop specialised in graffiti: he thought the movement had long since disappeared. Even in “his time”, shops like that were hardly commonplace. The old tradition preached stealing, and the artists who were willing to pay for their material had to go to the Montreuil flea market, to “MJ Spray” next to Père Lachaise cemetery, or to “Alim Color” in Aulnay. Here, artists could buy Sparvar for “20 francs a can, or 100 francs for six.” Azyle didn’t pay. No money, no choice. He could get hold of black and white Krylon from Monoprix, and Marabu “Do it” from Graffigro and Bon Marché. For paints such as Auto-K, Altona and other high-solvent materials he dropped by the Parisian auto shops. For his ink, he would go to the BHV and Samaritaine department stores, or any number of shops bearing the names of nearby metro stations.
Standing in the shop, Azyle discovers graffiti fanzines for the first time. The owner lets him flick through “On n’ On”, “Paris Connexion”, “Keep Rollin”, and “Xplicit Graff-X”, and the artist is shocked to see that people are still painting in the Parisian metro! It’s a big blow to his ego. In the fanzines he sees HIS depots, HIS line, but none of his own work. It hurts… Even more so because he can’t relate to this new style of graffiti, in which the pseudonyms change constantly to throw off the police. Sacrilege.
Why would you sign with another name?!
Be that as it may, he is forced to face reality: the newbies have overtaken him, embraced the world of photography and now have a platform for promoting their activity… He immediately understands that he won’t go down in history with one photo of his work – a full-page punishment in the first book on French graffiti, “Paris Tonkar”, published in 1991 to resounding success. And that’s without counting his portfolio, hidden at Abdik’s and thrown away by his mother…
Azyle takes advantage of the strikes (a call to arms not to be missed) to go back down to his old territory, and display his new productions for the attention of the magazines.
By getting back on the horse, he also sees that “punishments” – the style he created – have become the norm for the new wave of artists. He finds it old fashioned, boring, weak. Just as he did in the 90s, he once again has to innovate to set himself apart.
Changing from his signature tag is out of the question.
Azyle grows nostalgic. He wants to go back to the “true material” and hunts down the spots the RATP have forgotten to film. He finds places here and there, between two metro carriages and underneath the footboards. He carries out what he likes to call “subtle tags”, spraying engines, the front of the trains, and even underneath the carriages! In his constant search for “eternal tags”, he starts scratching. This new technique targets windscreens, windows and bodywork. He pushes his new art to the limit, spending up to 45 minutes on some of his pieces. He’s delighted to see that the RATP can’t remove them as quickly, and is forced to keep the carriages in circulation.
Back to the future
It’s through his search to relive the past that Azyle finds the building blocks of his next style, after finishing one of his punishments by spraying the rest of his ink from a Baranne bottle to empty it. He enjoys this little indulgence, remembering a time when he was often short on material, struggling for a whole week to fill in his pieces, or out of paint in the middle of a first-class carriage, which remained punished but incomplete. Now, as a young adult, Azyle’s methods of stealing material are more intelligent and organised. He amasses huge stocks of leather polish to splash liberally on his metal canvasses, even though it doesn’t stick as well as it did in the past. This time, when he steps back to look at his tags, now covered in splashes of paint, he sees the strength and advantage of blurring the lines. The same thing happens when he starts mixing inks, scattering his tags and (as he can’t stand blank space) filling in the empty spots so meticulously that his tags start to overlap. It’s a paradox: to reinvent himself, Azyle has to overturn the foundations of his original discipline. He makes his signature illegible by tagging over it, just as rivals tag over each other’s work in acts of defacement or revenge. He mixes up the methods. He adds spray paint signatures to his tags, overlapping everything and moving closer to an abstract painting style. His pieces become more explosive, more chaotic, harsher. He no longer punishes his canvases – he saturates them. And he likes it, even though this change means he has to rework the composition and balance of his art. His new style still respects the calligraphy of his “perfect Azyle” tag, which he repeats ad infinitum, almost in a trance, before it finally comes to life.
His new style starts to take shape at the same time as his adult life. He obtains his professional diploma in bodywork, and joins the army for a short time, where he almost goes mad and is discharged. He then miraculously manages to join the prestigious École Nationale des Arts et Métiers d’Art in Paris, and is the first student in the school’s history to be admitted with a qualification in a manual trade.
He doesn’t think about becoming an artist. He just wants to express himself and create.
Azyle’s idea is to marry bodywork and art, taking design and metal sculptures into account. He’s a good student, and his professors support and push him. He’s got a gift for drawing, even though he stubbornly sticks to his abstract style. Azyle’s work is not figurative. He also discovers he can be influenced, much to his distaste. After all, he did everything to set himself apart in his graffiti. He draws comparisons with his work from several impressionist paintings, and among the students he sees how well the less talented can sell themselves. Although his integration into the school and its social life is complete, everything changes when he meets his first girlfriend, and an overly intense relationship starts to weigh on his studies. Unable to manage both, he chooses passion over academia, even though the school does everything to keep him. He doesn’t regret the experience, although he knows full well that the world of “official art” wasn’t for him. He has more respect for artisans, and values actions over words. He pays his way by working in garages until his agency offers him the incredible opportunity of working at the Renault research department in 1999. Azyle is now 25. He starts at the company as a bodywork technician. He writes technical manuals and has his first child two years later. He gets a promotion, and designs lessons which he shares with trainers around the world. His teachings on welding enjoy a particular international renown. His seemingly fulfilled personal and professional lives are not, however, enough to stop Azyle exploring the bowels of the metro. It’s part of who he is. He needs the adrenaline and still paints regularly.
He’s not scared of being arrested, and even puts money aside to budget for his fines.
Graffiti plays a natural role in every decision he makes. Stylistically speaking, he always sees new ways to innovate. He slowly refines his identity, even though he secretly feels unaccomplished. His home life doesn’t leave him with enough time to paint, frustrating the young artist, and his relationship with his partner deteriorates. He sees their separation in 2005 as liberating, one of the best days of his life. Azyle now has the freedom to live the life he always wanted, to put his adult intelligence into his teenage passion. To paint, whenever he wants.
The beginning of the end
As a lone wolf, Azyle goes back to how he started: breaking with the traditional, prepared methods in order to work alone. For him, other people are a risk. In November 2006 he meets Vices, another lover of the metro and in whom Azyle finds his teenage self, as they share the same vision of graffiti. He wants to make 2007 the year he pushes his physical and mental limits. He often sleeps in his car before going to work after a whole night of painting. He says nothing of his nocturnal activities to his new girlfriend, who thinks he’s actually an art thief. This time, he’s decided that love will not get in the way of his destiny.
The occasional depot, tagging platforms, workshops. The two artists paint two or three times a week, as well as spending nights getting material and preparing for the next underground descent. Azyle and Vices push it, fearlessly stepping up their efforts, believing themselves to be protected by some graffiti divinity when they make narrow escapes from the police. This illusion doesn’t last long, as the anti-graffiti police are hot on their heels, irritated for months by these two insolent figures who refuse to change their pseudonyms. They finally catch up with them after patiently narrowing their search. “Sylvain! Vincent! Hands on your heads!” The two taggers hear their names being shouted one evening in June 2007, while returning to their cars after a tagging session in the metro depot at Porte de la Chapelle.
Azyle’s 17 years of painting in the metro are at an end.
The battle won, but not the war
He’s obviously shocked, but more frustrated. In the middle of an enormous stylistic transformation, he tells the cop that he hadn’t planned on being arrested, and sees it as unfair. His saturations are only just starting to develop their “additional projections” – thin, painted lines on the canvas, creating an image of dynamic lacerations. This new style enabled him to change the scale of his paintings, and overcome his physical limits which restrained him until now. He had so many new angles to explore… He’s devastated. The next chapters of the story are mere details for Azyle. For his actions alongside Vices, the prosecutor demands they pay a fine of 581,000 euros. This estimation is revised in the trial by the investigating judge, who understands that Azyle’s work is above all a personal matter. His case is helped by the fact that Vices, whose lawsuits have caught up with him, flees France forever following the trial. Azyle’s final bill comes to 195,000 euros.
No longer able to paint, he sees his trial as the next step in his work.
He calls on the services of a lawyer named Mr Jésus (a sign?), and his defence can be summed up in two words: the Truth. Without lying, he says that he hasn’t tagged his entire life. He doesn’t want to be tarred with the wrong figures, he just wants to know the true price of his creations (according to the police). How much have his actions actually cost? Why does no one answer when he asks how the costs are calculated? Why does the RATP stay silent when he points out their inconsistencies? Azyle is a tagger who ranks his metros by their serial numbers. He’s a qualified technician who has designed a set of methodical lessons. Defying the fine, he works on his case, trying to understand how the RATP calculated the costs, the quantity of products used, the temporary removal of the carriages and the time taken to clean off his paintings. He calls on the services of a court bailiff, showing that his work only caused minor damage, and that the RATP can clean a square metre in a tenth of the time suggested, leaving no trace behind… He hopes that with all of his research, his voice will be heard at his trial at the end of 2012; but to no avail… The judge, although friendly and ready to listen, returns to what the Prosecutor and the RATP demanded: an eight-month suspended sentence, and one hundred and ninety five thousand euros in damages. Azyle appeals. Not for the money, but for the Truth. How much does it cost to wipe out a signature? To wipe out an Azyle?
You can read all about Azyle’s journey and work in the book Descente Interdite (Ed. Wasted Talent, Alternatives).