CLIQUE STORY: Azyle Speaks – part 1 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 three episodes for Clique.tv.
The story begins one Sunday morning in May, 1990, on line 13 of the Parisian metro. Three teenagers are sitting in a carriage which will take them to the 7th arrondissement of Paris. There, underneath the Invalides Museum and the Italian embassy lie a dozen carriages which are apparently “broken into every weekend.” Evil and Jek are regulars, but this time they’ve brought a newbie, about 15, to “do” his first metro. The other two have been fascinated by his tags which are all over his home suburb of La Courneuve. Until then he wrote “Asi.06”, but it didn’t sound that great. Abdik, his lifelong partner in crime, who watches him climb everywhere to “tag”, advises him to sign “Asile”: “That would really suit you, trust me.” Sold.
The trio are keeping watch on the platform of Varenne station, where one of the currently most sought-after metro carriage depots is to be found. Asile is impatient, too impatient for his two friends who don’t want to risk jumping down into the tunnel while there are still people around. They stare in surprise as the “kid” goes for it without asking for permission. The first tags, made using white Krylon spray paint, make clouds of vapour which can be smelled on the platform.
“Asile! Stop fucking around!”
But it’s too late. Nothing else matters. He’s been seduced by the depot’s aura. Of course, he’s scared of the unknown, of strange noises, and of any cops hiding out, but he feels good. Like he’s come home. The only problem is that he doesn’t have enough space. The carriages have already been ruined by the heavy tags of one of the leading groups of the time, connected to French rappers NTM and 93 MAFIA CREW, who say what goes on line 13. These are Kea, Mam, Swen, Arys, Keys, Acide and the other menacing faces who will later appear in the rap video “Le monde de demain”, filmed by Mondino the following year. Asile tags the engines. At least there, it’s on its own and won’t be removed. This works when he can’t find any space left on the bodywork to spray his tags, which he then marks off with a careful line. He already feels the need to stand apart, take control of his own space. He’s almost used up the “two blacks, two whites” he wears on his belt when Evil and Jek finally catch up with him. The other two tag using an intense photo black ink, which yellows with time. Having finished his cans, Asile decides to fill in his tags with his last weapon – a miserable little red marker pen – when he hears Evil shout:
“Asile! Run! Run! They’re coming!”,
before he sprints off. It’s too late to run. His heart is racing, but he decides to lie down and hide between two benches. It must be the GIPR, a new transport police unit which has a reputation for punching first and asking questions later. And that’s when they don’t pepper spray you in the face (or the dick – it’s happened!). If they catch him, he’ll just say he was exploring the place with his 10mm pipe wrench which can open the carriage doors, and that he bumped into some taggers. He’s just a kid, it should work, right? He doesn’t have a chance to find out, as the noises aren’t coming from the handcuff-toting cops, but from new spray cans. It’s the AC18, a gang from the 18th arrondissement – Opium, Coast and another guy – who have also come to pay homage to the depot. After introductions, and when they see Asile blowing the dust away to tag with his pathetic marker pen, they take pity on him and lend him their cans.
The improvised team make their way to a turn in the tracks, and jump for joy when they see a line of untouched carriages. “Fucking fresh ones!” It’s a rare event on this metro line, which was the first to be hit by taggers from 1986 onwards. Studies from the RATP (a Parisian transport operator) estimate that tags can be seen on 98% of line 13. Game on. They split into groups to “hit” both sides of the carriages, when they hear shouts. One of them has been caught! This time, Asile decides to leg it, trying to escape. Opium does the same. Bad idea. They both run into bullish transport cops who sandwich them in on both ends of the tunnel and hold them at a distance with truncheons. It’s over. Impossible to run. Coast is luckier, dodging the guards before disappearing into the dark tunnel. For Asile, Opium and the third AC18 member, no such luck. Next stop: the central police station of the 7th arrondissement, 9 rue Fabert.
The Golden Age
This is how Asile learned about the harsh reality for taggers in the Parisian metro. Theirs is a speciality in a league of its own in the world of French graffiti, and Asile is a second-generation tagger, which will become one of his defining characteristics. Up until 1990, the handful of taggers who appeared in 1984 didn’t really have a specialty. Just as in New York, where graffiti was born 15 years earlier, the main objective is visibility. Taggers work in the streets, along the banks of the Seine and on the fences surrounding the construction sites at Beaubourg and the Louvre. And let’s not forget the legendary La Chappelle neighbourhood, where the French hip-hop movement was born. The first taggers obviously went for the metro to lay their foundations, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the RATP buckled under the weight of an increasing number of graffiti artists. The metro then became the most coveted and prestigious of playgrounds for the new wave of artists. Competition is fierce, and the law of this underworld is simple: maximum coverage and as much style as possible. The RATP, ordered by metro users to do something, had no other choice than to declare war on the taggers, both in the field and in the media. Despite its efforts, the RATP actually gave taggers a natural nemesis to defy. This is the context in which Asile made his debut, and his first arrest hardly put him off. In fact, while being escorted out by the police, he can’t believe his eyes:
“We came in at Varenne on the line 13, and we’re coming out at La Tour Maubourg on the line 8!”
He takes in everything: ladders, doors, tunnels. It’s enormous! There’s so much to be done! He just needs to be more professional next time. He should also come alone. Even if the “I’m just a boy out for a walk” excuse worked, the cops convinced the two AC18 members that “the kid snitched on you.” And he didn’t like waiting for Evil and Jek… He also needs to solve the problem of visibility and find a way to set himself apart from the mass of tags which all blend into one indistinguishable mess. He wants his name to be exclusive, with no room for the others. He wants to cover the whole carriage, make it his. This is how he decides to put his tags in methodical lines, like a naughty schoolboy writing on the board, covering every carriage he targets. In the graffiti world, this is called a punishment. A few taggers had already done it before, but no one had ever made it their trademark. Asile, who refines his calligraphy and changes to Azyle, monopolises this technique, which literally defines him.
In September 1990, as his parents grow tired of his poor school attendance, Azyle is sent to a community-run high school in Paris (the LAP), and decides to make waves. Too bad for his studies and the promises made to his family, who thought their authority-averse son would be better in a looser structure and get his act together. They weren’t completely wrong, however, as Azyle discovers a love of discipline in his tagging. He hides out in the metro and organises his days with military precision.
7am – get up to make his parents believe he’s going to school.
8am – register at school.
8.30am – trip to look for more depots, breaking in and stealing his equipment.
From 11am to 2pm – tag session.
From 2pm to 6pm – another search in the depots, breaking in and stealing.
6.30pm – obligatory return home.
7.30pm – family meal.
10pm – preparation of equipment for the next day, mixing ink, fillers, etc.
From 1am to 6am – slipping out two or three times a month to do a depot, on foot or by bike.
And it pays off. The tagging movement, avoided by Azyle, wonders as to the identity of this tagger who works alone while everyone else works in teams. After his “Grand Slam” – tagging every metro line – Azyle decides to concentrate on his very own line 7, in order to attract even more attention. He wants all 80 trains on the line to bear his name, and he manages to do it pretty quickly. His presence is felt on the inside of all the first carriages, in five different colours, which adds up to a minimum of five trips each time. The same effort is applied to the carriage’s exterior. He even sprays punishments to which he obsessively adds mini-tags between the lines. He reaches the stage where he can’t do any better because he can’t do any more. Azyle loves to leave his mark, and he sticks to it. Even when most taggers in his generation move onto graffiti, he refuses the new fashion. He can’t understand how colourful, shaped letters can be held in higher esteem than a beautifully written signature. Following this philosophy, Azyle becomes a UFO in the world of French graffiti, which adheres to the New York model. It only takes him six months to make a name for himself on this thriving scene. But no one is expecting the crushing blow which is about to be dealt. In the shadows, the RATP is finalising its “Territorial Win-Back” programme, launched two years earlier. New, laminated carriages prevent ink from holding, and Azyle witnesses the disappearance of what he calls “true material.” And with tagged carriages being locked in the depots, alongside the introduction of a systematic cleaning protocol within 24 hours, his punishments slip gradually out of sight…
In September 1992, Azyle has just turned 18 when the shock hits. Nothing is as it was before, everything seems lifeless. The works sprayed on carriages which used to run for several months, now only last a few days at most! The anti-graffiti unit is created. Arrests soar. Competition peters out and many artists throw in the towel. The end is nigh. But not for Azyle, who will never stop, and struggles to deal with this forced withdrawal. He even stops taking the metro, as he can no longer stand the smells, and the carriages hold too many memories. Bitter nostalgia sets in, and boredom wins. Cast aside, he even envies his friends who have homework to do. He decides to return to a normal life, and starts at the only school that will take him in. It’s at this technical college that he discovers a talent for manual work. Completely cut off from the world of tagging, and convinced that no one sprays metros any more, he still keeps going to the tunnels. Just through a survival instinct. Just to prove to himself that Azyle lives on.
End of part one.
Next week, Karim Boukercha will recount the next part of Azyle’s story during the 2000s.
An evolution in the movement and his style, but also the arrival of the police…