Graffiti Artist Kongo: Street Art and Silk Scarves
The renowned French graffiti artist talks passion, spontaneity, and the common ground between him and luxury house, Hermès
You may have already glimpsed his work in the form of vibrant silk scarves in Hermès's fall/winter 2011 collection, or perhaps even adorning a stretch of hoarding at Scotts Square in the Orchard Road precinct as of a few weeks ago. The man in question is none other than French graffiti artist, Cyril Phan, better known by his pseudonym, Kongo. A self-taught painter who has gained an international reputation for his unique artistic identity, Kongo is part of an artist collective that traverses the world to spread the seeds of creativity, and is co-founder of the International Graffiti Festival.
In Singapore for the first time last month to create some traffic-stopping (and totally legal) graffiti art as part of the Voilah! French Festival, Kongo will be back in town again this weekend for the official opening of the new Hermès store at Scotts Square from December 9 to 11. He will be in-store to create graffiti name tags for all visitors, and you can also have your picture taken in front of a larger-than-life scarf at the "Graff Hermès" scarf atelier.
It may seem incongruous that the two should meet - street art, so often painted with a veil of illicitness, and a high-end luxury brand whose only alleged crime is making such beautiful objects that we are wont to covet. Yet on the contrary, the artist himself reveals that they share more similarities that may show on the surface, and the synergy between the two is further attested to as a portion of proceeds from the Graff Hermès scarf which Kongo designed will go towards supporting young budding graffiti artists under his Kosmopolis collective.
Asia Tatler finds out more about the collaboration and what makes this energetic artist tick.
Asia Tatler: Can you tell us more about your beginnings as a painter? When and how did you first get into the art?
Kongo: I painted and drew when I arrived in France to live with my grandparents as a political refugee from Vietnam. Being the only Asian in that French community, I was shy and used painting as a means of expression. Graffiti was perfect for me. What was amazing about it was that I discovered I could have a double life or personality. Just as Spiderman has Peter Parker, Cyril Phan has Kongo. Cyril is shy, Kongo paints everywhere.
AT: What do you particularly love about graffiti art? Is there a consistent message that you try to convey in your work?
K: What I like about graffiti art is the total freedom it offers, the spontaneity, the energy that it gives out. The main message is to be yourself. Be real, be authentic.
AT: How did the collaboration with Hermès come about?
K: I met with the team and was told, "We like your work, but we don't know what we can do with it." They said, "You can show us what you're doing, bring us your style and the door will stay open."
AT: Tell us more about the creative process in working with Hermès.
K: The Graff Hermès scarf took two years to design because I had to really immerse myself in the Maison, and to understand how it works. I take my time and Hermès takes their time.
I was an artist from the street who knew nothing about luxury, but they took me like an infant, to visit the Émile Hermès museum. When the curator, who has become something of a maternal presence, opened the museum doors, I felt such a strong vibration hit me. I have a lot of similarities with Hermès because I love travel, I appreciate handmade things and have a connection with art. Hermès doesn't care about 'high' luxury objects as most people understand it - they care about real life, real objects. We are similar not just in the way we create but in our philosophy.
AT: How was the experience like for you?
K: After the museum visit, I realised I didn't have to draw a horse. I could draw a plane, or something of my generation. I didn't have to work on a computer, I could draw and paint, with real textures and backgrounds. I can be true. I don't have to play a game. I was apprehensive when I first presented my designs to Hermès's artistic director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas. Tagging on the streets is different, sometimes I'm not sure if others will understand my language or vocabulary. But he loved it and said to continue with the direction. It gave me strength and oxygen. It made me feel really free and sure of myself, and really comfortable to work with Hermès.
AT: Was your visit to Singapore in November, your first? What impression do you have of it?
K: Yes, that was my first time in Singapore. Unfortunately, I didn't have the time to sightsee, but what from what I have seen, it's very beautiful, very modern with great people. It was a really beautiful experience.
AT: Who or what do you look to most for inspiration?
K: What inspires me: travel, meeting new people, flowers, the sea, nature or the great mega-cities, the buildings, markets, human beings. Artistically, Basquiat, Pollock, Monet, Dubuffet, Warhol, Tapies, Tkida, Bio, Ai Wei Wei inspire me so much...
AT: How much spontaneity is there in your art? Do you start on a piece with the knowledge of how it's going to end up?
K: Spontaneity is totally part of my being, I accept it and it guides my art, I never know when I start a painting what it will look like at the end. I have an idea of the main direction, yes, but that's it. The rest I give free rein to my inspiration.
AT: How would you like to be remembered?
K: I would like to be remembered as an artist but also as a father, a citizen of the earth, a Man (with a capital 'M').
AT: Paint us a picture of yourself in words.
K: I'm just a man who lives his dreams and not a man who dreams his life.
Photos: Dominic Khoo