France: Artist finds coexisting hard in streets of Paris
On the night of 30-31 January 2015, French street artist Combo Culture Kidnapper was assaulted by four unidentified youth as he put up a wall painting bringing together the three symbols of monotheism. ‘Coexist’ depicts the Muslim crescent, the Jewish Star of David and the Christian cross – replacing the ‘c’, ‘x’ and ‘t’, respectively. It was written next to a self-portrait of the artist pointing to the sky.
Combo met Freemuse correspondent Daniel Brown in Paris to discuss the incident as well as his recent if meteoric career which has challenged censorship and cultural concepts, from Hong Kong to Chernobyl, via France.
By Daniel Brown INSIGHT
Combo enters the café in the Latin Quarter with a confident, if a tad ungainly stride, taking in the atmosphere with discretion. The tall, slim street-artist is shrouded in an inconspicuous seablue winter coat and resembles one of the droves of students haunting the neighbourhood of central Paris, home to the Sorbonne University and the Ecoles Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Sporting the bushy beard that he grew for his ‘djih-art’ workshop in Beirut in October 2014, he shows none of the injuries he incurred two weeks earlier. The bruising of the face, the impressive black eye and dislocated shoulder in a sling have all gone leaving behind no physical nor, he says, psychological scars.
Two days earlier, he published photos of his latest work on his Facebook page. Next to his graffiti title ‘Love is Blind: and Religion Can Blind Us’, this Saint Valentine’s collage depicts Combo in his traditional light-blue djellaba and duffle coat in a passionate embrace with another man in blue jeans, tennis shoes… and a kippah.
He twittered it as #muslimjewishkiss.
The 28-year-old says he never felt better and is ready for another day of intense exchange with the press. And this despite an unprecedented fortnight of media attention, that has taken a toll on his private and professional life.
Combo has already flirted with controversy and its consequent coverage thanks to his murals in Chernobyl, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Beirut. But nothing quite like the onslaught he has faced since 1 February 2015.
“It’s been a real pain,” he says with a lightness that does not quite gell with “pain”.
“As an individual I have no desire to put myself through this dramatisation. It’s contrary to my nature, my values. But,” he says with emphasis, “if it allows my message to be heard out there, then I have to do it, I can live with it. I’m not going to hide that I’m quite happy with the outcome.”
This outer calmness has been a feature of Combo’s behaviour since he was attacked by four unidentified men at the Porte Dorée that cold Saturday night.
“Last night I was attacked for my art,” he wrote matter-of-factedly on his facebook page. “They began hitting me: one by one, two by two, all at the same time… Tomorrow,” he concludes, “I’ll return to glue my work up. The day-after-tomorrow, too. Our ideals are worth more than their low-life ideas.”
A week later, with the support of the Institut du Monde Arabe and its director Jack Lang, he distributed over 500 replicas of ‘Coexist’ to volunteers who plastered the Paris walls with them.
“It’s not the first time I’ve been assaulted,” he says between sips of his double-coffee. “I’m aware of the risks, I’d been warned about them, I knew it would be tricky. But when you’re jumped by several people it’s actually easier to defend yourself than against a lone attacker.” He chuckles. “The experience was so fast, intense, I can’t even tell you how long it lasted. But I do remember applying some of the boxing moves one of my younger brothers has taught me to defend myself.”
As for the physical identity of the assailants Combo has remained resolutely obtuse throughout. “I will remain willingly vague as to the description of these cowards,” he wrote on his Facebook page the day after the assault, “because it matters little where they come from, the colour of their skin, their religion or their political ideas. In the context (we are living in), they only represent stupidity and ignorance.”
It was the first time the artist had tried out the ‘Coexist’ sign on the walls of Paris. He chose the northeast Paris neighbourhood partly because he knows it well and partly because it was near the kosher grocery store Hyper Cacher where Amedy Coulibaly went on his murderous rampage three weeks earlier.
“After the ‘events’ of last month I needed to send out a message near where it took place,” he says, not wanting to elaborate too much. “I can only say that ever since those attacks my works are torn down much more quickly, especially if there’s a reference like ‘I am Charlie’. They stay up just a few days at the most, especially if it involves politics, religion, any form of militancy which touches on a raw nerve. If I pasted up animals, say dolphins or pigeons, it can stay up. The less you disturb, the longer it remains.” He smiles and shakes his head.
Combo’s choice of working with the logo ‘Coexist’ had been an easy one. “It seemed appropriate. This drawing was created by Piotr Mlodozeniec in 2000,” he explains, “but there’s no copyright issue, it’s been free-of-rights since he first showed it in a competition organised by the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem. Plenty of other people have used it, including U2 in a concert [Ed., as part of the Vertigo concert tour when Bono wore the design on his headband]. I had the same idea of just spreading the message and afterwards people can recuperate it, deform it, breathe new life into it. If it gives it new impetus, all the better.”
New impetus is an understatement to what Combo did himself. Where Mlodozeniec’s picture is clean and classic, the self-styled “photo-graffeur” makes the letters and signs bleed with black ink. Even ordinary-looking elements of it take on different mantles. When asked in a well-known television programme where were the signs representing atheists in “Coexist” he laughed: “In the letters O-E-I-S, of course. Yeah, if you count, there are more atheists than believers, in the end.”
France’s deuxième degré
Next to the deformed word is his ubiquitous self-portrait harbouring the traditional djellaba robe, a long beard, a sturdy expression and a finger lifted to the sky. As with most of his work, Combo uses wheat pasted prints which are unpasted then glued to a canvas adding to the street atmosphere in his work. Why the djellaba?
“Oh, it’s just to tell people that the djellaba is not to be identified with Muslims but with Arabs. It’s the same message at heart: just because you wear a djellaba and sport a long beard doesn’t make you a Muslim. It’s turning people’s perceptions on their heads, telling them they shouldn’t judge someone on their appearances, they should take time to reflect about what’s behind it all. What we call in French un deuxième degré, not taking things at face value, questioning taken-for-granted assumptions …”
Combo chanced on the idea during his six-week stay in Beirut last year. He had been invited for a six month residency and told his friends he was off on his personal “jih-art”. What started as a joke turned into a project where his djellaba persona exhorted Beirutis to indulge in “Less Hamas, more hummus”, prodded them gently with a “No Imam, No Cry” or turned western fears of the Islamic State on its head: “Write on a black flag in Arabic and just see how the Westerners will panic. What do you think?”, he graffitied.
The Lebanon experience was an eye-opener for Combo. “I found a strong multi-cultural spirit there, they were very open. Lebanon is a real melting-pot, you know. When they say “hello”, for example, they throw together three languages: “Hi, kif, ça va?” It’s brilliant, these people don’t even notice this linguistic mishmash, that’s the future: you mix it up, recuperate from all sides and create a new language. That’s Lebanon.”
The contrast in attitude towards Combo’s work also struck him. “They laughed when I drew the caricatures of the Arabs and told them ‘This is how they see you in France’. But back in France they really thought I had gone on a jihad, there was no deuxième degré. I lost friends, was insulted. It’s too bad.”
This deuxième degré is very much at the heart of Combo’s philosophy. “I defend people with differences, the right to be an exception,” he says with insistence in his rapidfire way. “Religion, for example, I don’t have any, my sexuality certainly doesn’t include gay, women, well, I’m definitely not one. But I’ll defend these ideas, I stick up for people who are different and are attacked for that very reason. I hope people would do the same for me, I find it much too boring to defend my own differences. I prefer to stick up for the others, I’m better at it. It’s just part of me.”
The only way Combo has found to express these convictions is through street art, with all the risks it contains. “You just can’t predict how people will respond, it brings up so many cultural differences. If I can get them to stop for a few seconds or take a picture, I’ve won. I’m always looking for a reference to draw them towards my work. And this is the most direct way, it’s the only truly free form of art we have left.”
Why? “Because it’s not governed by money like film-making and music are. What is left in the underground besides us? There used to be cinema, rock, hiphop, punk, but that’s all gone. Nowadays, you have to agree with producers, distributers, record labels, they become a form of censorship.
“But my painting, well…” He draws breath and launches into the monologue with renewed passion. “It’s simple, just some pieces of paper, or canvas, and an image. For me, when street art starts addressing people it’s reconquering the street. Nowadays, that street has been confiscated, it’s no longer a public space, you have to ask permission to express yourself all the time. So street artists operate a coup d’état on a part of it, a wall.”
When asked about the freedom afforded by the explosion of social networks, Combo shakes his head: “That’s just another example of censorship. Take facebook, for example. You can’t show a breast or someone smoking, you can’t write an insult, they’ll remove it. I’ve tested a few things: I’ve had no trouble with ‘Suck my duck’, but when I tried ‘Fuck school, I wanna be a street-artist’, that didn’t get through. Either way, it shows they’re in control, somehow.”
The 2014 visit to Beirut was also a return to Combo’s paternal roots. He is loath to talk much about his family or the reasons why they moved around so much as he grew up. His Christian Lebanese father married a Moroccan Muslim and he was born in Anvers, France, in 1986. The parents took their four boys to Nice, Paris, Morocco, Central African Republic, Troyes and, and “….more, many more places”. “We travelled a lot, I got a taste for it and so I continue now, for my art, it’s something I enjoy.”
Combo’s start in street art was an accident, born of a desire for revenge: “There was this French teacher we had, she really took it out on us and so we decided to paint her car. We bought these spray canisters, went out at night but we couldn’t find it, she had moved it. We had these canisters we didn’t know what to do with, so we started painting the walls. I was 16, that was 2000, no, 2002, I don’t know, I’m still not very good at maths.” He pauses and breaks out in his infectious, childlike laugh.
Once he began spraying it was hard for the teenager to stop and his graff-art became a source of pride and a problem. “In France, the law is clear: pasting up a picture is, at worst, a fine, you rarely go before the tribunals, where you get hit with €5,000 euro at most. But a simple graffiti is a crime, it can put you behind bars as a penal offence and the fines can be over €10,000 euro [Ed. in fact, vandalism of public landmarks can lead to fines of up to €150,000 euro and ten years in prison…]. That’s not freedom! I was often behind bars, usually for 24 hours, from the age of 16 to 23 years old. And I’ve spent many summers working just to pay off my debts. I had friends who owed the State 80,000€ by the time they reached 18!”
The hostility to street art appears widespread in France, as the artist elaborates in a wide-ranging 2013 interview with Art Media Agency: “People are outraged, shocked, and even gallery owners sometimes. I once pasted next to the Galerie Perrotin, and the owners came and threatened to call the police, while they exhibit JR, Kaws… They like Street Art in a drawing room or a gallery, but not when it overflows limits. And this is precisely our essential issue: limits must be overflowed, this is our identity!”
Combo’s perception runs counter to a more complex love-hate “attitude” the French have to a form of art they were instrumental in creating. Indeed, the defiance of a determined group of French street artists since they burst onto the scene as early as the 1960s helped spawn a worldwide trend. They were amongst the first to transform graffiti into an elevated form of popular art and poetry, inspiring the likes of Shepard Fairey and Banksy. Daniel Buren was one of its pioneers with his Affichages sauvages in Paris metros in 1967, a concept he went on to export to New York and Tokyo subways.
Four years later, Gérard Zlotykamien began painting silhouettes in the debris of the green market of Les Halles that authorities tore down to build today’s controversial shopping centre. The situationist Ernest Pignon-Ernest furthered French dominance of street art with alternative evocations of modern history and wheat pasted portraits of Arthur Rimbaud. But the fact that artists praised the French capital as the hub of a new street movement did nothing to allay official hostility to the practice: a police unit was set up to dismantle the artists’ “rings”, a 1994 law, one of the most repressive in Europe, made tagging a dangerous and costly practice; while, at one stage, the French SNCF railway company sued 56 of Paris’ most high-profile taggers.
The Paris municipality currently employs three private companies to paint over graffiti it deems offensive or disfiguring. Each year, they remove approximately 200,000 m² from the Paris walls. The result in the 1990s and early 2000s was an exodus abroad and the birth of a burgeoning underground scene.
It was in this period of conservative blacklash that Combo continued to refine his street work. The teenager’s artistic talents had been good enough to open the doors of the respected National School of Fine Arts at the Villa Arson, in Nice. But his endearment to testing the limits of street art led to his expulsion in the first year and a subsequent move to Paris. “They actually did me a favour,” he says with no sign of irony. “The expulsion pushed me towards the world of publicity, of all things, and I learnt plenty of tricks I’ve since used in my street art.”
Testing new horizons
Combo is not prolix about his time as publicist and artistic director for agencies like BETC (ranked number one in its market), but after four years in the publicity world he threw in the towel and returned to his initial passion for the street. “Re-acquainting myself with the street atmosphere was easy,” he insists. “In those first years of trying my hand I was more interested in drawing personalities, I wasn’t transmitting much. Graffiti was my adolescence, you repeat and repeat the same gestures. You have to grow up, get beyond that. And bring out a message. After quitting publicity, I had new tools, fresh ideas. I brought with me a publicist’s spirit and deformed it publicly. Hence the Apache warrior name I took for myself, Combo Culture Kidnapper. I’m a blend capturing different cultural elements and meshing them together.”
When he returned to the streets in 2010, France’s attitude to the graffeurs linked to the 1990s clean-up had given way to new approaches and initiatives by politicians. In 2014 specialist Susan Hack could write: “The capital has lately re-emerged as a street-art mecca, boasting a stunning architectural backdrop and a growing population of appreciative citoyens”. Sure, the laws against defacing private and public property remain, and are “so strict that it’s illegal to put up a poster for a lost dog in Paris, let alone wield a can of spray paint, without prior permission from landlords or city officials,” Hack commented. But “high-profile politicians are working with street artists to legitimise their art.”
Not far from Combo’s favourite northeast beat covering Montmartre, République and everything in between, the mayor of Paris’ 10th arrondissment, Rémi Féraud encouraged official street art through the creation of Modulable, Urbain, Réactif, or MUR (“wall” in French) for short. The likes of Speedy Graphito, eL Seed, Carlo Rero and Jef Aérosol were auctioning off their works, hanging them in some of the 60 Paris art galleries selling such creations or collaborating with Disney animation movies. Meanwhile, the 13th arrondissement’s mayor Jérôme Coumet has been commissioning burgeoning street talents to paint giant murals to give colour to a neighbourhood better known for its Chinatown and the drab grey skyscrapers piercing the capital’s southeast sky.
But Combo was pining for different horizons. Caught by a desire to send out a message about nuclear power, he decided to mark the first anniversary of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Chernobyl. “France was out because the lobby is too strong here and I wanted to open the debate up to a world audience. As for Fukushima, forget it, it’s impossible, they even keep journalists at bay.”
Entering the former Ukrainian nuclear powerhouse turned out to be a piece of cake, however. To this day, trips to the site are a thriving business. Combo had no trouble persuading a-former-military-man-turned-guide, to turn a blind eye for $500 (“it was more than a month’s salary for him”) as he wandered through the abandoned ghost town of Pripyat equipped with his posters and a Geiger counter. Within hours on a frosty April day in 2012, he pasted up several samples of his works ranging from real adverts lauding the nuclear industry to a giant Simpsons mural. The latter was all the newspapers seemed interested in. Was he disappointed the international media only focused on America’s best-known nuclear family?
“Yes and no. I know how the media works. The Simpsons were a bait, it opened the door and gave me room for my message. You learn the tricks of the trade and use it to your own advantage. That’s what Che did in his own world. Call me a media guerilla, if you like.”
The positive media response to the Chernobyl operation spurred Combo to try his luck in China. Angered by the arrest of Ai Weiwei and 130 fellow-artists, he decided to attack what he sees as an “absurd” marriage between the communist government and a “hyper-capitalistic” society.
In January 2013, he boarded a plane for Hong Kong in a street operation he later dubbed “Golden Shield”. “It was a time of protest in the streets, the people needed something to smile about,” he says softly. “My work also serves as an amplifier, and the government had just banned Google. So it means you can get near things, but can’t touch them.”
It was what Combo called a “golden barbed wire”: “Barbed wire is ambivalent and ironic: it is attractive and prickly at the same time!” (“Interview with Combo, urban artist”, Paris, 13 February 2013, Art Media Agency.) When asked about the risks he took in China, his response was somewhat prescient: “I believe that creating art implies a risk, both aesthetical and physical. When one creates Street Art, one has to take a physical risk: it’s the street, not a studio, the act is risky and fast. Doing it right to the end might well earn you prison!”
The artist printed several screen captures of the banned Google pages to make 3x4m² posters. To smuggle them into the country he cut them into over 1,000 pieces, a practice he uses for all sensitive operations: “You can’t see the message if they’re all dispersed,” he says, gesturing broadly. “But it’s a helluva lot of work dismantling and putting them back together again!”
The Parisian began pasting them up in the Hong Kong central quarters at 5am, an opportune time when police shifts changed. “I had studied their work patterns, I was very careful. People looked and moved on right away. There was a mixture of surprise and discreet pleasure, no one denounced me. I just had time to put up seven posters, there was Ai Weiwei’s arrest, one on Tibet, one on Tiananmen Square during the demonstrations, and so on. Interestingly, the poster which seemed to arouse greatest interest was the cat giving the middle finger. I’m not sure they understood it but there was quite a gathering.”
Art must be like Ramadan
Back in Paris, or Paname as he affectionately calls it, Combo enjoyed his first solo exhibition, ‘Golden Shield’. This was a play on words referring both to the other name given to the Great Wall of China and the censorship programme the government operated against Google. He had no trouble with the notion of moving his works from the street to the art gallery. “It allows me to spend more time debating my ideas with people than in the streets. I don’t mind selling my art, as long as I don’t live off of it. My principle is to live your art as a passion, not as a profession. I was never so bland and unimaginative as when I devoted myself fulltime to my creativity. I spent a couple of the last years doing that and it limited me. So I just got a small job forcing myself to be frustrated. It’s like fasting for Ramadan, afterwards you have a heightened appetite. At least that’s how it works for me.”
The success of his ‘Golden Shield’ exhibition did not stop Combo’s restless forages into the street. He continued pinpointing with humour the contradictions in his own society, calling himself a ‘citizen-artist’ (and not a militant). After being made aware by the group Les Morts de la Rue of the death of 162 homeless people in Paris between June and December 2012, he realised a pop-up installation next to the Bourse stock exchange to denounce the anonymity of their deaths. It was a collective work but Combo fiercely defends his individualism. “I just did it with friends, I’m not into collectives, I never look for unanimity in my work, we don’t have the same vision and that’s what is interesting.”
Nevertheless, his ongoing interest with the Femen group seems rooted in a shared outlook he says he wishes to further explore. It first came to light with a bold tribute to the women’s militancy, a massive collage along the Canal Saint Martin for the 14 July national celebrations of 2013.
The wheat-paste, brushed and breast-dominated transformation of ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugène Delacroix is one of Combo’s most audacious works. “I want to denounce the discrimination and other misogynistic behavior that women still suffer too often and to pay a tribute to the activists’ fight,” he told the Huffington Post at the time.
“I want to work with femininity,” he explains to me 18 months later. “These women have become friends, I admire them, they take far more risks than I do. They are true revolutionaries, they take their ideals to an extreme, while I only ask questions, I have no answers, I’m just a painter. We’ve become good friends.”
Whilst Combo pays homage to Femen’s commitment, he also acknowledges a more prosaic engagement and resilience of his own, a necessity if he hopes to survive as a street artist. “It’s exhausting, exhausting. You’re out in the street all night. People take real risks and put their private lives on the line. You lose your friends, don’t go out, invest all your money in what you believe. If you have a day job, it’s almost impossible. But this city gives you the adrenaline to transgress and resist. And there are no CCTV cameras on every corner here, so street artists from elsewhere are coming to us more and more.” Hence, the appearance on Paris walls of artists like the Australian Vexta, Alexis Diaz from Puerto Rico and French American Sowat.
Dancing on a fault line
Combo’s guerrilla communication, or culture jamming as he prefers to call it, finds its inspiration in the French philosopher Roland Barthes. Barthes’ 1980 book La Chambre Claire: Note sur la photographie delves in the pleasure or emotion of the observer, provoked by photographs taken as far back as 1852. They are not composed classically but follow a more instinctive path: “A photo is surprising when you do not know why it has been taken,” writes Barthes. “A photo is subversive when it is thoughtful and not frightening.” Combo says he uses this notion to “deform the primary object by super-imposing another approach.” “I take an image and I penetrate it with an original idea.”
In this way he hopes to subvert and divert mainstream media culture and its institutions, by using the very tools they are built on. His “subvertising” embraces well-known icons of the mass media and the entertainment world to produce satirical and ironic commentary about itself. In this way, he hopes it will foster debate and progressive change. “It’s also a form of demystification, breaking the images we all know and giving them another slant.”
Dancing on this fault-line in our world is something the Paris artist seems to do with humour and self-deprecation. Combo appears very much a loner and feels deep down street artists must strike out in different directions and let their individualities dominate any idea of a joint force. “I have no idea what there will be out there in three-four years time, and I hope I’ll be pushed aside by a new generation,” he says gently. He is prodded about limits and respect for the Other by Sajoua Bentayeb of the Upaint Street Art Festival who has been following our exchange. He answers carefully as if picking his way through a minefield: “The only limit we have to give ourselves is guided by our own morals. We can hurt people, that happens. But we can also say we’re sorry, there should be no misguided pride about that, that’s life. It’s okay to provoke, it’s just you mustn’t want to hurt. That’s my limit, there’s nothing interesting in hurting.”
He turns to Charlie Hebdo’s reaction to the January murders: “When (the new editor-in-chief) Luz drew that first cover with Mohammed holding up a piece of paper saying “I am Charlie” under a banner headline ‘All is Forgiven’ I don’t think he was trying to hurt anyone. After that, you can’t guess how people will react, it’s complex. You can’t stop living by worrying about hurting someone. If you stop at the sensibilities of each and every person you don’t go forward, you do nothing.”
It is by seeking this area out of people’s comfort zone that Combo hopes to force society to revise its attitudes. His culture jamming reflects this trend in street art, that of puncturing commercial icons in such a way as to challenge the ‘Bigger Picture’, or an over-riding political culture of corporate domination. At present, the Lebanese-Moroccan-French artist is well aware of the heightened sensitivities on all sides to a debate currently raging in French society. He pleads for some humour in his two-level messages, this deuxième degré that is at times so elusive: “I don’t want to laugh at people, I just want to laugh with them. And then make them think.”
Combo’s current explorations are on femininity and women’s rights. He is also hoping to artistically exploit some of the exchanges he picked up in his frequent if short stays behind bars. “I saw a graffiti on the wall there: “France for the French, French women for Africans!” That’s very poetic!” He laughs, then shakes hands as we leave and says, somewhat apologetically: “Look, I can’t say much more, it’s like giving the game away. You’ll see it in my art, I don’t know how to talk, I write badly. It’s only in the streets I feel at home.”
Daniel Brown is a journalist based in France and Vice-chair of Freemuse.
Photos © and courtesy of the artist.
This article is part of a Freemuse INSIGHT series edited by Marie Korpe.
It was published in April 2015.