Christian Guémy (or C215) entered the world of street art in 2006, when, inspired by the birth of his daughter Nina, he began creating his signature stencil pieces. His work generated interest from the very beginning; discovered by street legend Banksy in 2008, he leapt to international fame two years later when he was featured in Banksy’s delightful satirical documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop.
Guémy’s creativity knows no bounds. He’s painted in Paris, London, and hipster Brooklyn, but also all across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.
His works shine the spotlight on ‘characters of the street’ and the ‘overlooked or invisible people in society’ – animals, street kids, smokers, the homeless, refugees, and lovers. His street art pieces are meant to change, degrade, and transform over time. They are designed to be destroyed or forgotten (his commissioned pieces are meant to stand the test of time).
TCT: How did you develop your style? Did your early works use all the colors that you use now, or did they evolve over time? Did you go through any ‘phases’?
I had a vision of what I wanted to do from the beginning and just started practicing to reach my goals. The art is my own language, there were no teachers.
TCT: How do you design and create the stencils for your art?
I draw on cardboard, cut, pop up the stencil, and spray.
TCT: The production of those intricate stencils seems like it would be very time-consuming. How long does it take, on average, to produce a small one? A large one?
From two days to two weeks. Usually two days!
TCT: How do you produce the works that take up the side of a building? Would you use a machine for that or still by hand?
Those are all freehand, no stencils.
TCT: Speaking of painting outside… How do you create some of these works, especially the large ones, without getting arrested or fined? Some of them must be quite time-consuming! Especially when incorporating such a variety of colors.
I paint in broad daylight, no hiding. Many are done in ‘overlooked’ or neglected neighborhoods. The smaller pieces are stencils, the larger works, 2-3 meters (6.5 feet-9 feet) are freehand. I never get in trouble! I pick grounds to keep ‘off radar.’ For outdoor commissions, I paint in areas that are not well maintained. I take those spaces and transform them into art. People can ‘choose’ to see the works or not. Some actively seek them out, while others never really look at the hidden beauty all around.
TCT: Do you ever re-use the same stencil for street art in different cities? If so, do you change out the colors?
Some stencils are project specific and one-time-use only. Others, like cats, are everywhere. If I re-use, I change the colors. All pieces are unique!
TCT: Do you use the same paint (product) for indoor and outdoor works? Do you ever wear protective gear against the fumes/paint particles?
Yes, it’s the same paint. And I use a combination of spray paint and painting with a brush. I don’t wear a mask for the street art, since I spend the bulk of my time cutting stencils. I may regret that one day in the future! For the indoor works, I do wear a mask.
TCT: Is there one work (or series) that you’re most proud of?
There are two. The first are the portraits of my daughter, Nina, when she was a lot younger. They’re nostalgic, tell my personal story, and remind me of good times. The second are the portraits I painted in Rwanda, in and around the Kigali Memorial Centre, this past summer. A friend told me about the 1994 genocide there (over 1 million people were slaughtered). I wanted to pay tribute by painting the faces of the people who helped save lives over there. You should Google it!
TCT: For your street works, do you have favorite part of Paris to paint in?
My favorite area is Ivry-Sur-Seine, just south of the 13th arrondissement of Paris, where my studio is based. Most of my street art is there; just stroll through it and you will see a lot of it. They welcome me! This is really the ‘capital of street art.’
TCT: Since your street art has gone global, do you have a favorite city or town to paint in?
Rome is my favorite. I love the good weather, food, people, streets, and art. I always feel at home there.
TCT: Are you happy with the ‘state of popularity’ of your art, or does it ever get too overwhelming?
I have been doing exhibitions and gallery work since the very beginning, and I was fortunate to be recognized very early on. As the street art movement grew, so did my visibility. It’s been good for me. A few romantics think that artists want to be starving and unrecognized. It’s not true! Most artists do want to be recognized, not be in trouble. They want to make a living.
Yes, I do. I consider myself a multi-media artist. I paint, take pictures, and post immediately.
TCT: Your ‘commissioned’ works have titles, but there don’t seem to be any on the street art. Is that on purpose?
Yes. I don’t like titles; they’re not important and take away access to the universal themes of the art. It’s important that my art can be understood, no matter what language anyone speaks.
Guémy’s new coffee table book, La Monographie, includes gorgeous photos along with the personal sentiments behind the works, allowing fans insight into the mind of C215. His latest Parisian show, Zero De Conduite, features canvases as well as paintings on recycled parts from 1920s Citroëns, mailboxes, and even a Hawaiian shirt!
By Ami Cadugan
Ami is a transplanted New Yorker who loves discovering the daily quirks of Parisian living. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @amitakesonparis.