Visual Kidnapping… what was that again? French street artist ZEVS — yes, the one from the documentary the week before — now also has a home in the art world and had his first exhibition in Asia: Postcapitalism Kidnapping at Hong Kong-based gallery Art Statements, documenting how ZEVS cleverly distorts the logos of big brands. For PingMag, he explains their visual power.
Written by Verena
Do you remember the very first time you tagged as a kid in Paris?
I did my first pieces in Paris in the early ’90s. In the beginning along the abandoned railway tracks, the streets and the “Hall of Fame” of graffiti artists of the 20th arrondissement in the east of Paris.
“Liquidated Logo Chanel.” From 2008. Courtesy Galerie Patricia Dorfmann.
How did it feel?
I remember very well the first time I saw one of my graffiti after coming back from having made a tour of the subway line. It was wonderful, felt like a boomerang!
At the time tags were all over the city, it was bombed, and it was very difficult to be visible in other ways than tags. So I got the idea of creating a logo that made sense with my name. That’s when I started painting the cloud with the lightning exactly like a throw-up — inflated lettering that lies between the tag and piece — all over Paris.
Weren’t you frightened of the police?
Of course, but the danger is also part of the pleasure. The first time I was arrested, I returned to the different spots to clean my tags and remove any evidence; a good solution to not pay the fines and end up in jail.
From this came the idea of Proper Graffiti, which I am exploring now: When I write on a dirty wall with a high pressure jet, I turn the common idea about graffiti upside down. Not only is my graffiti seen as clean, but the wall is also seen as dirty.
Nice! What about your name?
In 1992 I barely avoided being hit by a subway train while I was doing some graffiti in a tunnel in Paris. The ID name of that train was ZEUS. It really marked me, as it was printed on my consciousness. So I reversed the situation to my advantage, took this name and made it my identity.
You coined the term visual kidnapping. What does that mean?
Visual kidnapping is like entering an interactive game: If the brand on the billboard kidnaps the attention of the public with the purpose of consumer demand, I reverse the situation and I kidnap the model on the poster and I demand a ransom of 500,000€ from the brand. This sum represents the symbolic price of an advertising campaign for the brand.
There must be a story to it…
A night of the summer of 2001, during an exhibition about Hitchcock and art, I made a visual attack on the huge Hitchcock poster that was on the front of the building.
I climbed the facade from the backside and cut a little hole with my scalpel in the face of Alfred Hitchcock to make a flow of red ink. The guards surprised me and I fled at full speed by the fire escape. Fortunately, my friend the artist André was waiting below with his scooter. The Pompidou Art Centre was the only establishment to keep a “visual attack” that I had done; they kept it up for the duration of the Hitchcock exhibit.
When you see an ad, do you plan beforehand how to ‘kidnap’ it — or does it happen spontaneously?
It is rarely spontaneous. There is a precise time for each art crime.
Exciting! Then, how would you characterise the drippings below the logos you painted to give it a graffiti-like appearance, are they works of art in their own right?
Of course, there is a graffiti aesthetic to my art but I primarily play with the visual effect. I use the original colours and re-paint the logo with excess. By pouring paint over them, the logo dissolves in front of the viewer’s eyes, drawing attention to, and visually disturbing the recognisable and omnipresent trademark. By doing so, I try to investigate the logo’s visual power. It’s a simple gesture, just as in Aikido when you reverse the power and change the flow of energy.
Connected to that: It’s been eight years since Naomi Klein criticised big brands’ activities in her book No Logo. Would you see yourself in a similar context, coming from the visual side?
In fact my approach is not guided by a political project. It is rather the visual aspect of the landscape of our cities that interests me. Because of my experience with graffiti, I’m interested in advertising, signs and slogans, everyday objects, lighting in public spaces. I work freely in the city to form my ideas and the political side naturally becomes part of my work. My ideas are not extreme like anti-advertising or anti anti-advertising!
“WARNING.” Ransom, please! Courtesy of Galerie Patricia Dorfmann.
But, in 2002 in Berlin, you did quite an activist action when you cut out the model on a giant Lavazza billboard right at Alexanderplatz and demanded ransom for your “hostage.” Has your attitude towards brands changed since then?
I am still interested in the image industry, television and the advertising mechanisms. I enter these systems to understand their use and exploit the loopholes. Always keeping a distance with this world in a way that does not make me burn my wings and fall into this system.
True, it’s a thin line… Did the brands change their strategies since 2002?
I feel that the brands today are adopting a code of good behaviour. I hope they will not lose their edge.
“Urban Shadows — Feux de signalisation, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, Paris 2000.” Courtesy Galerie Patricia Dorfmann.
“Urban Shadows — Sculpture, place Zeus, Montpellier 2001.” Courtesy Galerie Patricia Dorfmann.
You’ve done a Shadow series: What was your idea when you started painting shadows?
Due to an optical illusion the white paint enhances the darkness so that even the shadows seem painted.
What I found interesting in this approach was to be able to make the shadows of the night visible by outlining them with white road paint and make them last into the day…
To give dead objects an outline as the police would draw around dead crime victims, as an analogy?
Yes. I like crime code and I play often with this universe.
“Triangle,” ZEVS’s own logo. Courtesy of Art Statements.
Lastly, what are you working on at the moment?
I just finished editing a 3.33 min film documenting the performance done recently in Hong Kong. It will be on the Art Statements website soon. This month, I’m taking part at a European street art exhibition in connection with “Beautiful Losers” and Festugen festival at Århus Kunstbygning in Denmark.
And, where can we spot your mark now on Hong Kong’s streets?
Keep an eye out…
Most def. Thank you, ZEVS! Hope to see your visual kidnapping in Tokyo too…