One day before interviewing Shepard Fairey last June in Paris, I was fortunate to interview the French artist L’Atlas. On his peaceful studio in La Forge in Belleville neighborhood, with a fresh and raining afternoon surrounded by bird songs and in company with my artistic minded friend Jordan Alves (who set up the interview and also helped me to edit it), we had the opportunity of submersing ourselves in L’Atlas universe explained by his calm and sweet voice.
L’Atlas, whose real name is Jules Dedet Granel, is a French artist born in 1978. Major figure in the street-art, artist and typographer who has studied Archeology and Calligraphy. He started to work with spray on the streets of Paris writing his name in the early 90’s.
In 2001, he stopped to use spray can and discovered the tape (scotch). L’Atlas is particularly interested in Kufi, writing geometric codes which transposes into the Latin alphabet. Always been attracted by the cards and travel, his artistic approach was marked since childhood by the books on astronomy and geography whose aesthetics attracted him deeply. It is in this universe that owes its name, directed in most of his works. After marking the floors and walls of the cities with huge compasses and labyrinths, L’Atlas took the path of geometric abstraction. Today he is represented by 5 galleries around the world in Paris, NY, Milan, London and Marrakech.
I first asked him, how he got interested about cosmos, earth and geography. “I was attracted by things around energy, like earth and cosmos and I use to do Tai Chi Chuan that easily opened my contact with the energy of the universe. I think life is energy and also calligraphy is energy, paint is the translation of pure energy. For me, there is no difference between the universe and painting. When you look at a map, the universe and cosmos are geographic landscapes in a balance. In my paintings, I’m looking to re-find the balance of the landscapes and cosmos”, he explains.
His artistic name comes from the titan in Greek mythology. He explained to me that during his studies of archeology he learned also Greek and Middle East mythology. “I was fascinated for by that and I thought it was a good idea to mix this old mythology with something really contemporary and modern. Also because the Atlas it’s a universal form that everybody understands. On the book and the map, Atlas really influenced my work”.
Influenced by Hakim Bey, researcher of the Sufism, he explained to me his spiritual path: ”I don’t believe in God, I believe in a stronger energy and I am trying to follow this energy. I’m very sensitive to feel the energy inside places. I used to read a lot of books about Taoism and I feel connected with this philosophy, where everyone can find his own personality and even that in this philosophy there are rules, they are flexible, different of the traditional religions that don’t respect your individuality, making people follow their own visions’.
L’Atlas started to learn Latin calligraphy in 1996 and between 1998 an 2000 he learned Arabic calligraphy in Morocco, Cairo and Syria, each time with a different master. “First time in Morocco was classic calligraphy. I learned 9 or 10 different styles, the year after I came back to Cairo to make a documentary about calligraphy. This time was the beginning of my art. In this time I was doing my first ideogram, trying to find a balance between the letters and the form. In 2000, I made my first exhibition with a video of calligraphy”.
In 2001, L’Atlas stopped to use spray can and discovered the tape. He confessed to me that when he used to work with cinema, he used to steal some rolls of tapes which wore perfect to start making links with geometry. “With tapes you don’t have to draw something so the line is already there. I like this concept of the tape, it is physical. The tape is something to make straight line, also the old painters used that to make the letters”, he said.
In love to register the ephemeral of the streets, he said: “I like to register the ephemeral of the streets, because it’s the dream of everyone to be eternal and then die. Since I was a child, I was looking to the forms of the city, especially geometric forms. The manhole cover influenced my work with graffiti and calligraphy. I like the idea that I’m going to enter into this format and stay there”
One of the memorable works of L’Atlas career were the compass series on the streets. He told me a funny story that about how this idea was born, when in 2001 the city hall decided to clean all graffiti and street art in Paris. “It was really strange, overnight they cleaned everything. I felt confuse and lost in the city that I grew up. That’s why I started to make the compass, to find my own directions on the city again. It was a joke for me”.
A joke that resulted into something useful in the city. The compass series used to be in front of the subway, people were confused, thinking that the compass were commissioned by the city or some museum. “I realized that when you’re doing ephemeral actions you will provoke something on people’s mind”.
In the Greek mythology, Atlas has 7 daughters, that which is a representation of the universe in movement. Our contemporary L’Atlas also has his 7 daughters, that are 7 canvas that he did in 2001 and he has been traveling around the world with them, with the same idea of movement. “My idea was to travel with the canvasses and make pictures of them everywhere, in each city that I passed by, always in the same way. I used to do it with graffiti, writing my name. With the 7 daughters is the same thing because my name is right on the canvas but what exists it’s just the pictures. It’s the most ephemeral action that you can do on the streets”.He is editing a book, which is coming soon, with 400 pictures from 40 cities with the 7 daughters.
L’Atlas started writing his name with spray in the beginning of 90’s on the streets of Paris. When he was 21, he used to tag his name on Agnes B.’s truck in front of her gallery and got a show with her because of this action: “The power of the walls is huge. To make a graffiti is a really strong action. That’s why my favorite quote is ‘Actions speak louder than words’”, he said.
Nowadays, he can spend a month in just one canvas working for a show inside his studio. I was curious too understand how he has been mixing these two things and he told me: “I made the choice to work with galleries, but sometimes I need to go to the street and make big things, otherwise I can feel really nervous and aggressive. I miss the street because before I had the right balance between the street and the studio. Now I’m working in a big studio with Tanc. I work for several galleries around the world so I’ve to spend a lot of time to create exhibitions”. He also completed: “The street is a good thing to show your art, because if you sell a canvas, maybe 50 people will see it, but if your work is on the streets, maybe a thousand people will see it every minute!”.
Even working more inside his studio than on the streets nowadays, it’s impossible denied L’Atlas roots from street-art. It’s a such powerful example that how an artist that started to work on the “free” walls of the street can achieve successful and maturity in his art- concepts and lifestyle.