Portrait of the artist as an anonymous man

Few people know what the contemporary French artist Gully looks like, or anything else about him, other than the fact that this former street artist has left graffiti behind and now works on canvas. As prices of his paintings soar as fast as his fame, K caught up with him on the eve of his latest Paris exhibition.

How and when did your love of art begin?

If you're talking about graffiti, it was while taking the suburban train to middle school in the suburbs of Paris.

When did you start making art?

It depends on what you mean by art. Considering that opinions change and that some think of graffiti as vandalism while others view tagging as art, I started at age 15. But there wasn't one moment during my teens that I considered graffiti an art, or that I thought it would lead to a career as an artist. I see them as two different things, which is why I don’t want people to confuse my past and what I'm doing today. The motives are not the same. I've gone from a form of calligraphic art almost like advertising to something much more refined, precise and sensitive.

It’s written that you were born in 1979 and spray-painted the line C of the RER train in the early 2000s, but changed your tag after the birth of your son. Is that true?

For my first paintings I didn't want to give my real birthdate. From the beginning I wanted to cover my tracks. I guess that’s probably typical graffiti artist paranoia and I think it was the right decision, but recently I've had to give my real birthdate, 1977.

For line C, yes, I'm from the northern suburbs and we were all over the C and the Gare du Nord (North station) in 2001, before the big series of arrests, which was a real circus. It was an incredible time for graffiti artists on that line: it was attacked everywhere and nobody cleaned it up; the trains went by and each one was more covered than the last. It was great for us to see, but it didn't last for long…

It wasn't the birth of my child that changed me. I grew wiser with experience and age, along with a realisation of the physical and penal risks I was taking… On the other hand, it was while watching over my child, doodling with the TV on, that I came up with this name. You test names by writing down everything you hear and trying out different ways of stringing letters together, and if one pleases you that isn’t already taken, it becomes a possibility.

I had to sign my first paintings without letting anybody know it was me, so this name came quite naturally to me. In English it means ‘ravine’, so in terms of making a break with graffiti it was perfect. And in slang it means something outlawed, from the street, so it was made for me.

How do you choose the artists you ‘appropriate’, like Hopper, Rockwell or Basquiat?

I visit a lot of museums and exhibitions in France and during my travels. I seek out works and as soon as the universe of one pleases me, I spend time trying to understand it.

Are there artists you've never dared to try?

For the moment there is no legend so sacred I haven't dared to pay homage, but I don't copy, I ‘quote’ by borrowing techniques. In this exhibition I pay homage to Van Gogh, Seurat, Warhol, Basquiat, Calder, Remington— and I'm going to show how Picasso reinterpreted Manet using the eyes of a child in the 1960s.

Explain the concept behind your work.

My paintings tell stories from my life or my imagination in which art icons come together.

"I borrow existing characters or scenes that I place into my universe."


Why do you choose to remain anonymous?

Probably because I learned from graffiti that it's the best way to protect oneself. I do have an ego and a need to be recognised, but these are fulfilled by a recognition of my work—not by how the public views my style, my physique, the way I dress, my partying in trendy nightclubs. I need a certain calm in order to concentrate on my work and not get caught up in petty jealousies. And also, I like to go to my exhibitions and hear what people say without them worrying that I'm listening.

Is it harder to be anonymous as your fame continues to grow?

My auction prices started to rise early on, so from the beginning the challenge was to hide from those who knew me and were more likely to recognise me. But my style on canvas is so different from my graffiti that it's difficult to make the connection. Now, my agent is my only professional contact. I try to remain available on Internet but even that is increasingly tough, since I receive so many messages.

How did you feel when the value of your work started to rise?

My first results, in 2009, were four times the auction house experts' estimation. It was hard to imagine for someone just discovering the art market, but I surrounded myself with good people in order to avoid pitfalls. I listen to my agent and don't do anything without his consent. I'm careful to avoid collectors who are just speculating and galleries that could damage my career.

What will we see in the exhibition Philosophy of Art?

These paintings are a continuation of my previous work. I worked a lot around the discovery of the art world through a child’s eyes, and feelings like love or hate. It might be an indirect way to make art accessible to a larger public, or simply to my own children. For the collaboration with JeanRichard [the watch brand], I created a work that will be shown for the first time at the opening of the exhibition. You could say it comes straight out of my fantasies: it portrays me like a superhero attacked by colours, artworks and buildings. [Gully also signs a limited edition series of watches for JeanRichard, called Graphiscope.]

Why did you decide to associate yourself with a watch brand, and why JeanRichard?

I love watches, I liked this model, so it was natural.

What are your projects for the future?

To be able to live my passion and share it with those who like what I do and have supported me so much, and all that without having to reveal who I am. That's the greatest gift life could give me, after the birth of my children and their good health. As for the rest, I'll see how it plays out, it's just a bonus!

Philosophy of Art runs from 18 September to 11 October, at the Opera Gallery in Paris

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