Interview with MTO, France/planet Earth, May 2022
French artist MTO is famous for his sharp, black and white realistic style of intense presence – where the reduced use of colors gives you opportunity to focus on expression and psychology of the characters represented in his works, which are delivered with almost chirurgical preciseness of execution. Very wide spectrum of connaissance of popular culture and all its nuances gave this artist ability to boldly underline iconic nature of cult aspects of film culture. However, film references were just a starting point in his work long ago, and over time, he moved to other topics and motives – we will try to discover which ones, in this short interview. Thank you MTO for your precious time and attention taken to answer these questions! /Intro and questions by Dzaizku/
DZ: One important phase of your development as an artist is connected with the years you spent in Berlin. Can you tell us a bit about that period, what did it look like, your daily life? What were the things that were driving and impressing you?
MTO: During my studies I traveled twice to Berlin and really enjoyed it. So when I finished my cursus I went to live there, from 2006 to 2013. This city impressed me a lot. Its overflowing energy. Its techno-hippy side. There are a million things going on in the streets every day. The arts are spread out on all levels and in all possible and imaginable forms. I arrived without money, without knowing any German and without a clear idea of what I was going to do with my life. The first years I did a few bullshit-jobs so I could live a decent life, thanks to the low economy of the city.
I was looking for ways to live from an artistic practice. I was inspired by street-art but I didn’t feel particularly concerned since even if I drew a lot as a teen I had never painted and I’m not a big fan of stencil or collage. Anything else was too expensive for my wallet.
Then in 2008, Arone, a graffiti painter and long time friend of mine (without any relation to graffiti) kinda « forced » me to try spray painting during a trip we made together in Barcelona. There I realized that I could maybe do some decent things with a can of paint. When I came back to Berlin I realized that I was already living in a graffiti mecca and that it could solve almost all my problems at once: Low cost, self production, self exhibition, international language of images… So I started to devote 100% of my time to it. Trying to develop my technique and my style alone with my bike and my backpack full of sprays. And with the hope that one day I might be able to paint giant facades. I dreamed of being on the short list of muralists. There really weren’t many of them in the 2000’s and I was particularly inspired by BLU.
DZ: How is that period different for you from now?
Everything is different now. Money came to the field and there is ten new guys popping-up every month, muralism has become a global market held by business people with more supply than demand, so the whole movement got replaced by mostly consensual painters whose work could please your kids and your grandmother at the same time, and it is now unfortunately a decorative industry for gentrification facilitation and insta photo-bombing.
Before 2000, what started to be called « Street-art » was beautiful because it was a giant «fuck off» to the hegemony of the gallery world, resulting from a sort of fusion between « contemporary art » and « Graffiti ». Artists taking control of the streets, showing their art without any middle-man, for the beauty of it. Unfortunately, a few decades later, the system rebuilt itself with new faces and took control as usual. Now, a huge part of the people pulling the major strings of this field ignore the initial purpose of that movement. They came with the money and entirely rewrote the history through hundreds of useless books celebrating useless works, not even paying the artists to use their images. Berlin for example was an avant-garde laboratory from which a great part of the most interesting artists are now forgotten and/or hidden by the constant flow of decorative bullshit. (pardon my french)
Even if there is nothing very surprising with that development, I’m quite sad about it. I’m too young to have known the very beginning of it all but too old to be ok with what it is now. That’s one of the main reasons I’m not really active anymore since Covid. I might do some new stuff here or there sometimes in the future for the fun of it but at the time I’m writing these words, I have no idea if I will ever try to come back seriously.
DZ: Your work is famous also because a number of references to cult movies and singers… did you ever had any feedback from the authors on that?
MTO: Not really. There were a couple actors that shared images to say « hey look, someone painted my face » but that’s pretty much it. And it never was my goal anyway. But your question should say that my work was famous MAINLY because of those references. And about that: Painting singers and movie portraits in my early years was the top of my three biggest career mistakes.
Believe it or not, when I started, big hand-painted portraits were actually quite new (or let’s say: rare), so I did it as a way to be easily recognizable inside of the gigantic panel of art in the streets of Berlin, as a way to insert a bit of soul / funk flavor in this worldwide techno mecca, and more than anything, it was a 2-year technical training to master the use of a spray can… nothing more than that. Since day one I intended to work afterwards on some more engaged and politically charged works once I would feel more comfortable with the technique (which is not as easy as it looks). The paradox is that I actually became quite known as a sort of Pop artist, which I hated. What was supposed to be a 2-year anecdote in my career became my main public identification for years but it was all my fault.
Then I lost a bit of interest for street graffiti and wanted to do mostly big scale walls for its great political impact potential and I spent the next ten years doing conceptual, site specific and militant works (occasionally funny or surrealistic stuff) but that «pop graffiti» identification stuck with me. The proof: 15 years later I’m still speaking about it.
Also I was always a little lazy and reluctant regarding studio work so I never entered the gallery world and didn’t clarify my identity there either: second mistake. Big scale muralism is a practice you would hardly sponsor by yourself alone over the years unless you reach commercial success.
And third mistake: I never wished to enter the «Instagram game». I used it only as a passive and silent «show-room» like I was doing with Facebook, while the main purpose of Insta is to engage and communicate directly with your audience as much as you can, as often as you can. Today, not being active on Insta or being dead is pretty much the same thing.
DZ: Speaking of movies, can you recommend us some must-see classics/new movies?
MTO: Hell no !
(See previous question)
Or if you’ve got an hour to spare, you can check my film:
DZ: Where is your art between aesthetical and political? You as a person, your mind, your focus?
MTO: My work is essentially militant and political. That’s how I see art. I have a rather absolute vision of it. Art is about the meaning, the message. Duchamp made it clear enough. Otherwise it is not art. It is « expression plastique » (as we say in French) or decoration. It is not at all a pejorative word in my mouth. I have respect for that and some guys reach amazing technical levels but things need to be called by their right name. There is a mistake in the definition. There are too many people who are defined as artists, when in fact they are craftsmen. They use craft qualities to a subject which does not belong to them, which they do not control…or there’s often no subject at all. Those kinds of works have every right to exist but shouldn’t be affiliated to the term «urban art» as there is nothing related to urban culture in it.
In terms of aesthetics my work is certainly as bad as any others for local inhabitants’ eyes but technique and aesthetic never was my focus point. I even progressively destroyed my own visual identity over the time in order to (try to) erase this «pop artist» thing and to show that I was more a contemporary artist with aerosols than a brand. I used the majority of those walls as a means to question important local or general issues. To show my local implication and respect. Most topics were dividing and not used to gain the most followers. One could call that «the BLU school». To me he is the godfather of it, in direct legacy of the political war-muralism in Belfast, Mexico etc…
I believe this should be a moral responsibility of muralism that very few artists and curators understand. Muralism today holds a unique place in the entire art history and should be used for subjects that matter. Before 1990, large-scale muralism was only ever permitted for corporate high-cost advertising, or for institutional and memorial purposes. Nowadays it is the first time in the whole history of art that single individuals are offered the opportunity to express themselves on such gigantic surfaces which will be seen and photographed, shared millions, even billions of times in the course of their rather long life although ephemeral by nature.
Great power should come with great responsibilities.
DZ: All around the world many kids are very intensively attracted to spray paint and wall painting/street art/graffiti…what do you think, why is this happening?
He proved it is possible to become a billionaire by drawing doodles on walls and still look like a badass with street cred. He pretty much created a market on it’s own. So now everyone wants a piece of the cake.
But don’t get me wrong, despite the sarcasm, he is a genius and I really dig his work.
DZ: Though, not all these countries full of great artists have developed art systems that can support a full time career… in your opinion, what takes for a person to get transformed from this frenzy painter/sprayer into a professional artist without losing himself/herself?
MTO: You should ask someone who actually succeeded in the art « system ».
I tried to develop a strong work integrity, I gained some fame more or less on a misunderstanding and I ended up kinda « retiring » 15 years later with very few bucks in my pocket so I don’t feel in the right position to give any advice.
DZ: I might be wrong, but I have impression that between the contact with his own inspiration/intuition and contact with the market, some artists get recognized in certain niche and somehow get blocked in that niche from further development – at least for me personally it’s hard to find satisfaction in observing always the same works being repeated by some artists over the years with minimal variety from artwork to artwork…what is your opinion on this? Is this something intentional, is it a trap, something normal or not? /Who is the boss here, THE market or the artist himself?/
MTO: In my case, I do something specific in shape and content for each location, I insist on « content » cause my technique has a lot of limits. The result could be good or bad, that’s still what makes these pieces « artworks » by definition and not decoration. But this is definitely the hard way. This is pretty much the opposite of having a recipe for success, it’s a recipe for « relevancy », that which doesn’t go hand to hand with success…at all. I’m no big fan of works that are repeated over and over with few variations either, to me this is no art, however this is a much suitable process to make money. That’s marketing basics.
When I started to paint whole building facades, we were rarely paid to do it, we were mostly «sponsored» (travel, arrangement, material etc…). And when I was paid, the amount was barely ever worth the amount of work, but I was totally ok with it, because there was some space for free speech. I had the amazing opportunity to place my messages on incredible spots with a potential reach I would have never expected possible. So I didn’t make much money during all these years but I still liked what I was doing and knew why I was doing it. It made sense to me.
Fifteen years later, we’re not paid much more, however it is rarely possible to speak about the topic I want anymore. Multiple sketches got refused, projects got cancelled, and guys like me are replaced by consensual decorators. So I’d say this is really becoming a business of painters exploitation. And if someone is not happy with it, there are thousands of other painters waiting for your place. Most guys/girls++ who last very long in the field are pretty much the ones that were using the previously mentioned «recipe» that which may prove that my way of doing things isn’t the right one…you decide.
DZ: If you met today a person who wants to jump off a bridge and commit suicide due to global/political situation in the world, what would you say to stop him/her from doing that?
MTO: If you’re looking for a «life is beautiful» type of answer, I’m afraid I’m not the person to ask. I’m still a humanist and a nice guy (I guess) so I’d probably grab him by surprise and force him back on land while I call an ambulance or firefighters (fuck police) but even if I wanted to reason him I clearly don’t have much to say so that he would think the world is not such a shit show after all… To me it clearly is.
DZ: What are you working on at the moment?
MTO: Nothing street-art related.
I’m focusing on some other aspects of my life for the moment But we’ll see what the future brings…
More documentation and stories at MTO FB PAGE.