27 December 2013

Birdy Kids

Lyon is a cultural and artistic hub second only to Paris in France. Fabulous architecture aside, it has well over 200 large-scale frescoes and trompe-l’œil, more than 60 of which were painted by the prolific Cité Création alone. On alternate years Lyon holds the Biennale d'Art Contemporain, currently in its 12th edition, and it runs the hugely popular annual Lumière international film festival, which this year featured Quentin Tarantino.

Take a walk around the city, and it's clear to see that Lyon also has a vibrant and active street art scene. I already wrote about one goldmine of street art in the disused factories along Rue Feuillat. I've also photographed a lot of noteworthy street art for the Invisible Lyon Instagram account.

However, the most omnipresent and instantly recognisable street art in Lyon stems from a three-man collective that calls itself Birdy Kids. Last week I interviewed the group's unofficial spokesman: Guillaume.

Invisible Lyon: Birdy Kids was created in 2010. What did the three of you do before, and why did you decide to collaborate?

Birdy Kids: We all have different backgrounds: graffiti, computer graphics, I'm a screen printer, my little brother's a graphic designer. We all worked separately for a long time, and then one day, quite by chance, we decided to pool our skills to create something more powerful, more skilful. This pooling enabled us to expand our own work, try out new approaches, new techniques. More people mean more ideas, too.

Birdy Kids totem pole at this year's Biennale
IL: Who had the idea of the birds?

BK: It was a process. It wasn't as if we got up one day and decided to paint birds. In graffiti you start by doing letters, and if that's not really your style, you start doing characters and eventually you may do a bird. The first bird wasn't anything like it is now. It had a long beak, etc. But it gradually developed into its present form over time. Why a bird? I can't really say.

IL: Is there a message, an objective behind Birdy Kids? What motivates you?

BK: There is no message. Or rather, if there's a message, it's that there is no message. Everyone has a message. We don't give a damn about messages. We try to avoid them. The fact that we're doing something illegal is already a message in itself; a certain mentality. People often ask us why we do this. There's no real reason. If you're passionate about something, you do it. You don't know why. You do it because you want to show people your work, so that people are happy to see you, to play with the urban surroundings, to have a different outlook on life. It's also because it's illegal. To some extent it's cool to do something that you're not allowed to do. And of course we hope it amuses people – especially kids.

IL: You used the word "illegal". You've had a Birdy Kids exhibition at Lyon town hall. You've painted the bowls of the skate park on the banks of the Rhône several times. This year, a Birdy Kids totem pole is part of the Biennale. You've even been interviewed on television. What do the authorities think about you? Do they accept you now or merely tolerate you?

BK: The city of Lyon is one thing, but we still spend a lot of our time down at the police station and in court. Are we tolerated? I don't know. When we get arrested, the police are friendly enough, but they still arrest us. Therefore you could say that we get on well with the police, yet we regularly end up in court nonetheless. I don't know if we are more tolerated than other artists, but if we're particularly active, we spend a lot of time at the police station and in court. Perhaps that'll change in the future. Who knows?

Birdy Kids-painted skate bowls
IL: So you're arrested often?

BK: Yes. In fact I've just received another summons. It never stops. We call it "an invoice". That's the price of what you do. It's part of the work.

IL: And the game.

BK: Yes, and the game. It's the least fun part of the game, but it's part of our work. It's either that or you do only what's legal. But the problem with only doing legal stuff is that it involves a lot of filing applications and meeting people. It's tedious. If you see a wall and want to stick a poster on there, it takes a minute to do so. If you apply to stick the poster on there legally, it can take days, weeks, months to get permission. In Lyon, it can take years for certain projects. So we avoid all that, and just do it, and see what happens.

IL: Like many street artists, you started off with aerosol cans. Now you often flypost your art. Is this a new direction for you or only a question of speed?

BK: It's certainly about speed. A lot of people say it's easier to flypost. But they forget the work that goes into producing these pictures. And it's illegal to flypost; we mustn't forget that. If the police catch us, they don't freak out. We're not robbing a shop, after all. But it isn't easy making a picture to stick up. Also, since we started making pictures for flyposting, we've been painting more than ever. Legally, I mean. However, we certainly haven't given up painting for flyposting. We do both. The advantage to flyposting is that we can cover a lot more ground in a lot less time. So we paint them in our studio and then stick them up. By the way, I don't like the term "artist".

IL: So what do you call yourselves?

BK: On our Web site and elsewhere, we always refer to ourselves as "creators". That's partly because it's not up to us to call ourselves artists. That's for other people to decide. I also think the term "artist" is too weighty to apply to us. We're just a couple of guys trying to do something cool and have fun. If people want to call that artistic, that's their choice.

IL: And yet what you do is street art, isn't it?

Birdy Kids fly posters
BK: That too is simply a label. We can't accept labels like that. We started off doing graffiti. Now people call our work "street art". We're part of the Biennale in a contemporary art context. So what do we choose to call our work and ourselves? We don't give a damn. We've given ourselves a name: Birdy Kids. That's our label. We don't care how other people categorise us, whether it's scribblers, artists, street artists, graffiti artists, whatever. It's not our problem.

IL: Your birds can be found all over Lyon: on walls, often on the motorway, you're currently painting a lot of shop-front shutters, but also in more bourgeois districts. How do you choose where to paint or flypost your work?

It's true what you say about bourgeois areas because we're often in town. Part of the reason we went flyposting there was because no-one else did. They were bourgeois districts, and in the worlds of graffiti and street art there's a cliché that you're supposed to do that in poorer districts where everything's run down already and where it's almost tolerated. It's almost easy to go into places like Croix Rousse, where everything's dead. If you flypost in Croix Rousse, no-one bats an eyelid. But it's a lot harder to stick up the same picture in the Rue de la République, for example. People will say, "Those guys are a bit nuts. They've come here even though it's posh everywhere". That's partly the reason why we took this direction. Having said that, we're also taking a step backwards at the moment because you can't do anything in these areas of town. It gets exhausting after a while. There are lots more policemen in 6th
arrondissement and on the presqu'île. In future, we're going to target areas further out of town – the suburbs, basically – and try to work on a much larger scale, which we could never do in the city centre.

IL: Unofficially?

BK: We'll see! We're starting to want to paint enormous surfaces, but you can't do that illegally. It's a bit difficult putting up scaffolding, using a crane, etc. without permission. But you can't get that sort of permission in Lyon. You have to go further afield because the politics in the suburbs is more relaxed in this respect. More of the elected representatives there are from less affluent backgrounds. I'm talking about more "run-down" areas. So in the next few months we're going to work in a slightly more structured way, although it's a pain in the neck because of all the paperwork and talking to people to try to convince them that painting is good for you. It's annoying, but if you want to develop, you have to go down that road.

IL: Are there any locations or surfaces that are taboo as far as you're concerned?

BK: It's not about being taboo, but what's the point of making something less pretty than it already is? If a building, a wall or a surface is already pretty, there's no reason to change it. When we paint somewhere, it's to add to it. If you go into a village and there's a beautiful church, I don't see any sense in painting on that sort of building. It's been there for 400 years, it's beautiful, it's amazingly well built, so you leave it alone. By contrast, when you see buildings that are like chicken coops made for herding people together one on top of the other, and there's an ugly wall at the bottom that guys piss against all day, I think it's OK to work on a surface like that.

IL: You now sell Birdy Kids T-shirts, canvases, stickers and even toys. You sell paintings through your Web site and you have a shop to sell Birdy Kids products. Does this commercialisation mean that you've turned your back on your street art roots?

Birdy Kids-painted shop shutters
BK: You can spend your whole life debating this issue. Whenever people ask me whether we're forfeiting artistic value by selling stuff, I reply with the same question: "How do you think I'm supposed to pay for my paint?" We spend thousands of euros a month on paint alone. You have to pay for that somehow. We're fortunate to have enough … I don't know if you can call it talent, but at least we're popular enough that we could quit our day jobs. Every morning we wake up happy because of this. When we wake up, we know that we don't have to go to work for someone we don't know who tells us to do something we don't like doing. We don't give a damn whether we're forfeiting artistic value. We need money to paint. Money isn't disgusting. It's simply something you exchange for other stuff. Of course if you use your money to screw kids in Asia making your T-shirts, that's something you can say is disgusting. But 90% of the money we get is spent on paint, wood, screwdrivers, stuff like that. We don't earn the sort of money that would enable us to buy a fancy car or whatever. In addition, we started selling these products because people said, "Why don't you sell T-shirts? I bet everyone would love to have one". To be quite honest, I don't know how other artists survive. Either that or they also have a job working at Auchan, for the RATP, whatever, and then spend all their money on paint. But what's better: being independent or being someone's quote-unquote "slave" to pay for your work? I don't judge others, but I don't think that what we do devalues our work. We don't cheat or steal from anyone and our work hasn't changed because of it. I really don't understand how people work for 20 years without selling the products of their work. In that time they spend tens of thousands of euros just on paint, fines and train tickets if they want to paint somewhere else. So I don't have a problem with earning a few thousand euros selling T-shirts.

IL: You spoke about travelling. Apart from Lyon, there's Birdy Kids street art in Paris and Brussels. Anywhere else?

Birdy Kids toy
BK: We travelled around Europe quite a bit over the last two years. We're now going to change continent: this summer we're off to Asia. We're going to have exhibitions in Bangkok in June or July. It's not certain yet. And then we're going to Tokyo to plunge directly into the masses because we believe our work really belongs in Tokyo. We think it's the most appropriate place in the world for our work. Perhaps it's a dream, but from what we know about Japanese culture we think we could be successful out there, connect with people and that they could be interested in us. We'll see. Anyway it's important to travel. I don't know any graphic artists who don't like travelling because you meet people a little like you, and it's cool to leave a bit of your work behind on the other side of the world. You've been there and you've left a little colour for the people who live there. That would be ideal. If you travel too much, you can't pay for your work anymore and you don't have any money for travelling. If we made a lot of money, we wouldn't spend much time in one place: we'd fly off somewhere, paint and come back. Fly off somewhere, paint and come back. All year round.

IL: Thank you for speaking to me.


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