Parisian graffiti legend C215 on his Ukrainian mural, influences

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French street artist and painter Christian Guemy (R), known as C215, poses in front of his fresco depicting a young Ukrainian girl with a quote attributed to Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky. AFP

The huge blue and yellow fresco that covers the side of a Parisian building recalls, according to the Parisian artist C215, the human cost of the war in Ukraine.

But it also speaks to the talents of a man whose graffiti skills helped him overcome a traumatic youth to become one of France’s leading street artists – a former Banksy collaborator who tagged walls all over the world. world.

From his real name Christian Guemy, the 49-year-old man unveiled the huge new portrait of the young Ukrainian last week in the 13th arrondissement of Paris.

It contains a quote from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who told his staff when he was elected in 2019: “I really don’t want my pictures in your offices, because I’m neither a god nor an icon, but rather a servant of the nation. Instead, hang pictures of your children and look at them whenever you want to make a decision.

“It’s a universal message of support,” Guemy told AFP in his studio. “It challenges us to reflect on the ongoing humanitarian drama in Ukraine and the responsibility of politicians to do something. I cannot ignore the inroads of big politics into people’s daily lives.

Hero

Guemy’s photos are often of ordinary people, like child victims of conflicts from Syria to Kosovo to Rwanda.

It also features historical figures – heroes of French republicanism such as resistance fighters or Charlie Hebdo journalists murdered in 2015.

In his studio, stencils by Nelson Mandela and Jean-Michel Basquiat lean against the walls.

“Some may be too simplistic for the elites, but they are clear enough to reach a very wide audience, including in working-class neighborhoods,” he said.

“I want my works to be more important than me, to unite people in a society where everything divides.”

Born in 1973 in Bondy, a difficult suburb on the outskirts of Paris, Guemy had fun drawing from an early age without expecting more.

“It was a place totally disconnected from the culture,” he said. “I grew up in the world of the night: violence, drugs, alcohol.”

His mother had him when she was 13 and his grandparents raised him as if they were his parents and she was his sister.

Five years later, his mother took her own life – a tragedy he says he has now “overcome”.

“Too tragic”

Bright and multilingual, he landed a job exporting luxury furniture, but after a painful breakup, left his job to start graffiti in the streets, unaware of the success it would bring.

“I started stenciling my daughter’s portrait around her house to signal my presence and channel my depression,” he said.

He developed a simple method: cut faces out of a card without any prior drawing, then spray paint them.

This led to portrayals of other people – “usually people who did a little more than life expected of them”.

Shortly after his debut, he was scouted by members of Banksy’s team and ended up collaborating with the British artist and appearing in his 2008 documentary ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’.

He feels “too French, too tragic” to continue their partnership, but it has opened doors for him and he finds himself traveling the world, mounting exhibitions, publishing books and helping design video games.

The thing he is really proud of, however, is his work in prisons (24 and up).

“It’s the work I want people to remember. The older I get, the more I realize that caring for the weakest, the most fragile, is what we need to constantly focus on.

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