Louis Michel AKA Masai has been gracing the walls and streets where I live in Shoreditch for the past two years with his animal themed murals. His colourful, upbeat and semi anthropomorphic animals generally stay for the long haul, they display both humour and an ethnic awareness which is welcomed by the people of Brick Lane and the East End.
I caught up with Louis and asked him a few questions:
EC: When did art start for you and specifically when did art on the streets start for you?
Louis: Well, I have been creating in some way or another since I was a Halfling. I was pretty shit at all academic stuff at school so art was my way of excelling at something. My parents both did art degrees and my dad still paints. I used to sit up with him all night painting while doing my GCSE’S, his influence definitely played a big part on me.
While doing my A levels I was looking a lot at Cubism and flat colours and my degree in Falmouth Cornwall furthered this. I started painting with oil bars and stencils on the street because I was painting about homeless people. I got bored of the process of cutting stencils quickly and wanted to learn how to use the cans without the stencils so I started breaking into abandoned buildings and practising there. I was pretty shit at it and its only really in the last year that my style with using cans has started to appear in a way that I am happy with.
Ha-ha, I just remembered my first ever street encounter… I was 16 and doing a car valeting job in my local town, I had nicked some car spray paint off them and my girlfriend drove me to east Horsley train line. I did a throw up on the side of the tracks, it was terrible but I wish I had a picture of it, I was writing ‘Paser’ (I think back then).
EC: The main subjects in your artwork are animals, what is it about animals that you feel conveys you’re message.
Louis: When I was a kid I used to have animals postered up all over my room, well over the top of the comic books that I had glued as wallpaper. Whilst at school I was painting my family dog, zebras and tigers so its frequently crossed over into the art world for me. I feel that animals are in fact more important than we as humans are and I think that by creating works of art with animals as the subject gives the viewer a bit of a reality check. I like to find ways of reflecting the things that humans do and the ways that humans think into the painting, so that the animal reflects the habits of mankind. At the moment im looking at fabric patterns, this deals with two elements:
Firstly: the movement of ethnicity – the patterns reflect the humans adornment and creation, each ethnic origin has its own way of producing fabric and pattern and that is interlinked in the paintings with where the animal is from. Secondly: it’s a direct reflection of how humans wear fabrics and dress them selves with colour/pattern. I love this concept, as it’s actually an adornment humans have invented to attract a mate or keep warm in ways that animals do naturally. I think that it is a very literal way of how humans use an evolutionary element that separated us from the rest of the animal kingdom in the first place. Invention and adaptation.
So ultimately I like to paint animals to make humans think about how we position ourselves within the animal kingdom. I like hierarchy, humour, patterns, and ethnic referencing, with a splash of hip-hop and reggae.
EC: When you approach a piece do you take the surrounding environment into consideration and try to incorporate that into the artwork or are you bringing another place and time to the wall that you are painting so that the people who view it also see a bigger picture.
Louis: Well its kind of a mixture I guess. I like to feel that I’m being aware of what’s around me at all times. Im dealing with ethnicity and London is the biggest melting pot so I defiantly think about who might be looking at my paintings. But then sometimes I feel like I just really need to do this painting and I want to paint this wall. Sometimes you have to look at what the wall provides and work around that.
My newest wall the Cally Squawk has looked at all these elements. I started with knowing I needed to bring some really vibrant colours to the wall, Macaws come from South America and there aren’t a huge amount of Latinos in Caledonian Rd area (but they are there some). Then I looked at the alley which I was painting in which is a youth gang alley, so I thought to myself these guys listen to hip-hop and music, it’s probably a big part of their lives. So I adorned the birds with a mic and Walkman. I wanted to address the shift in technology and therefore opted for the Walkman over Ipod, I wanted to identify with anyone over the age of 20 that would remember the cassette player. The extra value of the Macaws is that the Granny era loves these birds too and Caledonian Rd is a really diverse age mixed community. I was definitely aiming to make this wall a part of the community, ultimately because I want it to last but I also want it to be embraced.
EC: Who are your influnces artisically, which artists have had an impact on the way you work.
Louis: My gosh, the list would be soooooo long… but here’s a few of the books I been collecting… Sigma Polke, Phil Frost, Barry McGee, Os Gemeos, Blu, Herakut, Dave Kinsey, Raushenburg, Chris Ofili, Leger, Valerio Adami.
My favorite artists at the moment are Jaybo Monk, Josh Keyes, Roa, Connor Harrington, Nychos, Belin, Joram Roukes, plus a few animal photographers; Andrew Zuckerman and Jill Greenburg being my favourites.
EC: What’s the most important thing for you as an artist when considering a new wall or show?
Louis: Well, for walls it’s the surface and who might get to see it. And that’s a bit 50/50… if it’s a shit surface but a great location I’ll probably paint it and vice versa. As for the show, there are so many variables but ultimately I’m a fresher here at this game. Each time I get a bit more specific with what I think will aid my career.
At the moment I am starting to think about how the show will further me and increase the value to my work. I love being a part of a lowbrow movement but I was fine art trained and I love the fine art world as much as the street art world if that’s what we even call it. I’m not even sure it should be labeled really cos it’s all art at the end of the day. But labeling your self or branding is exceptionally important if you want to sell work. I don’t intend on selling out my style but I do aim to impress the buyer’s world. So I guess the most important underlying issue for me is to impress an audience to achieve sales, so that I can keep being an artist. I don’t want to ever work for a boss man again. Im way too happy in my own little world now…
EC: Five years from now… where are you?
Louis: You know what, I’m more thinking about where I’m not in 5 years time. I don’t want to be in England for too much longer, so I aim to build up enough contacts between now and then to be current in London without being in the country. I’d like to get my ‘Nice Up The Walls‘ project in Jamaica more established and a school built within the next ten years. Actually, you know what… 5 years from now, where are my paintings? Brazil, Berlin, Australia, Russia, Poland, Norway, Paris, San Fran, New York, Ethiopia, Ghana, Japan… thats my flex for the next 5 year, nah mean.
EC: Can you ask yourself a question?
Louis: What’s next on the cards for this year?
AfroFabRicatiOn my solo show opens on the 15th November at Nancy Victor Gallery. Im looking at African fabrics, and a few guys from the animal kingdom I’m not so known for yet…and I’m getting really excited about how it will be received.
Big thanks to Louis for taking time out to answer this Q&A and to Lola for all the shots she happily participated in over the time I knew her.