Etienne Bardelli, otherwise known as the indomitable Akroe, is very, very French. I say that not to typecast, only to express that when I imagine a Frenchman, I inadvertently picture this: a dark-haired figure surrounded by art, talking about his feelings, and asking me: why are we not talking about sex?
My interview with Akroe was a color-copy of that picture. However, a picture is only worth a thousand words, and our conversation coughed up around 1,772 of them–so we managed to cover some extra material. Read on to lose yourself in one of France’s most sought-after, respected, and, uh, romantic creative minds.
“I like the idea of making a picture a souvenir, to try to create a feeling, something that could stay in mind as an interrogation instead of an answer.”
Format: Tell me about your past–anything that you see as important in the formation of who you are today–both as an artist and as a person.
Akroe: My family was sensitive to design, pictures, and furniture, and my father is an architect. I still have strong images in mind of my childhood. I remember his studio very well. His office was on the second floor of our house. I remember many things like the smell of ink and particularly a poster, “Architectes d’Aujourd’hui (Architects of Today)”–two white letter “A’s” on black. I really enjoyed looking at the pictures made by the designer too. I even used a few of his graphic tricks later in my graffiti years (merci, Jean Pierre!).
I started graffiti around the age of twelve. It was just a funny, bad habit at the beginning, but it quickly became more than a game. I spent my time free-drawing letters and characters, or walking for hours to find a wall to paint on. It was a great time. I have strong feelings and souvenirs from the empty factories, the machines, and the materials I painted on.
I still do my graffiti this way. Last week, I went on a road trip looking for dead places to cover in the north of France. Next year I will be thirty-two–I will have spent twenty years haunted by graffiti; that’s insane!
Format: So it seems like creativity was something that was really cultivated in your family. Were your parents supportive of your graffiti, and did they understand why you were doing it?
Akroe: Actually, I don’t really know why I’m still doing it! It’s just like being a painter, a painter in the second millennium.
It wasn’t so much fun with my parents. My mother let me do it and let me believe she didn’t pay attention, but I think she was anxious as to my whereabouts and she knew that I kept spray cans on me. My clothes were totally dusty and covered with colored drips. She had an artistic point of view, which was quite right; she said graffiti always looks the same. Now, through detachment, I understand her very well, but she didn’t understand how strong of a role action and feelings play in graffiti; it’s a major ingredient of the game.
My father was totally insane about graffiti; as an architect in this little town, he was so stressed out by my actions that he claimed deteriorated the streets. It was a big deal for him, but he couldn’t be too hard on me, because I did decoration at the same time for a lot of shops and nightclubs. But I remember we had strong clashes at home. I was a terrible child sometimes.
Format: What graffiti seems to have that a lot of other forms of art don’t is an emphasis on action. As an act of rebellion, somewhere within the act of going out on the street with spray cans is the desire to change something,to act on whatever it is you’re rebelling against. What are some social issues (or otherwise) that you try to address within your work?
Akroe: I’m interested in feelings more than causes. I like to create an interrogation and let people find their own way to understanding. That’s why I try as much as possible not to use direct messages or demagogic images. Also, I like the idea of making a picture a souvenir, to try to create a feeling, something that could stay in mind as an interrogation instead of an answer.
For example, I use ambiguity as a feeling, so when you say graffiti is a rebel action, you’re right. Just making a very clean simple and static graffiti creates an ambiguity; it totally breaks the rule of the excited rebel graffiti cliché. It looks like a nice and calm painting, but it’s still illegal. I think it shares a feeling and creates an interrogation. People always react to the places I paint, they’re not sure I had permission. I usually don’t, and they always want to know the story about the painting. I guess they would like to know more about my emotions that day or something like that. I really care about those questions and their contexts too.
I know that the fact that I’m always painting in industrial places, and being a graphic designer born in the ‘70s and influenced by ‘70s and ‘80s design productions, influences the thematic elements in my work. Those years were an unconscious and funny area of industrial production, but we can see the result now; it’s just terrible. Everything on earth is ruined. Production lobby and methods organized the society strongly and aggressively. The most interesting thing is that all of this looks like progress, comfort, and colored fun to society. That’s insane.
If you actually spend time in the factories you can understand how close death is—just laughing at us. Those places give me strong emotions; they are beautifully toxic. That’s mainly what drives me with my personal work. For example, those colored donuts (truck air wheels) lying in a river express to me the ambiguity of a beautiful plastic disaster. I work on a lot of different subjects but my personal research mostly concerns industries and design. Also working as a graphic designer permits me to execute a complete vision by way of the process of production and marketing. It’s like holding this industrial toxicity in a hand and society’s dreams in the other. Having this position, my work could be very sarcastic, but I don’t really want to be a judge—maybe a sorcerer mixing elements to reveal doubts and questions, maybe my point of view is a bit guilty too.
Format: You started as a graffiti artist—then did you enter school for graphic design, or did you teach yourself?
Akroe: I did a short graphic design program after a specialized applied art baccalaureate, but I haven’t stopped doing graffiti since I started. That is a funny question people always ask me. I guess people think graffiti and art studies oppose each other, like graffiti should only react against established culture. Actually, I think making graffiti is a bit like doing your own rebel drawings at home, like a lot of students do.
When you think about art in general, you know that “rebellion,” or maybe “refusal” is the leitmotiv of evolutionary mentalities, and rebellion in the arts fields are frequently more spectacular than graffiti in the streets. But, as to your question, I still teach myself as much as possible; knowledge is a personal motivation. School is very good to learn the method, but graffiti is more for sport.
Format: Do you ultimately prefer either graffiti or graphic design, or do they both do something different for you?
Akroe: I use graphic design for both, only the tools change. Graffiti is my personal work, so I care about personal questions and emotions. Working as a graphic designer leads me to work with people, to exchange with them, to translate their own messages. It’s very interesting because people are often very interesting. Of course, I would enjoy spending a lot more time with my personal work, but sometimes commercial demands help me to find solutions for my own projects, and it helps me progress a lot too. Doing both together at the same time is a good solution for the moment, maybe it will change later. I don’t know.
Format: You work a lot on album graphics—what do you love so much about working within that medium?
Akroe: Yes, I do a lot of record covers, mainly for electronic music. I like to work for music when it’s not influenced too much by business.
I enjoyed being an art director for a few underground labels a lot. I’ve done very commercial covers for French artists too, and the experience is not that bad, but I don’t feel really personally connected to those projects. I think I need that personal connection to the artists now.
At the moment, I try to spend less time working with music. I think I’m a bit fed up with the artists and label marketing mentalities. I think that a lot of people who care about art spend too much time on strategies and diffusion. It works sometimes, but then the artists close their minds on methods and forget their sensibilities.
Also I thought internet and computer opportunities would help people to create strong personal universes, to go deeper in their creations, but actually it’s the opposite. Everything looks the same on the Internet and music seems more ready-made than ever. It’s my personal point of view at the moment. I’m sure it will change, but I can’t find the energy to push that challenge with every artist.
The few artists I’m working for at the moment are friends, and I try to help them evolve to mediums other than vinyl or CD, because now you can have the music without the support. So we think about their image first, and then try to find objects or stories to visualize their universe. It’s a bit experimental and very interesting. But it’s very difficult to change minds; people still want a record to touch and carry in their arms. I think it’s becoming archaic.
Format: The musicians making the albums certainly seem to love you—one of your graphics even got a shout-out in a Yelle song. How did that feel?
Akroe: It’s funny because Yelle is funny.
Format: Tell us about the most recent collaboration you’ve done.
Akroe: I‘m working on videos with my friend Fred Cambon about my personal work. He films me walking in the dark and playing with plastic. There are no deadlines, and I don’t know what it will be at the end, but I’m sure we will enjoy it! I’m also probably working with DJ Orgasmic for a track on a collection called “The Future” for the label, Sixpack. It will be in stores this autumn. This will be the first for me to be actually involved in the actual music.
Format: You’re still so young—what are some things that you want to do but haven’t done yet?
Akroe: This question makes me delirious. I can see giant graphic movements everywhere around me. Do you want me to get mad?
You can send me other questions; I’m a bit sad we didn’t speak about sex…
Format: Ok, Akroe, lets talk about sex. fifty words or less…
Akroe: I’ll send you hot pictures tomorrow; it’s better!