French Street Artist Dreams of New Starts in Brooklyn
Koralie, a street artist from France, has had to make a few compromises since becoming a mother of two. Her taste for risk-taking—which led her to empty streets of cities around the world to coat entire walls with art graffiti—has faded somewhat. She remembers the feeling as she painted two years ago atop a building in Manhattan. “The people in the skyscrapers nearby could see me. I could hear the sirens of the police cars and helicopters rushing by. I was so scared,” she recalls. “I’m more careful now, I ask for permission,” she confesses with a smile.
Her creativity, however, has not dwindled. Koralie belongs to a new generation of boundary-breaking French artists that has emerged since the turn of the millennium and is now carving its mark on the global scene of street art.
Born in 1977 in Montpellier, France, Koralie—originally spelt with a “c”—did not plan to become a street artist. She graduated with a degree in architecture and worked for advertising agencies. But when she moved to Toulouse, in southwest France, graffiti was part of the local landscape and she began mingling with emerging street artists. “They told me: ‘You paint on canvas. You should paint on walls.’” At 22, she traded the canvas for the wall. “I used to think that street art was a lack of modesty: Why should I force people to see my art? Who am I to do that?” she recalls. “But then I thought: Architects do the same thing. They create buildings without asking anyone.”
She went on to become one of the most promising artists of her generation, also dabbling in graphic design and recently creating a highly prized Dunny, an action figure made of soft, smooth vinyl released last year. Her work has been seen on the streets and galleries of Tokyo, Paris, Rome, Munich, Barcelona, San Diego, and San Francisco to name a few. In New York, her work is showcased at the Joshua Liner Gallery in Manhattan. She has collaborated on numerous projects with clothing brands like Billabong, Etnies, Upper Playground, and Carhartt, In addition she has done illustrations for magazines and CD covers.
Feeling that she had reached a ceiling in Europe, she decided to flock to New York—one of the native lands of street art—searching for inspiration, new challenges, and greater understanding. “It’s more fulfilling for a street artist to be in New York than in France where it’s better to stay underground,” she claims.
French street art developed in the wake of the 1968 student uprising against consumerist society. By the 1980s, the then socialist government heavily supported street art, giving out subsidies to emerging artists and launching festivals across the country. This support along with the pioneering work of artists like stencil graffiti master Blek le Rat or Parisian tagger Zevs, who bombed the streets with shadows, turned France into a platform for street art.
Nonetheless, Koralie feels that her art was perceived as a second-rate form of expression associated with vandalism in France. “In the United States, people understand street art better,” she claims. “Here, people are curious of what you have to offer. There is a creative dynamic. I’m meeting a lot of people, going to a lot of exhibits.”
Enchanting the Streets
For Koralie, nothing tops the excitement of street painting. “I love to see how people react when they see the painting taking shape,” she smiles. “First they look at you suspiciously; then they are amazed.”
Last October, the magic operated again, when together with long-time friend and fellow street artist, Fafi, they decorated a discrete Bedford Avenue palisade with their colorful signature characters: Koralie’s vibrant geisha, a Japanese entertainer whose skills include performing classical music and dance; and Fafi’s famous eye-catching “Fafinette.” “Everybody, from the hipster to the tramp encouraged us,” she remembers. “The police stopped a first time and asked us to show written permission to paint on the palisade. When a second police car stopped by later, the policeman shouted: ‘Go girls! It’s looking great!’’’ The two artists, who painted in full daylight, generated a buzz within the local blogosphere. “I personally think they have made that neighborhood into something special,” commented The 189, an art blog.
But the palisade—and the paintings on them—has disappeared since the artists completed their work. An anonymous writer posted a message on Fafi’s blog stating that he took the palisade home because it was falling off. “He hasn’t gotten back to us since,” Koralie said. “One of his friends must have told him not to give it back.”
Whether in France or the United States, street art remains ephemeral. Artists spend hours painting work that sometimes disappears the next day, washed away by nature or municipal cleaners. “Sometimes, people never get to see your work,” Koralie says. “Street art teaches modesty and detachment.”
As the Western world has become increasingly work-oriented, she wishes to usher a bit of magic into daily routine. This is an unsurprising motivation for the dynamic 31 year old who can’t stand office work. “If art originates from suffering, my art comes from simply thinking about routine,” she reflects. “When you see all the positive comments that my work triggers, you really feel that you are doing a lot of good around you,” Koralie says. “It’s like a ray of sun for many, a gift.”
Her fascination with Japanese culture shaped her style. Her signature character, a flamboyant geisha, was inspired by a host of Japanese illustrations—from 13th-century prints to contemporary manga. “I wanted my character to embody the elegance, the knowledge, the grace of the geishas and exuberance, and the liberation of the manga heroes,” she explains.
Koralie approaches her designs by picking a story or a topic that will shape the way she “dresses” her “geisha.” “It’s like a doll,” she says. “I change her hair and her clothing,” while incorporating aesthetic elements taken from different cultures, such as African braids, English curls, Russian dolls, and Indian folklore. In “After the Rain,” her exhibit at the Joshua Liner Gallery, she painted seven geishas, each symbolizing a different color of the rainbow: “My yellow character was inspired by Africa. I gave her a giraffe neck and long blond hair, like the sun. My red one, ’Bella-Rosa,’ embodied passion. The blue one was timid and cold. She was from Russia.”
After she decides on a concept, she walks the streets to find a suitable wall or surface to paint. “Brick walls are nice but they are difficult to paint on. It also has to be in a populated area so that the painting is seen,” she points out.
And then comes the painting. She can spend hours and days depending on the explosion of exaggerated detail, outsized hairstyles, sumptuous clothing patterns, and rich accessories of each of her characters. “I find several pleasures in street art,” she explains. “Finding a place, meeting other people, painting with friends, and making places more beautiful.”
“Here, we feel free.”
Koralie arrived three months ago in Brooklyn with her two kids and husband, SupaKitch, another street artist who made a name for himself in New York by disguising the spherical subway entrance lights with animal costumes.
She hopes that here, steeped in the culture of pop-art, she will be more successful selling her by-products: Together with SupaKitch, they launched their own T-shirt brand in 2005, “Metro Plastique”—formerly known as “Plastique Graffiktee”—which bears the colors and forms of their work. “In France it’s not accepted by society to live on street art. In the United States, artists are not ashamed to make a living off their passion,” she said. “Here, we feel free.”
Koralie doesn’t believe that skyrocketing real estate prices that have forced artists to abandon their studios will balloon the number of street artists. “Street art is a feeling. You don’t need a situation or a pretext to do it. It’s like a drug,” she says, smiling. “I also think that the illegality of it drives a lot of people away from it.”
Walking through the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn, several places have caught her attention. She plans to drop her geisha in SoHo, the East Village, and Greenwich Village soon. “I am careful not to degrade the neighborhood,” she insists. “I hate aggressive graffiti.”
What about Coney Island? “It’s a great place” she admits. “But it feels too much like a museum. I would be too afraid to degrade it.” How about her own neighborhood, Fort Greene? “It would not work here!” she said without hesitating. “The painting has to be in an artsy community.” She promises to return to Williamsburg, a community that she is fond of. “If people are interested, or know a spot, they should let me know.”
Keep your eyes open, you might come across a geisha very soon.
Born in 1977 in Montpellier, France, Koralie graduated in architecture and started to work in agencies, then experienced the universe of TV as a set designer in advertising. A canvas painter turned street artist, she has been showing her work since the age of 19. Her signature character, a flamboyant geisha, has been seen in the streets of major European, American, and Japanese cities, as well as in magazines, books, clothing lines, and renowned galleries such as the Joshua Liner Gallery (Manhattan). Today she lives and works in New York with her husband SupaKitch—also a street artist—and her two children.
Koralie’s website: http://kogaylou.free.fr/
Alexis Buisson is a French freelance journalist based in Brooklyn.