Olivier Kosta-Théfaine

Posted on September 7, 2009 by Susie Hollands

There is nowhere to live but the city – and if art doesn’t work he plans to “become a chef” – Susie Hollands and Araceli Salgado Pintor meet with banlieusard artist Olivier Kosta-Théfaine.

Olivier Kosta-Théfaine obviously has an abrasive relationship with Paris. His street art, once decried by the authorities, is now hung in the most fashionable galleries of Paris. When Olivier came round to talk to VINGT, it became clear from our discussions that his outwardly casual manner hides an artist who adores to play on this tension.Over the years, we’ve learnt to be watchful of irony and humor in his work.  On his website Olivier declares: “Je ne suis pas un Parisien, je suis un banlieusard, et je porte cette étiquette comme on porte une particule. Je suis un pur produit de la banlieue.” Coming from Sartrouville, a Parisian suburb, Olivier decided to explore the world outside his “cité” taking art as his flag and the street experience as his muse.

For Olivier graffiti is a sport, if he was born by the beach he would surf.  Graffiti is not a claim, nor has it any political dimension: it’s simply the pure pleasure of writing on walls, illuminating and camouflaging his own style in the urban cityscape. Becoming an artist was a natural evolution of his passion. This “feeling” for graffiti art at main school spawned his first exhibition at “La Laiterie” (Strasbourg) in 1994.

His artistic work, breaks down his impressions of city life into the gallery setting. He is well aware of the contradiction: A wall burned in a suburb ghetto is disgusting, but a ceiling burned in a trendy gallery is “so arty”!

He seems particularly amused by this apparent hypocrisy. Graffiti in a gallery suddenly becomes art, yet few of the public who buy these works and populate the galleries have ever set foot in the banlieue – a home to many street artists.

His work at the Fondation Cartier“Né dans la rue” may well have gone un-noticed by most visitors. Located at the gallery’s entrance, above the reception desk. Striking and unusual, Olivier has written his own language on the ceiling using a lighter (view photo on the left).

Is it pretty? Is it ugly? Has it been done before? Olivier knows these are the questions the public will ask themselves. The work seems to deliberately blend in with it’s surroundings even though it is a distinctly un-decorative piece: without colour or any discernible pattern.

Looking closely at areas of the work one can find patches where a pattern begins to form or a tag is revealed, that eventually blends into the general confusion of the piece.

Downstairs in the museum there is a great exhibit which traces the early graffiti artists in New York. These innovators would constantly create ever more complex designs to veil a tag and paint in amusing and inaccessible places, in an attempt to be the most impressive. This is perhaps equally important for Olivier, exhibiting in a gallery simply provides a new challenge for disguising and showing his own tags, following the same principles as the New York artists.

Olivier says he always thought that if his passion for his work ebbs, he’d become a chef. He thinks (like all good Frenchmen) that they are the real artists; a chef is capable of transforming his raw elements into a new creation. He owns up as a real foodie, one who eats everything except nutmegs. But for now, Olivier, an urban guy, will continue surfing between the street, the galleries and the private commissions that are starting to roll in.