Text: Rooksana Hossenally. Images: various.
No one really knows this mysterious chimpanzee who swings from building to building, spray cans and rollers at the ready. Like all superheroes, the artist who goes by the name of ‘Bonom’, wears a mask and never reveals his real identity. Scouring the city for large wall spaces, he prefers to work at night within the city’s shadows. One of Paris’ most respected ‘clandestine’ artists, Bonom is also one of the most prolific.
You may have seen his monumental works of intricate animal skeletons and other creatures floating close to the sky on the non-descript grey façades of various buildings. His works are dashed with an eerie quality making them instantly recognisable. Most are found in the 11th district of Paris; if you look up at number 123, rue Vielle du Temple in the Marais, you will see his enormous, somewhat gory, boar on a spit (pictured above). For his minotaur you’ll have to go to rue de la Traversière towards Ledru Rollin. As for the myriad fish bones and other animal figures, we won’t spoil the surprise; they will without doubt jump out at you from hidden corners when you least expect it. The artist is also very present in Brussels and Luxembourg but little else is know about him. Footage filmed by a Belgian television channel, shows him at work on a ten storey building – the scale of the piece alone makes it one of the most impressive of his works. In addition to his artistic skill, he is also nifty at climbing and abseiling, enabling him to reach the most difficult spots well away from City Hall’s cleaning squads.
He explains that he loves his figures to appear as though they are floating above the city, almost dancing. For Bonom, the adrenaline rush comes from the ‘show’ that unravels as the sun rises and the unsuspecting waking population catches sight of the emerging painting, completed the night before.
In a short documentary realised by the Coup 2 Pouce Association, Bonom expresses his dislike at being called a ‘graffiti’ or ‘street’ artist because he works in various mediums, not just in the streets. In the documentary, he is shown to be creating a motion-sensitive light painting after which he explains that like the light installation, the streets are merely another vehicle for creation.
In June this year, Bonom’s street paintings led to his arrest for vandalism in Brussels. Although the outcome is said to be uncertain, it is clear that Bonom doesn’t just attract negative attention. The media is smitten by him: “Does this bother you?” a reporter asks him after his light painting installation. “No, it’s just the logical progression of things, isn’t it? I have done everything to get attention I suppose, so now I can’t complain.” Time will tell if he will continue to paint in the streets or under the bright spotlight of trendy art galleries.
Bonom’s arrest highlights interesting issues that often surface when we talk about urban art that surrounds freedom of expression, the space given to advertising and the definition of art. Many demand a decriminalisation of graffiti. But do graffiti artists actually want the authorities to cut them some slack? Isn’t the element of illegality and danger half the thrill? In an interview (above) with Lézarts Urbains’ Alain Papiower, the line between crime and art is questioned. It seems that the two go hand in hand. There is no ‘real’ graffiti without crime. The crime dimension increases the challenge and the respect for the artist who succeeds. If Bonom’s works had been commissioned by the council, his skill probably wouldn’t have earned the same respect. To see the artist at work, watch this footage of him painting his infamous gorilla, which was filmed by a passer by one night in the centre of Brussels. This medium of expression will not disappear; the authorities’ battle to eradicate graffiti is in vain because street art will never really have the same effect in a constrained context and time tells us that the movement is still very much alive. The element of surprise, risk and respect is absent in the galleries; it has a completely different artistic quality in the streets as graffiti or ‘urban art’ is largely inspired by street features. For example, Bonom’s painting of a giant fox tumbling down the side of a building in Brussels wouldn’t have the same sly mocking aspect and wouldn’t entail the same skill if it were painted on a gallery wall. Is the location of a painting then, what defines it as art? At last year’s Né dans la Rue (Born in the Streets) exhibition held at the Fondation Cartier, a huge throw-up by AMAZE was spray painted onto the façade of the museum and it was called ‘art’ without any qualms. Is it that graffiti becomes art only once you take it out of the streets? This leads us to conclude that the debate surrounding urban art is a lot more complex than trying to explain away its illegality. Real graffiti artists – those who still go out chasing surfaces in the streets – are often mixed up with all types of looters, but the adrenaline rush from the illegal dimension as well as from chasing the most inaccessible surfaces of the city and escaping the police make up half the thrill. So let’s enjoy the work of those who succeed instead of mourning those who don’t. After all, the jungle doesn’t stop here – the survival of the fittest still applies.