The artist Fafi brings the striking perspectives of a woman into a field of creative practice traditionally dominated by men—graffiti. With a new book out, the artist reflects on an illustrious career of public illustration.
French graffiti writer Fafi recently published her first graphic novel, Fafi: The Carmine Vault. Her illustrated characters are colorful, voluptuous women with a heightened sexual energy. I met with her recently for a chat about city life, graffiti, and what it means to “sell out.”
Jon Handel What are your thoughts about New York City? Things you love, things you hate. How do you feel about New York in general?
Fafi A few years ago, I came to live here for three months with my son and my husband. We wanted to stay longer but life and Paris held us again, so we went back. But there is something that belongs to every city, and its violent and overwhelming urbanicity scares me a little bit.
JH New York?
F All the cities. This is one of the reasons I wanted to paint in the street, to put pictures that were familiar for me in places that I was a little bit scared of. Especially New York. Unfortunately, I come here often but not enough. This time, it’s too quick.
JH What led you to create Fafi: The Carmine Vault?
F I had enough of making unique pictures. I told myself, Okay, I can do that until the end of my life and I will be successful. But there is something more, as an artist, to achieve. It’s not a good position for me to always be in a comfortable position. As soon as I am too comfortable in a field, I stop.
JH So you’re trying new things?
F For example, the Fafinettes were all alone, so I wanted them to be surrounded by all the creators. And the comic is the family of that thinking. It means that the hero in the comic is not even the Fafinette, the character that I’m known for. The hero is Birtak. So it’s quite a risky thing for me to do, but it’s the only way for me to keep going with the artist’s career for me.
JH Your transition from graffiti to the contemporary art world looked quite natural. What were your early years as a graffiti writer in Paris like? Did you have any run-ins with the law? How often do you partake in graffiti these days?
F I have only lived in Paris for nine years. Before that, I used to paint in my own town, Toulouse. It’s a city in the South of France. In the beginning I was painting very often, which means one or two times per week. I was already getting arrested.
JH You were?
F Yeah, always. As I was choosing dirty walls or walls that were forgotten by people, I rarely had problems. Most of the time the cops were coming and saying, “Ok you take your stuff and just go”. As time was passing, and the more the cops knew the work, they were saying, “Oh you’re going to make us a Fafinette on the office, with a knife and stuff?” As more time passed, the more famous we got. We had articles in magazines. So in many ways that city became famous for its graffiti.
JH Do you still go out writing graffiti?
F Eh, the adrenaline that I get from painting in the street, I have it now when I create things. When I challenge myself to do more risky stuff. But risky isn’t risky in an adrenaline way.
JH What is it like as a female graffiti writer in an art form predominantly made up of men?
F We are still few in numbers. I’ve been painting for 18 years now, and I think the amount of girls has stayed the same [during that time]. I don’t know what to say about that. It’s true. You have to be a certain woman to start in that passion, because it is a passionate thing. It is a passionate thing to [go graffiti a] wall when your parents are sleeping. It’s a passionate thing to dress up to go on the roofs.
JH Did guys give you a hard time?
F Some of them yes and some of them no. Some of them were very encouraging and the others not. (laughter)
JH Commercial advertising work can be a sticky subject for graffiti writers trying to maintain their street cred. You’ve collaborated with Adidas, M.A.C. Cosmetics, Sony, and other big brand names. How do you select the projects and have they always turned out as you’ve planned?
F Sometimes, it doesn’t turn out as I plan, unfortunately. [It’s often because] the people that I work with don’t see details as I do. They don’t see the rendering [I desire] . . . it [is] a kind of crappy the way that it’s done . . . [if] you want an example, when I collaborate with the brands, [it allows me] to create my comic. You don’t have money when you do a comic. But if you do a project before that allows you to be cool for three or four years, you have to play with the two things. You have to do commercial work and you have to do more creative things.
JH Any creative influences of yours that come to mind?
F I had a lot when I was younger. And now I think I took all the influences that others brought me just to make my own thing. The Fafinettes live on their own. I had the poems and the fashion line. I had many different influences and now I think that I have used a little bit of all those influences to make [the Fafinettes] who they are today.
JH What do you do if you have artistic writers block?
F I just drop it. I just let it go.
JH Take a break?
F If I can’t draw, if I’m in front of the white page, I will just do something else. It happens a lot. And since I have a son, I cannot have ideas at five in the morning. Now I have an office, so I work there during school hours. I think my brain [is now] trained to work at those times. So when I have ideas, I just write them down and then draw them the day after.
JH What are you planning for the future?
F I’m going to start thinking about the second volume.
Jon Handel is an artist and marketing consultant living in Brooklyn, New York. His artwork can be found here.