insight - Kongo
Written by Alvin Cher and Dorothy Tan Photography by Dominic Khoo
Occupation - Urban Artist
Urban artist Cyril Phan, better known by his street name ‘Kongo’, teams up with French luxury fashion house, Hermès, in an unlikely collaboration. Portable street art or fashion statement, it pushes the boundaries of both graffiti and style
The humble beginnings of the artist Kongo render his later achievements all the more impressive. Cyril Phan arrived in France as a refugee of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and took up residence in the south of the country. He remembers how it was difficult to settle into his new home. “At that point in time, people there were not used to seeing Asian people. I was also very shy and I did not understand the French culture or speak French well. Although I was already French on paper, I was not really French to the French people. Furthermore, when you are young, it is not so easy to be accepted by your peers.”
Everything changed once Cyril started painting after discovering graffiti art in Africa and being exposed to it in Paris. “When I started painting graffiti, it was as if there were two of me: Cyril, the shy kid, and Kongo, the freestyle graffiti artist. When I am doing graffiti, I feel that I am no longer shy. I paint everywhere, but people don’t see me when I paint. It is more interesting if everyone only sees your art but doesn’t know what you look like. At one time when people saw the tag ‘Kongo’, they would think that I was an African!”
Having come a long way from those early years, Kongo has since established himself as a leading figure in the international urban art scene. His latest project, in collaboration with French luxury fashion giant Hermès, is arguably his most commercial yet intriguing venture to date. The GRAFF Hermès is a line of vibrantly coloured scarves, featuring exclusive Kongo artwork, which was launched as part of Hermès’ Autumn/Winter 2011 collection. Part of the proceeds from these scarves will go to Kosmopolis, a non-profit collective that supports young urban artists.
After travelling to Barcelona and Hong Kong to promote the GRAFF Hermès, Kongo was in Singapore recently for the opening of the new Hermès store at Scotts Square, where he had created the window displays. With its strict anti-vandalism laws, you could expect the city-state to be an uneasy place for a graffiti artist to find himself in. On the contrary, Kongo was friendly, enthusiastic, and optimistic about the prospect of street art flourishing in Singapore.
Oryx: What is it about painting graffiti that first drew you to it?
Kongo: I started painting graffiti between 1986 and 1987. When I first arrived in Paris, I was very impressed with the graffiti art there, so I started expressing myself through graffiti too. For me, the art created a real, positive energy on the streets.
Oryx: In your opinion, when does graffiti stop being vandalism and start being art? In other words, how do you tell one from the other?
Kongo: It simply depends on who is looking at it and where you are painting. For instance, now that I am working with Hermès, a luxury designer brand, you can call me an artist. However, in Jakarta, when I am painting on a wall, you can say that it is vandalism. To me, it is just art. We vandalise nothing because we paint on old walls. Of course, it would be stupid to paint on private property. I just want people to enjoy my art. Graffiti to me is not political; it is just an expression by kids on the streets in cities.
Oryx: As more graffiti artists, like you, are gaining commercial success, how do you think this will affect graffiti as street art with roots in an anti-establishment counter-culture?
Kongo: It is a natural progression of art. To me, it is the first language of humans, like when the caveman started drawing on walls. Everyone is an artist. The problem starts when we go to school and stop drawing. I simply never stopped. When we do graffiti, we do not think about money, just about expressing ourselves and putting our names on the streets. Even when graffiti is being shown in museums, galleries, and at auctions, it is just part of how art and society work.
Oryx: It must be very exciting to work with Hermès. Other than the beautiful scarf, what is the best part of the collaboration?
Kongo: I feel very comfortable and proud to be working with Hermès. They really respect my work and culture. They understand graffiti more than some museum curators! Hermès may be a classic brand, but the people there know a lot about my culture. The company supports many of my projects, including Kosmopolis, to which part of the proceeds of the scarf will be going. Hermès gave graffiti an opportunity to be better understood by a wider audience. I feel very lucky to be able to speak with the media about graffiti as art and not as vandalism.
Oryx: You were in Singapore last month for an exhibition, which was part of the Voilah! French Festival. How was the experience of painting in a country that views graffiti so negatively?
Kongo: It was perfect. When you are exhibiting in places where people understand and like graffiti, it is really easy and perhaps too much within my comfort zone. However, when I said that I would be going to Singapore, everyone told me to be careful because graffiti is a crime there. Yet, I had a very successful exhibition and people really enjoyed my art. I met some local youths who told me that it is like oxygen to them to view graffiti art like this. We also got the chance to speak to the media and explain how graffiti is not about politics or rebellion, but art. I hope this helps to create more opportunity for kids who want to do graffiti in Singapore. It will be good if Singaporeans can recognise that Singaporean graffiti painters are actually artists with a signature Singaporean style.
Kosmopolite Art Tour
In early December 2011, Kongo was in Indonesia for Kosmopolite Art Tour Jakarta. One of the more high-profile projects that Kongo is involved with, it aims to create a universal language through graffiti despite the uniqueness of culture in different cities. Through this programme, urban artists are able to share ideas, knowledge, and technique.
As exchange of information at this scale is uncommon in the quasi-secretive world of street art, the art tour creates an invaluable platform for graffiti to grow and evolve as an art form.
As an avid traveller, Kongo has visited many places to spread his ideology of street art, such as the USA, Brazil, and various parts of Asia, including Tokyo and Hong Kong. His travels are undoubtedly a rich source of inspiration for his art. “Every day I get inspiration from what I see, what I dream and what I talk about with my girlfriend and kids. I get my inspiration from life! Nowadays, travel is one of my favourite themes to paint about.”