Victor Ash is old school. He came up on the mean streets of Paris as a graffiti writer in the early 1980s. Ash tagged any wall, alley, building, or street he could find. He refined his skills with trips to New York — where he befriended members of New York’s iconic graffiti scene. By the end of the 80s, the man was an integral part of the Parisian art scene.
Ash’s second act came decades later, when he was asked to create a five-story mural on a building in central Berlin. The mural, featuring an astronaut, became world famous and brought Ash back to the world of painting walls on the city streets. Now based in Copenhagen, Ash travels the world painting some of the most eclectic murals on buildings far and wide. Hist style has shifted, but his love of the artform hasn’t.
We were lucky enough to sit down with the legendary street artist for a quick chat about the old days, living in deserted hotels on mountaintops for work, and how street art has evolved over the last 40 years.
Let’s go back in time a little bit to Paris in the 1980s. What was the scene like tagging the streets back then?
There were very few people doing graffiti in Paris around ’84, ’85. We could basically paint in many, many places. There was no real reserved zones for anyone.
What’s interesting is that there was already a lot of cross-pollination between the Paris and New York’s graffiti scenes in the 80s. What was that like for you?
I was working with a lot of the artists in that scene at the time. So, a few of us traveled to New York a lot. We were introduced to the contemporary art world through those guys. So this is just what we did. Then little by little, we went more and more away from the streets and into the gallery business near the end of the ’80s.
When you took trips to New York, did you feel an influence on your Parisian graffiti style?
We were influenced by the guys in New York. It was like an exchange. The movement was creating new styles and new techniques. When I was doing graffiti, we were always talking about styles on the streets. Then we’d mix it to make it our own. We took something. We gave something. That’s how it worked. It was very exciting.
It’s incredible to think that this hybrid of style was happening across the Atlantic and not just from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Right! It was globalism in the ’80s.
What is the path from being a street artist to being a gallery artist?
I didn’t think I was going to become a gallery artist when I started. I was maybe 13 or 14 years old. For me, it was just fun to do graffiti, to paint with spray cans, to make the letters. Then people approached me and they asked me to create exhibits and sell my paintings. That’s how it went for most of the guys in Paris of my generation.
You started getting into shows in the late ’80s through the fashion designer Agnes B. Can you tell us a little bit about how that happened?
I met Agnes B because I had a friend who was a musician who was friends with her. I knew that she was interested in graffiti because she already exhibited Futura 2000 from New York and worked with Basquiat. So we were kind of in the same network. So she proposed that I do an exhibit in her gallery in Paris with other graffiti artists. It was called “Les peintres de la ville.” That’s how it started.
I then I had a studio with some artists from New York who were establishing themselves in Paris. And little by little I tried to develop a specific style for myself — which was only on canvas and quite different from what I used to do on the streets. But I was still only using spray paint.
When did Berlin start to be a part of your life as an artist?
Berlin has a very big role in what I do. In Paris, we were quite advanced in our graffiti. Many people came to visit us because we had some places in Paris that everybody knew about. Around ’87 or ’88 a lot of people from Berlin came and they invited us back to Berlin to contribute.
To tag the Berlin Wall?
Yes. Back then the Wall was still up and it was fantastic to have such a big surface to paint on. So I went to Berlin a lot just to paint on the Berlin Wall. That city really inspired me because it gave me the opportunity to paint really, really a lot. In Paris, it was kind of difficult to find places where you could paint openly like that. So I went to Berlin all the time. I’d stay there for months at a time just painting.
What were you painting on the wall back then? Was it politically motivated?
No, I never really did anything political on the wall because it was not really interesting for me to think that way.
It was not in my mind to make political graffiti because we are a movement that’s outside of the system. We were kind of anarchists anyway. So for us to write something or to be involved in a political message was not really interesting. For me, it was just like a wall that was there. That’s it. And by not giving it the importance the political system wanted it to have, it took away some of its power. These people they put up these barriers so let’s make it like it doesn’t exist. That was my attitude.
Does any of the work you did on the wall still exist?
Oh, I don’t think so.
With the wall gone, you started doing murals in Berlin. Can you walk us through how you got into that?
A museum in Kreuzberg was doing very big shows about graffiti and street art at the beginning of the 2000s.with people like Banksy and other up-and-coming graffiti artists of the time. They found a few places for murals around their neighborhood and they offered them to artists. So I got the one next to the Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn station. I decided to make the astronaut there. That was one of the first murals I did in Berlin. It was a big success. Then people kept on asking me to do murals in Berlin.
Why an astronaut in Berlin?
I wanted to find a picture that would illustrate Berlin connected to the Berlin I saw when I first started making trips to the city. During my first trips, I saw the East and the West. I’m also very inspired by space and science. At the same time, I knew the image of Berlin as this small island with a lot of weird people — army people, people not paying taxes, poor people living on welfare, a lot of punks, a lot of drug addicts. So I used the astronaut as a symbol for the Berlin of the Cold War and the space race between USSR and the USA. So I made this astronaut that’s dirty, dripping who is inspired from David Bowie’s Space Oddity. He’s Major Tom, who is a junkie again. So, that’s the whole spirit around this piece.
You now have murals all over the world. Which ones stand out for you?
One of the most fun works I did was on top of a mountain in Austria. It was really a beautiful place. It’s on a TV tower at the peak. I did it in summer when very few people are up there. I had to stay there for a week to paint it. Wonderful view in the morning and it was a lot of fun to do. But it was a bit like The Shining, where you’re all alone on the mountain with no escape.
What’s the best part about painting murals on structures and buildings?
You get to travel a lot. You get to meet a lot of people. And there’s a lot of interaction with a lot of cultures. Basically, it’s a very exciting thing to do if you have time and you are young … and you don’t like sitting around.
Today, there’s whole sections of streets in cities — like Indian Alley in Los Angeles or Mauerpark in Berlin — where people can go and freely practice their graffiti skills. It’s become very embraced and, well, mainstream. What’s your take on where graffiti and street art is today?
Oh yeah, I think it’s absolutely embraced. And there’s a very big business around it. In France, it’s one of the art movements that sells the most at the moment. There’s really a lot of money being made. A lot of people are collecting this kind of art. It’s a big business. It’s also a big business for gentrification, like what happened in Miami with Wynwood.
Can you expand on what happened in Miami?
Wynwood is a neighborhood in Miami that was very a depressed place. There was this real estate guy who invited a bunch of graffiti artists to come there and paint these big murals. It gave the neighborhood an edge. Then cafes started to open restaurants and the galleries came. Now, it’s a tourist destination and the real estate is very expensive.
It’s fascinating how mainstream it’s become. Street art has been professionalized and commoditized. You used to have to go to a hardware store to buy spray paint and pretend you were using it for construction. Now you can get everything imaginable at an art shop with zero pretenses.
Do you think that’s the right direction?
I think it’s quite common. Graffiti isn’t this art form that’s so underground or undiscovered anymore. Of course, there are still people who do it that way, and they are totally against all the commercial parts of it. I’m not doing the illegal stuff anymore because that’s something that I did in the ’80s. It was fun when I was a teenager. I think graffiti and street art is embraced by the population, by commerce, but it’s not embraced by the contemporary art businesses… Yet.