Graffiti legend Kongo aka Cyril Phan went from high school dropout to unparalleled success in the art world. An early proponent of the Parisian graffiti art scene, the self-taught artist never imagined that his art would go beyond the French city's suburban streets. To give you an idea of how far he's come, we'll break it down: His work now sells for around €14,000 (SDG 21,900) per square metre.
You'll find this Vietnamese-French artist's mark on any medium – canvas, shop windows, bags, scarves, champagne bottles, and even cars and airplanes. He collaborates with the likes of Hermès, Richard Mille, Daum and La Cornue. He's always pushing the limits, infusing his works with unbridled joie de vivre and optimism.
His project are consistent in that they are unexpected. In December, he’ll be showing at Montaigne Market in Paris. Next year will see him on his ongoing international tour with the Hermès Carré Club. And his first-ever solo museum exhibition will open at Saint-Barthélémy Museum. He'll also begin headway on a batik project in Solo, Indonesia.
A fan of Cuban cigars, he's recently painted a series of 50 unique humidors, each containing 100 Honduran cigars of his own blend. And let's not forget that he painted a Nord 1000, a 1935 light airplane once flown by the Luftwaffe.
Keyyes speaks to Kongo about his art, his life, and his success.
Why is collaboration important to you, whether it’s with luxury brands like Hermès and Richard Mille, or contemporary artists like Thomas Lélu and Hacene Sadoune?
Because I love others, because I like discovering different know-how. When I explore these different universes, it’s not brands that I encounter. It’s true that I’ve been put in the spotlight by brands, but in reality it was their savoir-faire that I was immersed in.
Working with Hermès, I met colourists from Lyon and witnessed how they wove and made silk scarves. With Richard Mille, I was in the Jura with the watchmakers. There are not many people who seek excellence. The universes I visited are connected, as the people I met in all of them strive for excellence.
Aiming for excellence requires having the means, and the time. I’ve been especially lucky that these companies recognised my universe and wanted to mix it with theirs... I want to tell stories about passionate people, savoir-faire, the intelligence of the hand and métiers that are perhaps disappearing, as we live in an age today focused on profitability and mass production. We live in an age where we have lowered the level of excellence and we dare less.
You are part of a second generation of Parisian graffiti artists. Do you feel that you've helped transform the face of graffiti art, and paved the way for younger artists?
After organising an international graffiti festival, my crew and I managed to take graffiti from a minor news item to the cultural pages. This was at a time when the press was talking about my culture in terms of vandalism and delinquency.
I also have put my energy into transmission and sharing. I trained a few teachers and gave painting lessons, in order to ignite a spark in kids who don’t have access to, or who don't understand, the richness of having a passion. Or, these were kids were full of doubt and fear.
It is my role to be an example for them, and to highlight their abilities so they understand that if they have a passion, it’s great. (I want them) to invest in it, to always strive for excellence, to not lie to themselves and to work for it. The earlier we begin to inculcate them, the further we can bring our society. Artists can be so influential in a good way.
How has your art evolved over the last three decades?
The objective of recognition was quite present until the year 2000. When I started to tag in the streets, (the driving force) was the need for recognition – that of a child towards society. It was a form of rebellion, to show that I existed. Then, I began to paint bigger and bigger walls, to travel. I was still driven by the need for recognition – the recognition of my peers who began to invite me to New York, Munich, Barcelona.
That's when I started going around in circles. I had painted all the traditional graffiti mediums and gone around the world four or five times. Suddenly, I wanted to change the codes. To do this, you find yourself on your own. You have a graphic vocabulary and then change it. You have to bring it to further. This is a personal search, and it starts to become pure enjoyment – much like graffiti.
Today, I am the master of my art. And today, I want to bring my work to where people least expect it.
Why have you turned your attention to portraits?
My work as an artist is to ask questions or crystallise the moment we’re living in. I’m having fun; I do what I want. I can talk about love, planes or pay homage. I’ve started making portraits but using letters, to pay tribute to the people who have influenced me.
Nobody expected that I would do portraits, as I work with letters. There’s a time for everything – when you feel ready, you do it. The more I progress in my career, the more comfortable I am with what I do and the people I meet, and today I think they’re beginning to understand my work better and where I want to go.
What are the keys to your success?
I have several adages. The first is to have a vision aimed at excellence. Then, it is to be sincere in your work. Never present something that seems mediocre to you. Be authentic and work hard.
Then, understand that money, reputation, success and health – everything is elastic except time. The time you impart towards your vision will determine the success you will have.