“PHANTASIES: Mythes et legends du group PAL” book review

Crazy Friendship & Messy Second-degree Flamboyant Elite Cosmic-burlesque Ego-trip in Paris, dude! — I like this line partly because it sounds like Tom Wolfe, maybe with just a handful of tastelessness native to American mainstream comedy of 2000s, but mostly because it’s made up from one-word descriptions of PAL Crew given by its own members in PHANTASIES: Mythes et legends du group PAL. Therefore, it could perfectly work as an idiosyncratic storyline of this charming book.

PHANTASIES: Myths and Legends of PAL Crew sounds quite self-explanatory, it is a bilingual (French/English), nonfiction book about glorified Parisian PAL (Peace and Love) graffiti crew. Basically, it is a compilation of fifteen interviews with the members of PAL crew conducted by the artist known as Esso in spring 2016. Esso, who is photographer, graffiti writer and member of PAL by himself, preferred to stick to the same twenty-one questions in a series of tête-à-tête conversations with every member of the crew including himself. Being photographer gave the author additional benefit of using personal exclusive documentation in the book alongside collected art and tags by everyone from the PAL. What he wanted to achieve is to preserve “the memories that unite the members of PAL” and today we can truly understand how valuable and well-timed was idea to write down those personal stories in March 2016, since only one year later Saeio, one of the founders of PAL crew, tragically passed away. Therefore, material of this book is quite unique. Together with the monograph SAEIO 2009-2014 published by Éditions Peinture in 2015, those two books are the most insightful up-to-date works relating to the practice of PAL Crew and Saeio in particular.

The history of Peace and Love started at the Jardins d’Eole near Stalingrad in 2011, when artists known as Saeio, Tomek and Moper not without a certain irony decided to advocate “peace and love” on the streets of Paris. At that time Parisian writers were heavily influenced by the idea of violence actively promoted by Ultra Violent, The Psychopath Killers graffiti crews. So, it made a perfect sense to oppose it with some intelligent approach, or talking in PAL style: to develop something “less street-thug cliché” (Fooze) and more kinda “dandy-type elegance” (Saeio). Nonetheless non-violence wasn’t their most notable asset. Despite being the group of individuals with different artistic styles, most members of PAL crew were united by desire to experiment, chasing the perfect shape through deconstruction of the letters until the point of abstraction; by desire “to do graffiti while wanting to get out of it” (Fooze). In other words, it was another generation of graffiti writers craving to erase the codes of graffiti. And they did it in exceptional manner, simultaneously admiring Hector Guimard, Blade and R.Crumb. Which eventually became the reason for haters to tease PAL for “being over-top intellectuals, arrogant bourgeois kids” (Gues). Which doesn’t sound much of an insult, to be frank.

The Greek masks, supposedly encountered by author in Louvre at the right moment, became the curious choice for the cover of “PHANTASIES”. Wherever terracotta masks in Greek theatre were used for transformation into character, recognition from a great distance, or amplification of the actor’s voice, it all falls into graffiti discourse, where the name is a sort of mask. All fifteen artists presented in “PHANTASIES” (including author) are using only their nicknames, it helps them to feel free and to tell things which otherwise they never would. This is how they create a very personal mythology. “You step into character’s skin, personify a concept. You carry a nickname. You’ve got to play with it, play the role that you’re interpreting. You wear a mask like Batman, dressed up and camouflaged. The artist feels a need to amplify this myth, to write out the scenario…” (Saeio).

Rawness that one could assume as the weak side of this book is actually its best advantage. Transcript of those informal conversations is presented here in a quite raw manner which unintentionally reveals the candid, spontaneous and ostensibly naïve nature of PAL’s style. It is like overheard locker room talk (if it’s still possible to call that way something which is not obscene). The conversation between insiders with dozens of nicknames, crews, locations and personal stories that are unknown to someone who doesn’t belong to the group. This is the way they will never talk to outsider. And that is something very special about this publication. Because where else you will read about Antwan Horfee doing his first tag as Senseї; or about the moment when Pablo Tomek is discovering that “the codes could be broken”; about fat-cap tags under the paintings in some kid’s bedroom; or late-night golf game in the living room... “PHANTASIES” in somewhat childish, yet definitely honest way provides an insight into the collective reality of Peace and Love crew through shedding a certain light upon the great artists involved in it.   

PHANTASIES: Mythes et legends du group PAL by Esso, released in October 2018, available from Hitzerot: hitzerot.com/product/phantasies.