Towards the end of the '80s, there were a number of articles in the print media about your graffiti bust.
Darco: It was talked about all over the place. They wanted to make an example out of me. They dragged all these photos of pieces I was accused of doing. I had 19 counts against me and they were looking for the other writers in the group. That's why Gawki split for Germany. I didn't have that option, so I had to stay and face the music. The first time around I got a 750,000 FF fine ($125,000) and three and a half months in prison. On appeal, the jail term was changed to 150 hours of public service and a 50,000 F fine ($8,333). Luckily, at the time of the ;quot;crime;quot; I was still a minor; even though I was old enough to be tried as an adult by the time it went to court. Some major technicalities should have invalidated the charges against me.
I got interested in the standard sentences for various crimes and misdemeanors. I would have faced much less serious charges if I'd assaulted someone in the street. Since I didn't have anything to lose, I went around to various offices of the SNCF (state railway) asking about public service jobs. I spent some time cleaning trains at La Chapelle; and then they asked me to do pieces in several train stations, like Aulnay and Sevran on the RER B line. Some other station masters saw my work and told their superiors how much they liked it. Once I really got a chance to express myself, all the railway people, from the workers to the bosses, really liked it. After that, an arrangement was made where my fine was annulled in exchange for doing a commissioned wall painting. So I was able to do quite a few legal pieces on the railway right of way and in the end the whole thing didn't turn out so bad.
What's the story with your wall paintings at the Gare du Nord train station?
The SNCF wanted to paint over the open railway tunnel where trains enter the Gare du Nord. (This is an area next to what used to be one of the city's most celebrated graff sites, a vacant lot at Stalingrad, so naturally it was worked on during the night shift by some of the world's mightiest ;quot;bombers.;quot;) The person who was in charge of this renovation project was not as narrow-minded as some people. He had sold the idea to the SNCF by presenting it as a ;quot;mural,;quot; with preliminary sketches and so on. There were two halves to this plan, a piece by an American and a French artist who worked for the SNCF (like the post office, the ranks of railway employees are filled with Sunday painters), and then us. It was only after the administration had approved the project and signed a contract that they found out that our half was going to be spray painted. After that they did everything possible to make it hard for us to do the job. They treated us like we were some kind of gang that was going to tag up their property.
And then to top it all off, you were accused of painting over all the pieces that were on those walls.
First of all, they were going to be painted over anyway. And then there's the fact that the SNCF was willing to pay some artists to do that-why shouldn't it be us? For a long time I was totally hard core. I felt like the only good piece was an illegal one done in the dead of night. But that was a long time ago.
Tell us something about your murals on the front of buildings that became an active part of the building's architecture.
That was another long, hard battle to win. Some people were afraid to take a chance, and there were a lot of stereotypes to overcome. Graffiti was made for that kind of monumental painting. After all, what writ
ing is about is letters and style. But we have to go out and get these kinds of commissions; they won't come to us. Now there are some new possibilities to work with people who are more open-minded, even though it's still not very common. A lot more of this kind of stuff is being done in Germany. Germany has always had high-quality spray cans and outstanding legal Halls of Fame like the one at the flea market in Munich, with a 25 x 80-foot wall. People there have always done both tags and pieces and they know that both are cool-everyone is free to like one or the other or not. Paris has a whole generation of pure bombers, people who have done nothing but tags and throw-ups. The French media have tried to make people think that tags = ghetto = crime. This has held graffiti back and kept it from developing. I've been on the scene since the beginning, and I don't come from a poor neighborhood. Some people think graffiti comes from the ghetto and it ought to be locked in just like the people. We're not all hard core home boys, but we get down together-and that's what bothers some people.
In Germany and Belgium, you can get an appointment with an architect or a prime contractor and you can talk to them, although it's never easy. Here they don't even accept your phone calls if they think you're ghetto. But that kind of very large-scale work is only one of a number of possible outlets for graffiti.
Your large-scale work is impressive. How do you go about working on such big projects?
It depends on the walls, of course. As far as the people that cover them are concerned, we've known each other for a long time and it's no problem. Usually what happens is that a particular individual has the main idea for a project and then the group coordinates around that.
What do you think about the Paris graph scene lately?
There's a big gap between writing and rap in Paris, and what's even worse, graffiti itself is split along different levels. It's a typically Parisian thing to shoot yourself in the foot. I've seen a lot of people passing through who call for this or that, but after a year or two they're gone. There's enormous potential but it often doesn't come to much.
Do you keep up with the work of the F.X. and the T.A.T. crews in New York? They're some of the few people that are doing what you do in terms of format.
Yes and no. The more you see other people's work the more motivated you are yourself; but graffiti's about tagging, style even in the smallest pieces. It's all that at the same time.
What was your trip to South Africa like?
The Hip Hop scene in Cape Town and Johannesburg goes back a long time, as far as it does here. At a jam in Europe I met some Africans who organized one in South Africa. I took advantage of that to get an idea of what the Cape Town scene is like.
What is the local take there on Hip Hop and especially graffiti?
The main thing there is break dancing. You don't need a thing to do that. A lot of young people are really into that. Graffiti is less common. There aren't many active writers. There's only a few in Cape Town. As far as spray cans are concerned, there are about a dozen basic colors available. If you mix them up you can get about 20 colors at most, and the quality is far below what we can get here. You don't see a lot of tags and pieces on the street. Everybody is packing and the cops shoot first and ask questions later. You can see some graffs along the train tracks. Most of the people involved in Hip Hop there are what people in South Africa call Coloureds, people who aren't white but don't belong to the local ethnic groups like the Zulus or the Bushmen. At first the police and the authorities weren't too down on writers. The country has problems that are a lot more serious than some kids who want to paint walls. But now that more and more people are into it, the authorities are trying to suppress it brutally. Down there your life isn't worth a thing and nobody's surprised when you get treated that way.
The music scene is especially hot in Johannesburg, with people like the DJ Ready Dee who spins for the group Prophet of the City (P.O.C.). He also produces other groups, like B.V.K. and Black Noise. The scene is pretty "roots", so everybody can do a little of everything. This DJ is also a real dope dancer. He can put down the vinyl and challenge everyone to a break dance contest, or even start to paint. The scene in Australia is pretty similar.