I’ve always been fascinated by Fafi’s work. Her subversive dolls, but also the crazy courage she has to go out and paint in the streets at night – something I would never have been able to do.
Street art is mostly a guy’s world, and she entered in a sort of explosion of femininity. She inspired me a lot when I started my work as an illustrator. She’s so cool!
That’s why, when I met her in Paris, I literally jumped her to ask her if she would do a career interview with us. I immediately loved her kindness and her straight talk; I knew it would be a great – and very real – interview.
You were born in Toulouse…what did you want to be when you grew up, when you were little?
When I was little, I couldn’t decide between being a whore or a nun, actually.
Seriously? How did you discover those two professions?
Honestly, I was always very two-sided. So I always had that little “should I be good or not be good?” problem. I wouldn’t say angel or demon complex because I hate that awful expression but, actually, I think when I was little, I didn’t necessarily have the soul of an artist but I was very, very adventurous.
I dreamed of being a Cat’s Eye anime… For example, I used to throw balloons out my roof window and I hoped one day someone would discover my messages. I used to spy on people and I’d find ways to get into my neighbors’ houses. I had, and I still have, a very strong taste for breaking the rules.
Wow, you broke into your neighbors’ houses!
Definitely—in every possible way, I was very attracted to whatever I wasn’t supposed to do. That’s how it all started. So, when I started painting in the streets at 17 years old, it was perfect. It was a way to mix art with transgression.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a nurse at a hospital. She stopped working to raise my sister and me. My father had a job formatting a newspaper in Toulouse, called La Dépêche Du Midi. So they weren’t involved in the art world at all.
How did your interest in art begin?
I first became interested in art through fashion magazines and photographers like Helmut Newton. Things that portrayed women as being powerful. After that, it was actually when I rode my Solex or my bike and looked at the walls on my way to school—I saw tons of graffiti, tons of tags, and it made me wonder—it made me fantasize a little bit. I wondered: Who was doing it? What time were they doing it?
I totally tripped about the whole world of graffiti and how it’s both visible and invisible at the same time. Visible to passersby, but invisible because it’s done in secret and at night.
I first became interested in art through fashion magazines and photographers like Helmut Newton.
Did you study art at university? What was your major?
No, not at all. I finished high school with a concentration in drawing. After that I was supposed to become a nurse, I was going to start nursing school. I didn’t really like any of it. I had already started painting and I told myself I’d keep painting for myself, as a hobby. Have a normal job and save painting for Sundays.
And then, actually, it ended up being other people who decided for me. While I was in nursing school, I started getting shows. I met some agents in Japan and they put me to work right away.
Were your parents supportive from the beginning?
[Laughs] No, no, I had violent arguments with my dad when I would come home from painting at 6 in the morning. There were visits to the police station, etc. You get into a lot of trouble when you paint in the street. It’s not a comfortable situation for a young girl.
I can imagine. Were you part of a group or did you go by yourself?
Most of the time I went to paint alone. I would decide to go paint, and sneaked out. I’d leave the garage door to my parent’s house open, so anyone could get into the house. It wasn’t super smart. But I did have an accomplice at the very beginning—Kat, who painted with me. We would do roofs together a lot of the time. I finally became that Cat’s Eye character!
We would get dressed up with leggings, super tight clothing. We’d climb up on roofs. Actually, we’d pick out the roofs during the day. It’s great painting on roofs, being up high makes you feel like you rule the world, and no one sees you because people don’t usually look up when they’re walking down the street. So that feeling of doing something in plain sight during the day, and being super discreet like a cat on the roof, was great.
It’s great painting on roofs, being up high makes you feel like you rule the world…
You mentioned the people who pushed you to focus on art. Did you have a mentor, someone who always guided you throughout your career or who gave you any particular advice? Anything that’s stuck with you?
Kat is really the person I started painting with from the beginning. She’s a little older than me, she’s very philosophical in the way she thinks about art and she’s taught me a lot. It was her at the very beginning and, since then, I’ve always chosen boyfriends who encouraged me in what I was doing, but I wouldn’t say there was one mentor in particular.
I’m also pretty solitary in my art. I like that. When I feel too comfortable with one subject, or I feel like I’ve reached the end of a certain category, I like to move on to something else. That’s why I try to do a lot of different things—videos, comics… As soon as I get bored, I change platforms, because life goes by very, very quickly. Rather than wanting to be successful, I prefer to put myself at risk as often as possible.
Yes, that was one of my questions, actually—for all the different projects you’ve done, were you the one who sought them out or did people come to you with proposals, or was it a bit of both?
For a very long time, I just waited for people to come to me. And that worked. All the biggest collaborations I did with MAC, Adidas, etc. People came to me. Which led to behavior on my part that was… kind of shitty [Laughs].
No, not untouchable. When projects like that start multiplying and these were projects that, in terms of payment, I could easily live on for three to four years. So, at one point, I didn’t even respond to people’s emails offering me work anymore. And I think I just became really shitty. It’s kind of funny to admit it. To finally realize it and say, “Hang on, this probably isn’t good for my karma.” For example, I used to get a kick out of not saying a single word at a meeting. Stupid things like that.
That all changed because I grew up and everything. I was 27 or 28. I used to get a kick out of saying the most bizarre things in meetings when Americans were around. It made me laugh because I’m French.
I’m about to turn 40 in a few months. I think I’ve gotten a lot out of this industry and the scene I was in. I traveled a lot, I made paintings all over. I had great opportunities with brands who made it possible for me to make my comic, for example.
…the things that demand the most of you creatively are the things that will bring in the least amount of money.
Now I’m more in a mode where I reach out to people. Every time people came to me with ideas for projects, it was always a way for me to stretch myself further and try out other types of media, but I never once thought, “Ok, that’s it, I’m at the top of my career, I’ve made it”—on the contrary, I’ve always thought, and this is something I notice every day, actually, and I think that for a lot of artists, this is the case—the things that demand the most of you creatively are the things that will bring in the least amount of money. But those are the projects that help you to grow and mature.
For me, working with a brand is what allows me to do other things I enjoy. It gives me financial security and after that, I can have fun with other projects. No one will probably notice those smaller projects, but it doesn’t matter. They do me good. They make me happy and help me develop as an artist and as a woman, as well.
While we’re on that subject, how would you describe Fafinette, in your drawings, for example?
Since I created Fafinette 20 years ago, she’s definitely changed and grown with me over the years. I’d say that at first she was a little bimbo with big boobs, with not much in her head. And then she evolved and became more defiant—the kind of woman who has gone through a lot of different phases in her life. At one point she was super affectionate with other Fafinettes, and then there were the baseball bats.
Honestly it always corresponded to something happening in my life. There was a period when I was angry at guys, and that was the warrior period with the Baseball bats and bombers. Then, when I was more in love, the Fafinettes were sweeter – and super cheesy.
Now they’re… well, that’s why I do comics. It’s because I was tired of just seeing them on a white page with nothing to say, just posing. I started drawing them from behind, so you couldn’t see their faces anymore. Everything that made them Fafinettes, their main characteristics, I got rid of it all. I hid their chests. It was more interesting to suggest something rather than show it. It was more powerful. It’s interesting to see how they’ve evolved.
…when I was more in love, the Fafinettes were sweeter…
How did you get the idea to create that world in the first place?
Well, I call their world the Carmine Vault, and it really started at the same time as the comic when I got fed up with drawing them posing on a blank page. And then I asked myself, what is this world? Is this a world that exists on another planet? What’s the vegetation like? How do they behave? How do they breathe? It was endless. When you start getting into that kind of thing, it’s like creating Fraggle Rock. Are there underground passageways? Parallel universes with beings that are even smaller? Within the characters I’ve invented, are there other ones that could also exist? It’s like nesting tables.
But the comparison is this: I’ll post a picture from the MAC makeup collection one day and I’ll get, like, 3,000 people who like it and, the next day, I’ll post something like… a comic book signing or a new clip I made and people couldn’t care less.
It goes from 3,000 to 25 likes or comments. For a clip I spent months working on…
Honestly, that’s also a question I have—is the public going to grow with me? It’s really important to avoid giving people what they want and doing the same thing over and over. You have to lead people along with you as you grow as an artist. But I find it funny. I can’t be mad at them because they prefer something else… I figure it’s cool, it’s not for nothing if I do these things and work hard. I try to bring my spectators along with me.
Do you have a lot of opportunities to meet your fans?
When I released the comic with Rizzoli, I did a little tour around the world doing signings. It was really cool! So that was an opportunity. Other than that, there are always people in the street.
Every time I go out, I meet people who know my work. In Amsterdam last time, I came across a group of American girls. They couldn’t believe their eyes. They were so happy. They took photos of themselves with me while I was drawing.
That kind of thing is fantastic. To say to yourself: you’re going to spend a few hours in the street, and you’ll meet people who know you, in a city that isn’t yours—that’s so cool!
Are there any particular projects you’d like to do?
The ultimate project I dream of doing, but can’t do right away because I haven’t developed the Carmine Vault world of the Fafinettes enough, would be an animated film.
You have so many projects going on at once that I wondered whether you were doing all the work, or if you had a team helping you coordinate everything?
It depends on the project. For the comic, I’m working with Lolita Pille. When I collaborate with brands, I always work with the brand’s creative team, and that’s great. And when I make my videos, I have a production team with me. My production team and film editors. And if, for example, I need to make a drawing in Illustrator, I don’t know how to do that, so I ask someone.
But working in Paris is totally different from working in New York. I don’t have ten assistants, I don’t even have an intern. I do everything on my own. For certain projects, I surround myself with a very competent team, that way I can fully focus on creativity.
If I ever had to learn to work on special effects, that would take a crazy amount of time. I can get a much faster result from working with professionals. And plus, it’s great working with a team. It’s something I only started doing recently.
You use social media a lot. How has the evolution of the media, the internet, Facebook, Instagram, influenced your work ? How do you use social networking?
When the internet arrived in Toulouse in 1999, I was convinced it was just the Minitel in color. But I obviously understood the importance of it very quickly. I made a website right away and that’s how I was able to meet my agents in Japan, and travel because I put my book online. At the time, we would go around with books we bought at Graphigro and we would paste photos (10 x 15) of walls we tagged, and that’s how we presented our work. Now there’s Tumblr, Facebook… the recognition I was looking for by painting walls—I get it through social media now.
You reach so many people, way more than the people who happen to pass by your work in the street by chance. The internet is such a part of my environment now that the next show I’m doing in Paris is based on that aspect.
I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I question the social media environment, and I think about how everyone in the world is living in the same environment, the same framework. And I wonder about the beauty of original images. I’ve always done shows with original drawings or paintings, and now you don’t really need originals anymore. If you want to, you can work solely with digital images.
Did you learn all of these new techniques on the job?
I do most of my coloring on my tablet. I really like the accidental aspect of drawing, it’s very dirty. I like to keep eraser marks, and the graffiti-style messiness of the pencil. I don’t want to draw just to draw anymore, I want to make drawings within the framework of a comic. I don’t want to draw Fafinettes all by themselves anymore. I want to make them interact, inside a decor. I’m trying to move on to something else. I’m exploring.
When you travel, what kinds of tools do you bring with you? For example, when you painted the wall in Mexico for Dia de los Muertos?
Usually, I don’t bring anything with me other than a few paint brushes I like and that I’m used to working with. Otherwise, I just buy materials when I get there. I was invited to paint there, so there was a whole scaffolding system in place. I was up very high and it was very big. There were two assistants helping me. But typically, it’s nothing.
The trips that inspired me the most were the ones to Japan. When I arrived in Tokyo in the 90s and saw all the girls—the completely nutty Gungaru girls driving around with their big shoes. They were burning up in the sun with their Vuitton bags. It was crazy, I’d never realized that rebellion could be expressed in such a Hello Kitty way. Those girls took it pretty far since they were prostituting themselves to buy Chanel bags. It was really the archetype of consumer society to the max. Japan is what inspired me the most when I was drawing and painting on walls.
These days, I’m less inspired by reality. At a certain point, I found inspiration wherever I was. I painted a Fafinette that fit in somehow with the place I was in, or the country I was in. It was based on observing the girls around me. And fashion really inspired me, as well, but then things change, and you have less of a desire to base your work on real things. That’s why comics have been great—it comes from a desire to invent something new, and not base it on anything real. The more you create, the more you want to get rid of all your references. You want to become a reference for other people instead. You want to inspire others—that’s the ultimate thing—creating your own universe and basing things less on real things around you.
Comics are perfect for that, but at the same time, I’d like to see what kinds of voices my characters would have. It would be nice if they could move around…
These days, I’m less inspired by reality.
In the music video “Oh My God” that you made for Lily Allen, for example, you pretty much reinvented Fafinette?
Yes, but not well. [Laughs] It’s very interesting because I could tell immediately that 3D didn’t work very well with my drawings.
You have to just deal with the accidents that happen. It’s hard because you’re working with a team, everyone’s tearing their hair out and, after two weeks of working, you realize no one understood each other. You can’t be successful every time, you learn your lessons – that’s all part of the game. You have to make mistakes and try new things. Otherwise you just keep making the same things over and over again.
Are there times when you have lots of projects going on, and other times when you don’t have any at all?
Absolutely. It’s very strange. One year, I might have two or three big projects that I can live on for a few years, then three years later, there will be no projects at all. My email address works, I’m receiving text messages, I’ve got my 4G, my sim card… it’s a choice I make! You have to be philosophical about it!
You have to be comfortable with yourself. It’s really hard because, if you get a little depressed, the winter, the cold temperatures can get to you. It’s part of the job. I’m surrounded by people with similar professions. We know it very well. You have to be productive. You have to do things for yourself because, at my age, I really want to share and give to others.
Right now, I’m putting together an art and music festival in my native city of Toulouse. And I’m enjoying it so much. Getting a team together, meeting the managers, seeing which park would be the best for concerts in the evenings. Which artists to invite. How to get funding for the project. I love doing that kind of thing. It’s something I’m totally new at, so I have to figure it out piece by piece. I’m not very good at it yet, but I’m learning. I’m putting myself out there, and I love that. It’s so much fun.
You have to do things for yourself because, at my age, I really want to share and give to others.
Do you go back to Toulouse very often?
Yes, all the time. My son loves it, my parents are there. And all my childhood friends. We’ve all lived very different lives, but it’s still my home…
Did the arrival of your son influence your work?
The birth of Neil made me totally question the superficiality of my characters. I had to face my work and explain it to him, and I felt a bit dumb. I told myself that I needed to go further. That’s also a normal part of getting older, but having a child is definitely part of it. Go further, reach higher. Never settle for something that’s already run its course.
What’s your favorite thing to do?
I really love making videos. It’s a real team effort. You bring people with you. When I did the YouTube music awards with MIA, we had so much fun. It was a lot of work, but a great adventure. I like the challenge of stressful situations. Once when we were shooting a film at the Cigale, with Mademoiselle Yulia’s team, and the camera stopped working, and it was Sunday. So I found a little corner and decided to take a nap. I was out like a light.
I figure we’re just in the entertainment business. It’s not politics, no one’s going to die, it’s just for fun, we’re just trying to make things interesting for people. I’ll never be that hysterical artist who yells at her team. We’re here to share something great. There’s no need to act like a little dictator.
Do you consider your art to be feminist? Are you trying to get a certain message out there?
At first, when I was making the Fafinettes super sexy, there was a group of feminists in Toulouse who painted over my work. It really upset me, I was super sad… I thought to myself: “They don’t realize that girls are the ones doing this in the street.”
In my mind, the method itself is feminist— going out to paint, but I understand that I was also serving the male gaze by painting girls who were posing, that it was all about seduction. I understand that now, and it’s why I’m moving toward discovering something new with them, making them speak more with their eyes instead of with their cleavage.
But I think what I’m doing now is very feminist. Hearing girls say that my work encourages and inspires them—that’s my goal..
…what I’m doing now is very feminist.
Do you ever do workshops?
Yes, last time I did one was in Birmingham for an art festival. We do small master classes. There are also a lot of big events like Semi-Permanent where lots of artists go to speak. It’s important to talk about what we do, and how to make a living with your art. It’s interesting because when you teach a class, you think a lot about your own work and you start thinking of what you can do differently. It’s a good exercise.
The only little problem I have each time is when students ask me what I did to get in contact with big brands like Adidas. And I tell them that’s not what’s important, that it’s not an end in itself. If you’re only living for big brands, it’s not very enriching as an artist. You have to go beyond that.
Where do you work now? What does a typical day look like for you?
I work in a studio in the Haut Marais in Paris with a publisher and a decorator and we get along really well, we laugh a lot. Every day, I take my son to school, and by 8:30 I’m at my office. I also have a lot of friends who run clubs and work in music. I see them a lot, too.
Where do you find your inspiration? I know you really like the city of Biarritz–what about Biarritz inspires you?
When I was working on my comic, I would go to Biarritz by myself for one week every month just to draw. I had a favorite room in a little hotel for retired people, and I’d just sit in front of the TV all day and draw. I can spend entire days like that, not talking to anyone. I love it. I came back with tons of storyboards. Everyone there thought I was a culinary critic coming to check out the shops, so people were always offering me things to try. It was funny.
The climate in Biarritz is rather intense. You eat really well there, you feel good, I hope to grow old there one day. It’s so important to be close to nature, to see things move. The air in places like that is so invigorating. And to immerse myself in my work and be alone is really good for me.
I need to be alone rather often and my son stays with his grandparents when I go, so we’re both happy. I try to take him with me on as many trips as possible. Now that he’s a little older, he’s starting to really remember the trips we go on.
Making mistakes is part of the process!
Do you have any other projects in the works this year?
Right now I’m opening a restaurant with my friend on rue Mandar called Miss Banh-Mi. I got the idea for the project when I discovered bahn mi—they’re really good Vietnamese sandwiches and there aren’t many of them in Paris. I’m going to open the restaurant with a friend of mine who is a chef. It’s really great to be able to spend time with people I love.
There really are no limits, I’m confident in my instincts.
What advice would you give your 20 year old self?
I would tell her not to stay in her comfort zone, and to always try new things. Making mistakes is part of the process!
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