A pioneer of the graffiti scene in the Grand Duchy, Sumo has just opened his own gallery in the district neighbouring the train station. And although he admits that he is not yet a great connoisseur of wines, he knows what he likes and he is quick to praise his sommelier friends, who guide him in his choices.
People don’t necessarily associate urban art with wine. Is there a meeting point between your works and winemaking?
Sumo: With crémant certainly, because my work is always based on dots and bubbles. These elements are always there: the bubbles inspire me!
Is there a direct link between the bubbles in sparkling wines and the bubbles on your canvasses?
At the Lycée technique des Arts et Métiers, on the screen-printing course, one of the first exercises consisted of taking a black and white photo in a newspaper to enlarge it and make a copy. I became aware that grey was not grey, but black dots with a greater or lesser amount of white around them. The bigger the black dots, the darker the grey. That fascinated me. Later, I saw that pop art – and particularly Roy Lichtenstein – had already assimilated all that. It reminded me of the old comics, where you could already see these dots. In 1993 or 1994, an advert for Guinness that was screening on MTV inspired me so much that it triggered the whole concept on which I have been working since.
Can you describe it for us?
The camera zooms onto a glass of Guinness, and you dive into the bubbles. A universe, followed by planets, appears. You draw closer to one of them, and a sort of tower of Babel is revealed. You then move into a room where the same glass of beer is sitting on a table. There is a loop effect, a dizzying spiral that is exceptionally well-done. This zoom, enabling you to discover something else – that is my work. My canvasses are like extracts from things that are infinitely bigger. If you take a detail and make it bigger, you will find new things in it that are invisible to the naked eye. And always these bubbles!
Your paintings are very dense. When you start painting, do you know how far you will take it?
Each element documents time – the more it passes and the more elements I add. Everything that is covered is in the past: either these elements are completely erased, or traces of them remain transparently or in relief, and these are then memories. But since I don’t have a plan, I never know when I set off what I will overlay and or won’t overlay. The thickness represents time, and the surface space.
There are some very good white wines in Luxembourg. My only regret is that they are hard to find outside the Moselle.
You started by painting walls; did you always want to paint on canvas?
I started with graffiti, and that was the only thing that counted. I wasn’t doing it to become an artist, I wanted to be a graphic designer. My first big wall dates from 1995, here, in this street [the rue de Strasbourg, in Luxembourg City, where his gallery is located], on a bike track. I wrote Sumo, my name. You were allowed to do that there. But in fact, it had started some time before. With my friends, we were tagging everywhere. We hung out in youth clubs, notably Amigo in Beggen, and we spent our afternoons on the terrace of the Quick restaurant, taking it in turns to buy a Coke so that we didn’t get moved on. We never stopped drawing! An artist who was an instructor at Amigo found us a wall where we could let off steam. That was it – I’ve never wanted to stop doing that since!
When you started, Luxembourg was a wasteland in terms of urban culture…
There was no-one to show us how to do it. When I discovered an English street art magazine, Graphotism, I told myself that it would be impossible to be as good as the people featured in it. And some years later, when I was studying at the London College of Printing, that magazine started to follow me. That was… wow!
It didn’t take long, ultimately, for graffiti to emerge from the shadows. How do you explain this spectacular change in fortune?
In the early 2000s, a lot of communications agencies were using this image to look cool and to attract young people. They took the codes, it was computer-generated: boring! The Banksy phenomenon also had a lot to do with it. He tells so much with his stencils, which are easier to read than graffiti art. He has the intelligence to play with well-known references, and so his images work with everyone. When I was in London, through friends we had in common, I asked how much he wanted for a painting. He told me 900 pounds, and I thought that was expensive for a stencil. I didn’t buy it … ouch! A screen print, that was 50 pounds, but I wanted an original… Think of the prices they fetch now!
So you know how to contact him, then?
Yes, I had a lot of friends who know him, but I’ve never met him. I was in London when he was starting out. I was seeing his stencils everywhere, I found them quite inspiring!
And always these bubbles!
Banksy has kept his anonymity, you haven’t. Your real name is not a secret.
I would really have liked it to have been secret for a bit longer! Anonymity is one of the basics of graffiti. But with my old shop, Extrabold, it had become difficult to keep it hidden. Until then, everyone called me Sumo: my friends, my clients, even my teachers! And one day, in an article, the journalist called me by my real name. My anonymity had taken a bit of a hit!
Where does this desire for privacy come from?
It’s more the desire to get yourself recognised in the community for your style and only your style. When I started, there weren’t a lot of colours available, and it wasn’t an obvious way to stand out from the rest. Everyone worked on their style to stand out. If you had a style that no one copied, you’d succeeded. For myself, I created this character, Crazy Baldhead, who I still paint today, even if he has evolved a bit.
What are you most proud of, the wall that has given you the greatest satisfaction?
There is one in an incredibly brilliant location in Lisbon, in the Bairro Alto district, which I painted in 2014. I had put on an exhibition not far from there, and the gallery owner invited me to paint it. I accepted, they gave me the spray cans, wrote me out a false permit, and off I went to do it. People were watching me. When the first police patrol went past, I showed them the letter and they went off. There was just one small spot remaining to be finished when other police officers stopped by. This time, they told me that the letter was not a valid permission and they wanted to see my ID card. It was a complicated situation, because the opening viewing was that same evening and my flight was the following day. I could see myself spending a night in the cells and missing everything! But the people from the district explained to the police that I need to be allowed to finish the job. After having negotiated with me and, above all, with the residents, the officers told me that they would be finishing their patrol two hours later, that they didn’t want to see me again but that I could do what I wanted after that, that it wasn’t their concern. They went off, I got my things together and the people said to me: ‘What are you doing, stay and finish the wall!’ For myself, I wanted to come back two hours later, but there was no question of that: the whole district was there, even the old people! When a patrol was coming, look-outs whistled and we hid everything away! It was too cool! It wasn’t my most beautiful wall and not the biggest, but the emotions it generated were simply incredible!
With white wine, things started earlier… but we mixed it with Coke! The winemakers will be delighted to read that!
And wine – when did that enter into your life?
The first time I really appreciated red wine was after an opening viewing, in 2003. We were twelve artists together, and in the restaurant I said to myself that it wasn’t so bad after all. With white wine, things started earlier… we mixed it with Coke, I preferred that to beer! (He laughs) The winemakers will be delighted to read that! Since then, I have learned to discover wine. I don’t drink alcohol alone, in my workshop for example. I don’t have any interest in that. To drink wine, I need to be in good company.
Do you have a cellar?
Yes. But I don’t have a massive number of bottles, and I’m not an expert. I can say when I like a wine or not, but I wouldn’t have the words to explain why. It could be that I will love a wine that a critic will find dreadful! Happily, I have sommelier friends who help me discover some good ones.
Do you have any preferences?
I started with the Bordeaux reds, but now I am discovering the Italian reds, and I like them a lot. But not the ones that are too heavy, the ones after which you can no longer taste anything else.
What’s your view of the Moselle wines?
There are some very good white wines in Luxembourg. My only regret is that they are hard to find outside the Moselle. There are always pretty much the same wines in the supermarkets, and they are not necessarily the best.
Do you have favourite grape varieties?
I tend to like dry wines, less so Gewurztraminer. I have even tasted some excellent Rivaners, whereas for me, back in the day, that was what I mixed with the Coke! I really like the sparkling wines of Alice Hartmann, they are simply outstanding, and their white wines are similarly excellent. This crémant is the first really good Luxembourg wine that I tasted. I remember that it was at the Festival of Wines and Crémants (Fête des Vins et Crémants), on the Knuedler square. I was there with a friend who recommended them to me.
Has anyone already invited you to design wine labels?
(He smiles) There is a project with a charity, but it’s a bit too soon to be talking about it. I have already made a wire cap for Bernard-Massard, a bottle for Bofferding and another for a Belgian beer, and some other projects of this type are under discussion. These are always jobs that I like doing!