Society still has an ambivalent attitude to graffiti. Multinational corporations pay graffiti artists to perform live writing events in building foyers, while their freelance counterparts are getting their collars felt for tagging the outsides of the same buildings. It's a question of ownership.
The French duo known only as Scien and Klor has come in from the cold. Together, they founded 123klan in 1992, christening their graffiti writing outfit with a name that is now as much a design practice as it is a street culture totem. Their client list includes the likes of Sony, Carhartt and Stussy.
Nowadays 123klan still does live graffiti exhibits around the world, but also produces books, customises toys and generally makes the world a better place to be. "We used to be wanted by the police," says Scien. "Now we're wanted by clients."
Scien did his first piece in 1989, a time about which he's willing to admit: "I didn't really care about what was legal or not." Morality aside, one thing was certain: there was less competition. "At that time, it was really hard to find graffiti pieces around, and many places were still virgin territory."
Scien maintains that true graffiti is an act of aesthetic generosity. "We never paint in the state of mind to destroy something. Even in our illegal stuff, we give our best."
Scien's art means taking real risks, not theoretical ones. "We just paint the city and give our best and take risks to make it more colourful and stylish. Sometimes laws are made to make politicians believe they did something great." Executed in the right location, he believes, a piece is a sublime aspect of living in an urban environment.
When city life explodes into violence, as it has across France recently, it becomes clear that the moments of humanity that the city offers cannot be removed without cost. "The people must be able to enjoy certain freedoms, or they go mental," says Scien. "You just want to burn the whole country."
The winning side
While he's unclear how France's present social unrest will develop, Scien is convinced that graffiti has beaten the system. "They have to admit they lost: graffiti has gone from being a subculture to an international culture. If only graffiti could be the solution, it would be fantastic."
You might think that swapping the street artist's hoodie for the designer's black turtleneck would cause people to start wondering about your credibility, but to 123klan, that would be ridiculous behaviour. Scien argues that the two activities are perfectly complementary. "We paint walls with spray cans, we do graphics with computers, and everybody is happy."
Among all the various design cultures, graffiti has carved a distinctive role for itself, he believes. "Sure, we've got codes, styles, our own techniques and tools, but we may be the first to mix marketing and art. Graffiti has no relationship with art and design, because it is all of them in one. For example, when you see a tag in the street, if you pay attention, most of them are placed in strategic areas, where they can be seen by the most people."
Graffiti and design were always going to breed: it was just unclear what the offspring would look like and whether it would thrive. "Today, graffiti is too big to stay underground," says Scien. "There's too much creativity."
123klan's own move from the streets to the graphics studio began with their introduction to the iconic typography of designer Neville Brody, famous for his architecture-like font work on The Face and many other projects. "When we discovered his artwork for the first time, we were amazed by his talent. We were attracted to his style because the way Neville Brody works is similar to graffiti writing. It's all about finding a new way, with new shapes, to write something and to make it look better through an original font."
Brody helped Scien realize that typography is a natural bridge between the two disciplines - a legitimate form of tagging. "Like graffiti, Neville Brody's artworks are based on the beauty of letters€¦ the passion to create and to draw a font in a different way. It can be readable, complex, totally unreadable or just beautiful." Scien spotted a less obvious similarity too - Brody's work ethic. "He spends hours and hours before he's satisfied. Graffiti writers are the same when they sketch some new pieces in their friends' books."
Making the move to screen
123klan's unconventional roots meant that while its members may have been certain about design, design itself still needed convincing. Luckily, Scien's timing was spoton. "We took our first steps in 1994 and 95," he says. "Graphic design at that time wasn't that big, like it is today." There was more virgin territory to be explored.
Those first steps were taken on an old Apple Macintosh Performa running Illustrator 5. "We had to learn everything by ourselves. For exercises, we started to do what we usually do: graffiti writing."
This relatively seamless assimilation of digital technology is what makes 123klan special. They've become polished professionals without ever losing touch with their roots. The most valuable thing they brought with them from the world of graffiti is an obsession with originality. "From the beginning," says Scien, "we always tried to work out our own style, just to be different and original. Even when you do something fun, you have to be professional. You have to work hard to make it look like it was really simple to do, when in reality it's not. Step by step, you come up with something original and professional."
Graffiti has never been a convenient shortcut to originality. It's a school of thought with a certain creative heritage, but it's no longer about being born with a spray can in your hand, somewhere in the Bronx. Graffiti has grown up, says Scien. "There is no one place to be from any more because of the internet. Even if you come from a small unknown town, if you've got skill, you will get noticed."
The great thing about working as a designer is the freedom to be creative. Clients come to 123klan solely because they want its artists to do what they do best: freestyle. "Our job has no routine," says Scien. "We are happy for a while, and we start over again and again. You always have to evolve, crash everything done in the past and make it look better."