After four months of strict lockdown in the UK, circulating on the street for reasons other than buying groceries was finally not punished by law anymore. I felt liberated and, at the same time, a bit strange. Being isolated for that many days does things to your brain. It was very hard for me to write during this quiet period, to connect with my mind and get inspired. But on March 20th, without fully knowing, this was about to change. I was on my way to interview Zabou, one of my favorite artists in London. It had been a while since I sat with real people for interviews instead of the usual Zoom holograms.
Riding the overground going from East London to North, the usual path for gentrification, I could already feel a shift in my mood. Nobody noticed, I guess, but under my mask, I was smiling with my teeth out.
We met at Mulberry Primary School, where she was painting a mural in the backyard as a joint action with the institution to encourage kids to read. She explained the process; she took a photo of two kids that go to the school, with their uniforms, reading. One boy and one girl, in black and white, enjoying the pages, while the universe around them, on the wall, is bright and colorful. It gives light to the playground and a sense of representation, of belonging. ‘We are on the wall; we are being seen.’
PH: Sabrina Ortolani
PH: Sabrina Ortolani
The precision on the realistic style makes you feel that these kids will jump out of the bricks any minute. Then I turned around, and I nearly thought they did as so many young children were running on the playground, having no idea they have a Zabou exclusively made for them. What a treat.
After showing me the mural in the school, we took a tour of her chosen hood, Tottenham. Little by little, she is taking over the landscape. I noticed she does this, even before meeting her. I happen to live in Bethnal Green, where she used to. Since I spotted her art for the first time, and then went deeper for the covering of the London Mural Festival, I swear I could see her everywhere: on my way to the gym, cycling to the store, taking a walk in London Fields, the local park. I thought I was becoming obsessed, but then I realized this is what she does. She gets involved with the community. She literally prints herself into it. It happened in Bethnal Green, and I knew that Tottenham wasn’t going to be any different.
Nairobi – London UK 2020 – Zabou’s website
I swear I could see her everywhere: on my way to the gym, cycling to the store, taking a walk in London Fields, the local park. I thought I was becoming obsessed, but then I realized this is what she does. She gets involved with the community. She literally prints herself into it.
She started painting the I Miss You mural, and that’s when she was spotted by some teachers from the neighborhood school who invited her to paint the backyard. We visited the local store where she buys her spray, and she introduced me to the owner, who showed me the walls where he would let his customer artists paint. It seemed to be a safe place for artistic encounters, more than just a spray shop. It felt like a street art Meca. To my surprise, one of my favorite murals of hers was there waiting for me: The Queen’s Gambit. It is my favorite because, besides the very important story being told in the series, the actress who plays Beth Harmon is Argentine, just like me. Serendipity.
Candelaria and Zabou the day of the interview. PH: Sabrina Ortolani
What cannot be defined as serendipity is Zabou’s journey as an artist. Don’t get me wrong, she was meant to be doing street art. But it was not a path of destiny and luck. It was one of hard work, passion, talent, and humility.
At the time of the interview, indoor dining was not yet allowed in London, so we decided to go to a nearby park. We found an outdoor coffee place on a rare sunny day. With caffeine running through my veins, plus my previous excitement of meeting this artist, the interview paradoxically transformed itself into one of the smoothest I have conducted. And if I were to come clean, it was all her. Welcome to Zabou’s journey.
Where are you from in France and how was growing up there?
I grew up in France, Loire valley, Saumur. It’s a gorgeous town, but for young creatives, urban culture, hip-hop, street art, it is still a little bit shy. I think today is different. I studied Visual Arts in that region. Have always been drawing and painting; my parents always say the first object I took was a pencil, and I just never let it go. If they knew I was gonna become a street artist, they probably would have taken that pencil away. I was constantly drawing on paper and small formants. I was looking to make some small stencils; I actually got caught by the police on my first attempt. I went to spray stencils with a few friends, I was 19, or 20. So we got caught, which scared me so much. It was really bad luck for literally the first time. But at the same time, we were not careful at all, we were wandering the city.
Given the mystique behind the origin of graffiti and vandalism, do you think in your teenage mind, that was the moment when you became an artist?
I think I just wanted to try and got unlucky. Then I moved to London for my master’s degree in Art, 10 years ago. I loved the language and the culture. So, I moved here and then walking around all these amazing places, Brixton, Shoreditch, I was amazed. So much street art, so I said, ok, maybe I can try again.
Racism Is A Virus – London UK – 2020 – Zabou’s website
Were you doing something else besides your MA?
I did my master’s and then I worked as a graphic designer. I was working and at the same time starting to spray-paint, playing around in the walls of fame, especially in South London and Waterloo. I was doing a lot of stencils; I realized that freehand spray painting is so hardcore! I remember thinking: OMG I am never going to be able to make it, but I can draw and then put that on the wall. And then I think the more I painted and did some stuff around, the more I got to know people and be part of that community. Once you start developing your style, you really express yourself and you find that medium, you know; then, I think, is when things started to grow more.
Amy II – Collaboration with Villana – London UK – 2018 – Zabou’s website
You have a good foundation in visual arts. You can appreciate that in your murals, the integration of different techniques and forms of art. How was that process and the evolution of your signature style?
So, four years ago I left my day job because I was still a graphic designer, working full time, and it was a little crazy handling both things. I became a full-time street artist, and I think the minute I did this, things shifted completely. All these hours that I didn’t have to put in graphic design, I had them free. was dreaming of paintings, breathing paintings, and eating paintings every day. There is that, and then there’s the fact that two years ago I started to work more on my photography and the way I see people and things, and then to paint that I was looking straight at the photo, without even sketching, that propelled my work on a realistic style, and I focused on the expressions and getting that right. But still, to this day, I think things are always evolving. So every time I paint or google for a project, I learn so much it amazes me. I hope I can be forever in this kind of student mode. I paint portraits so I have this scale of life and people from all backgrounds, from all ages, race, gender; you see stories and emotions in peoples’ faces, so every time I paint someone it is a new experience.
Le Monde A L’Envers – Moutiers France – 2019 – Zabou’s website
“I was dreaming of paintings, breathing paintings, and eating paintings every day.”
Yes, I saw your latest mural Spring, in Chiswick that portrays the singer Eva Lazard. That one is beautiful. I watched the video you uploaded showing the process: you took a photo first, that is when I realized that you were combining photography and street art.
I realized that people didn’t know how the process works. Most of the time people see the finished product, so they don’t know what goes behind it. So I thought maybe I should start making short videos of the making of. Just to show that photography is a part of my process as well.
Spring – Zabou – London UK – 2021 – Zabou’s website
The cool thing about that painting is that the model is Eva Lazard. She is a singer, so I went to take photos of her near Birmingham, where she lives, and then she could come to London and check it out. For me, that is the best part. When the model can see the final product. Because you know there is so much emotion. You have this strong connection with someone because you painted their faces in this extreme giant format. It gets very intimate. A lot of my paintings brought me closer to many people just because of that, and I think that is precious.
I see in your work different pop icons and people from your community. What makes you choose what you want to paint?
Every project is a little bit different because I do a lot of festivals, and a lot of projects that are organized for me, so sometimes there is a theme or an idea, and sometimes they give me a space to do whatever I want. And when that’s the case, I try to reflect on things that I have experienced, or that I know and see around me. Like with the I Miss You mural. I was, after six months being in the pandemic, thinking of all my family that was back in France; all the people that I saw that were missing their loved ones; all those feelings [of] ‘I really miss you, I am hoping to see you, but ok let’s do this.’
I Miss You – Zabou – London UK – 2020 – Zabou’s website
“You have this strong connection with someone because you painted their faces in this extreme giant format. It gets very intimate. A lot of my paintings brought me closer to many people just because of that, and I think that is precious.”
A lot of times I have these ideas in the back of my head that are nourished around what I hear, or what people tell me, and then it happens to be a perfect wall for it, and it is like BOOM. When it is the right timing and the right project, then I let the ideas out. The Queen’s Gambit is a perfect example of me painting whatever I want. I love that series. I think the actress was great; she is so iconic. And I thought ok, I have this wall, let’s just have fun and paint. Sometimes you just want to have fun.
Zabou by PH Sabrina Ortolani
“A lot of times I have these ideas in the back of my head that are nourished around what I hear, or what people tell me, and then it happens to be a perfect wall for it, and it is like BOOM.”
So given that your job is a creative one, and usually, people use creativity to get out of the daily routine, what do you do to escape your job?
Oh, get out of it?
Or maybe you just don’t get out of it?
I think the answer is that. I am a little bit of a workaholic. I do paint. I work. I can’t not think about it, it is 24 hours for me, but also I have a little bit of life. I am quite social. In normal times I meet people, I read, I watch a lot of documentaries and series, I do a lot of cooking, I do some sports. The traveling as well, when I go on projects and staff, that is amazing. During lockdown, I played a lot of video games, jigsaw, tried to do a lot of things, whatever I could to experience different stuff.
I’ve seen that you started living in South London, going East to finally settle in Tottenham. I see that you interact with the community that you are living in at the moment, and we can trace that path through your murals like a map. Do you want to tell us about that?
I lived in quite different places in London. I’ve started in the South; I was in Brixton. Then I moved to Dalston, then Cambridge Heath, then Stratford for a few years, and now, here in Tottenham. A perfect example of gentrification, moving around because it is too expensive. When I was in Bethnal Green, London Fields, I was painting around a lot, I loved it too much. I was walking around and every time I saw a wall, I would walk in and say, ‘Hey guys, can I paint that space?” I put so much energy in finding spots for my murals. Because either someone can organize your wall, or you can organize it for yourself. And obviously, when you do, you are more likely to secure spaces where your painting can stay a little longer.
Sir Isaac Newton – Lincoln UK – 2021 – Zabou’s website
“I was walking around and every time I saw a wall, I would walk in and say, ‘Hey guys, can I paint that space?” I put so much energy in finding spots for my murals. Because either someone can organize your wall, or you can organize it for yourself.”
Speaking about the community and your involvement, your dialogue with it. You are painting a special mural at this school in Tottenham that we’ve just been to, do you want to tell us about that?
It all started with the London Mural Festival. The wall where the I Miss You mural is, here in Tottenham, was supposed to be for Dale, this great artist from Ireland. We struggled a lot to find me a wall because the few spots that we had kept falling through. So I told the team that it didn’t matter cause I live in London, I can paint here in two or three years. About a week after, the organizer’s told me, ‘Ok we have your wall.’ I think Dale broke his wrist, so he couldn’t make it anymore. It was a last-minute wall; I wasn’t sure if I was gonna be able to make it since it was a super tight deadline. They send me the location and I said, ‘Ok guys, normally I would need more time, but because it is here where I live, let’s do it.’ We put 200% power to make it happen. I had this design already prepared. It was so amazing to have a nice mural around here. And when you paint, you get the chance to meet all the locals. That’s when the school across the street saw me painting. And they said they had a wall. A couple of months after they contacted me, I started with the design. A lot of my work I do on a volunteer basis. I do retain my creative freedom, but that’s it. If people have meaningful projects, I am on board. I met the teachers, made up the design, took photos of the kids in the park. I finished painting it this week, and I like that this mural is only for them, to have a more enjoyable playground, empowered themselves, seeing themselves in the wall reading, being in the grass. Hopefully, it will make them a little bit happier. That is my goal. And obviously, as you said, being part of that community.
Here For You – Patras Greece – 2021 – Zabou’s website
“I like that this mural is only for them, to have a more enjoyable playground, empowered themselves, seeing themselves in the wall reading, being in the grass. Hopefully, it will make them a little bit happier. That is my goal. And obviously, as you said, being part of that community.”
I also read that you described the process of painting as comparable to a performance. I am thinking how different your audience was this time, being little kids, and how you interact in general with people while you are painting.
It is definitely a performance in the sense that first of all, you are in a public space, for a day, or ten days. So you interact with anyone who is coming about. They can be very nice but they can also be moody. You are being watched, people are constantly taking photos, or videos. I try to interact but also to disconnect. And also because physically it is very hard, it feels like a dance. You use your whole body to paint. Especially larger scales. I always think of myself as a little brush on a big canvas. I know, it sounds so cheesy, but you know, a tiny thing dancing around the canvas, spraying around, using different techniques.
Back Home – Ferizaj Kosovo – 2021 – Zabou’s website
“You use your whole body to paint. Especially larger scales. I always think of myself as a little brush on a big canvas. I know, it sounds so cheesy, but you know, a tiny thing dancing around the canvas, spraying around, using different techniques.”
I see that you are going to have a solo show at Saatchi gallery. Is it going to be the same technique you used in the murals showcased on a canvas?
Yes, I’ve been working with the Saatchi Store. The show was supposed to be last year in January, but because of Covid it got suspended. It will luckily take place in September/October. The good thing about lockdown is that it has forced me to experiment. With spray painting, the larger the better. But in a canvas, it is very hard to spray paint on small scales. So I had to find a new technique. I bought an airbrush at the beginning of the pandemic, so I’ve been using acrylic and airbrushing. I am still exploring; it is gonna take me years to master. Basically, I am building a layer of acrylic, a layer of airbrush, and so on. I think those on top of each other, create a bit of a more realistic effect, the airbrush gives a similar effect as the spry, foamy and textured. I have maybe 20 pieces for the show that are ready. Also, I want to do a proper installation. Something that will surprise the audience a little more, but I cannot tell you. You will have to come and see it.
Good Vibes – London UK – 2020 – Zabou’s website
And I guess I will. We parted ways, me taking the Overground, she riding her bike. I left inspired and motivated. I remember when I was in Nashville a few weeks before, having a video call interviewing for a house share. These three amazing, multicultural potential flatmates told me they were excited that I was a street art journalist, and that they had a favorite artist. I said that I was just coming back home to London, to interview one of my favorites. At the same time, we dropped the name Zabou. From my amazement and surprise, I almost choked on my precious scone from Biscuit Love. They happened to be friends with her. And as they were describing her, as a friend and as an artist, one word stayed with me: humble. Back in the Overground, with my headphones on, replaying the interview, that word resonated with me, and I thought her friends really knew her.
After 12 years of being a very active street art artist, discovering her signature style, finding success and recognition, she still has the spirit of that friendly young artist from a small ville in France, who moved to London to pursue her dream.