Meet the street-art sensation who sprays mountains
Saype, whose giant biodegradable artworks are best seen by drone, is coming to Ireland
Saype: one of the artist’s field murals, created for a French festival. Photograph: Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty
On a vast stretch of lawn beneath the Eiffel Tower, a paint-splattered figure in a baseball cap is kneeling down, carefully planting small wooden stakes in the grass, checking with a tape measure that each is aligned.
It’s an odd sight in the park beneath Paris’s main tourist attraction, but in the morning rush few people pause to wonder what he is doing. They simply continue trampling over the grass, or let their dogs bound over it. “I’m used to all kinds of hazards to my work,” the artist Saype says with a shrug. “If it’s not the weather it’s cows walking over it, or moles popping up, and here it’s dogs. I take it as a lesson in humility.”
Saype – real name Guillaume Legros – is one of France’s newest street-art sensations, a rural graffiti artist who, instead of working in urban settings, creates his own brand of land art: huge biodegradable paintings on enormous stretches of grass on mountainsides.
Saype is transforming city parks into huge portraits visible from the sky that comment on the climate emergency or the refugee crisis
Where land art was traditionally about building epic works from rocks and natural materials on the ground, or mowing and carving shapes into the landscape, Saype instead spray-paints ultrarealist images of locals on to the grass itself. His scale is gigantic – covering huge swathes of fields and mountains using his own recipe of home-made biodegradable paint. From a woman’s face on fields in the French Alps to a giant grandad in braces on a Swiss mountainside or a child in a Russian clearing, his works are visible from the air – a new art form for the era of drones – and don’t last long, soon disappearing again into the landscape.
But now Saype is returning to cities, transforming parks into huge portraits visible from the sky that comment on the climate emergency or the refugee crisis.
The 30-year-old is the first artist allowed to take over the hallowed Champs de Mars lawns under the Eiffel Tower. His vast new project, Beyond Walls, will see him spray-paint a series of interlocked hands across the lawns here this month, stretching over hundreds of square metres. They will make little sense close up on the ground but will be visible from the top of the tower.
To him it’s a “human chain” and “a symbol of togetherness at a time when people are more and more turning in on themselves”. He will paint similar images of hands and arms clinging to each other in cities across the world over the next three years, aiming for locations from Nairobi to Belfast. For him it’s about “living together”, moving beyond borders and remembering history. His great-grandparents, French Resistance fighters in rural eastern France during the second World War, died after they were deported. “Right now, it seems like we’ve all got short memories, that we’re living in a kind of negative, prewar atmosphere with economic crisis and people putting up barriers,” he says.
He has been inspired by the humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée and its rescue work pulling people in distress from the Mediterranean, the world’s most deadly migration route. Last year, in central Geneva, Saype created a vast grass fresco of a girl with her hand outstretched towards a paper boat on the lake in support of their rescue work.
Many European street artists grew up on housing estates in the hinterlands of capital cities, including Saype’s heroes: the acclaimed Paris photographer JR, who pastes monumental images on buildings across the world, and the celebrated Portuguese artist Vhils, who uses hammers and drills to carve vast faces into walls. But, unlike them, Saype comes from a tiny village in eastern France and worked for years as a nurse. His spray-paint art in fields with cows deliberately conveys a rural innocence.
Saype grew up in Évette-Salbert, near the Swiss border. His mother operated X-ray equipment at a hospital; his father worked in IT. “I never went to a museum or a single exhibition as a child,” he says. He started to graffiti and spray-paint at 13, “as a kind of adrenaline kick and a way of existing in society”. Countryside graffiti didn’t always have obvious locations. “At the start, all there was was the wall of a tennis court or an abandoned house.” Gradually he moved to graffitiing the nearest town, “under bridges or trains”.
There was so much visual pollution in cities that no one really saw graffiti any more. So I wanted to find another way to get people’s attention
At 18 he was sitting in the back of his high-school philosophy class doodling the letter shapes he most liked to graffiti. He realised those letters made the English word “say” and added the first two letters of “peace”. That word, Saype, became his nom de guerre.
Soon he progressed to ultrarealist portraits, travelling to Paris to photograph people on the Métro and then painting them in black and white. For years he combined street art with full-time work as a nurse. He says a nurse’s “daily confrontation with human suffering, ageing and illness” pushed him to keep painting people. Until now, in his land art he has painted either young children or the elderly, the elderly “because normally you don’t see that in street art”.
He shifted gradually from urban walls to spray-painting country landscapes. “I felt urban art had lost some of its meaning. There was so much visual pollution in cities that no one really saw graffiti any more,” Saype says. “So I wanted to find another way to get people’s attention.” It was also about the climate emergency. “I’d read a scientific article saying that if we didn’t drastically change our approach to nature before 2020 we’d reach a point of no return in terms of climate – and here we are now,” he adds. But it was also because drones had become available to the public, opening up view points from above. “You could have another view of the world very easily.”
It was crucial that his paint on grass left no negative impact. Saype spent a year experimenting in his parents’ garden making biodegradable paints, first cooking up a kind of flour-and-water paste, which would both stick to the grass and prove briefly waterproof. Currently he uses a recipe of chalk for white and charcoal for black, mixed with prigments and casein, the main protein in milk, while he searches for a totally plant-based option.
His works, aided by two schoolfriends from his village, as well as SOS Méditerranée volunteers for the Paris project, are huge logistical operations. Designed to be seen from a distance, the work can barely be made out close-up, hence the need for wooden markers. “When I paint I can’t see what I’m doing. It’s very philosophical – if you’re emotionally too close to something, you see nothing. It’s only when you step back that reality hits you.”
The Paris project will take more than 1,300 litres of paint and weeks of work, yet he estimates that once it is unveiled, on Saturday, June 15th, it will last only two days, after people walk all over it. That’s all part of the artistic performance, as he calls it.
“I always set out to have an impact on people’s minds and memories, without leaving much of a trace. For people to reappropriate my work by walking all over it, that’s no problem to me. I paint on something impermanent, which is constantly changing,” he says. “I paint, I come back the next day and it’s different. People say it’s ephemeral, short-lived. But that’s my point – isn’t everything?” – Guardian