Paris-based French artist L’Atlas’ universal language of lines, shapes and letters sees him crossing boundaries.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

L’Atlas, aka Jules Dedet Granel, is what you might call a “hybrid” artist. His roots were in the streets in the 1990s when he tagged everything in sight, but his style has evolved beyond graffiti, as he fuses the optical, abstract, minimalist and geometric art movements by researching writing and calligraphy to produce an original typography.

With the aim of creating a universal pictorial language, he has successfully embedded the history of writing within the history of art and brought optic art into graffiti. These days, the 41-year-old Toulouse-born and Paris-raised artist – who designed the logo for Rihanna’s fashion brand Fenty, launched capsule collections with Agnes B. who organised his first gallery show, and collaborated with Perrier to decorate 200 million cans and bottles – works not only on canvas and paper, but has been exploring the properties of wood, steel, marble and neon.

His use of wide-ranging materials breaks down the psychological barriers between various art movements. “Neon is to go towards pop art or Andy Warhol; marble and shapes is to go towards Sol LeWitt and Frank Stella,” he states. “I’m an artist who discusses with others and does hybrid things, but always with a substratum like an archaeologist, meaning there’s something that exists and I’ll make an interpretation of it. Because what is it to be an artist? It’s to digest art history and make it re-emerge. I’m not going to say that I invented something. I mix different movements and have them dialogue with one another like a talk with different artists, whether they’re sculptors from 2,500 years ago or today’s artists. I create an artistic discussion within my work.”

Rocky Beginning

This mixing of worlds and search for universality led L’Atlas – who chose a pseudonym that could be easily understood in any language – from France to Morocco, Egypt, Syria, China and Japan to study calligraphy, sigillography and tai chi with masters like Hassan Massoudy, Mounir Al Shaarani and Zhang Aijun. He did all that after dropping out of university – where he had studied art history and archaeology – at the age of 21.

Giving up everything, he bought a bus ticket to travel from Toulouse to the Atlas Mountains to live with Moroccan calligrapher Moulay Smail Bour-Qaiba, thereby returning to his roots, as his great-greatgreat-grandmother was Berber. Additionally, his two grandfathers – Pierre Dedet, owner of Parisian bookstore Le Divan, and philosopher Gerard Granel – were both publishers, so he was surrounded by books on art history, painting and cinema as a child.

“I had the idea when I was about 16 to mix calligraphy with graffiti because at that time, graffiti was only influenced by the US,” he notes, enthralled by calligraphy’s purity of gesture and monochromatic nature. “It was really closed and incestuous. I thought that we needed some fresh blood. That’s why I injected Arabic and Chinese calligraphy codes. At the beginning, I was copying Mounir. Like everyone, you have to copy the master, and after you emancipate yourself, you kill your reference.”

Rather than colourful bubble text or figurative characters, it was lettering that first fascinated him – preferably letters in black and white.

Bold Beauty

“Black and white is purity, the essence of the idea, the letter, the shadow, the calligrapher’s mark, the yin and yang of Oriental philosophy,” explains L’Atlas. “There was all that wild style from graffiti full of colour, but I hated it – it was like a cartoon in the street. I was doing black and white because nobody was doing it. It was so simple to use just a few lowtech things: one roll of tape, one spray and one canvas. The point was to be minimalist but to make the biggest works with practically nothing, and also because I was poor.”

That simplicity is still evident in his practice today as he works with paper or rice-starch tape, large wooden stamps, cutters, rollers, lacquer, ink, acrylic and spray paint. He paints over canvases composed from strips of tape which, when removed, reveal his stylised signature of vertical and horizontal lines. Resistant, highly adhesive and easy to cut, gaffer tape is his preferred material for floors and walls, as it is used on movie sets and is an accessory he grew up with. As editors, his parents taped frames together to edit films for the likes of French directors Francois Truffaut, Philippe Garrel and Maurice Pialat. And his uncle and aunt were head cameramen who taught him how to make pictures only in black and white. Thereafter, as a teenager, he photographed the works of his graffiti artist friends in black and white like an archivist, an enthusiast of older black-and-white photographers such as Brassai.

“In photography, everything happens on the same plane: the architecture in my blackand-white photos came to play with my letters,” says L’Atlas. “Paris was ugly at this time, painted all in green by the city hall – it was depressing. But when depicted in black and white, green appeared light grey instead. I was also fanatical about optical art and Vasarely, and at the beginning of advertising in the street, there were rules to follow: We didn’t have the right to use black and white because it was too optical and caused car accidents. When I read that, I knew that black and white had a superpower, and by using it, I could be recognised instantly. With just two colours and one shape of letters, I had my own style. Afterwards, I needed to use colour to accentuate the effect of retinal vibration. When you look at a fluorescent square, your eye can’t stay still. I was interested in the fact that you can’t focus on a colour – it would be constantly moving. That’s how I left black and white and went towards optical art, but kept my love of the letter.”

The Modern Classical

His recent show, Steps, at Galerie Geraldine Zberro in Paris, aimed to eliminate the frontiers between painting, neon and sculpture, using the same size, logo and geometric structure of letters in repetition while changing the colours with optical art. Thus, when visitors passed through rooms looking at a painting, followed by the neon work and sculpture, they got confused. His work played on retinal persistence, duplicating the structures so the eye no longer recognised what it was looking at.

Viewers get lost in L’Atlas’ work, unsure whether to look at the positive or negative spaces, as he tricks the eye by playing with proportions of emptiness and fullness, encrypting the words contained within.

“Your gaze switches from the white to the black, or from one colour to another, and you don’t know if you have to read the empty or full spaces,” he remarks. He has created mazes where people have to search for a way out, optical illusions where the letters of his name that have become his trademark gradually materialise, and imprints of manhole covers disguised as carved wax seals. Then there’s the giant ground compass he created for the plaza of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and a monumental mural he created on the facade of a 35m-tall building in Paris where his geometric logo appears from afar. Another of his works is a 1km-long, letterfilled wall along the motorway in Marseille. His nomadic canvases series sees him using his Rolleiflex to take blackand-white photos of his works, placing them in the streets while wandering around the city, as if to map out the sites he has visited. In the future, he dreams of collaborating with architects to produce permanent three-dimensional structures, or even a museum in the shape of his logo, so as to be remembered.

L’Atlas describes how his work has evolved over the past 25 years: “It’s different and the same because I continue to write my name, even if it’s more abstract, kinetic or minimal. My challenge is to evolve and not be the same, yet not depart from the spirit of graffiti, because it’s why I’m here now. My canvases should speak to teenagers doing graffiti in the street and also to older collectors who like abstract or kinetic paintings. This comes from my desire to not be put in just one box.”

1. Jules’ artwork displayed on the streets of Beaubourg, Paris in 2008.
My Reading Room
2. L’Atlas, aka Jules Dedet Granel.
My Reading Room
3. One of the key pieces featured at the Geraldine Zberro exhibition.
My Reading Room
4. The multidisciplinary artist uses all forms of materials as his canvas, from the sidewalks to fabrics.
My Reading Room
5. The artist’s name written graffiti-style, featured at a Speerstra Gallery exhibition.
My Reading Room
6. One of L’Atlas’ works, which resembles a traditional Oriental name seal.
My Reading Room
7. The artist fuses symbols, geometry and words to create his enigmatic works.
My Reading Room
8. Another form of the word L’Atlas, this time reimagined in a font comprising straight lines.
My Reading Room
9. L’Atlas uses a blend of several techniques, such as lettering and stencilling, in his creations.