22 Jun 2017
Today we chat with François Morel, a talented graphic designer and sign painter who cut his teeth on illegal graffiti in the 90’s. This guy has a really interesting history, and a huge body of work. We had the great pleasure of hearing him speak at TypeTalks this week, and it was a treat to hear about his life and work. Now let’s hear a little more…
Tell us a little about what sparked your interest in graphic design, and also sign painting. Which discipline do you focus on most these days?
François Morel: I remember I always loved to read all the signs in the streets since I knew how to read, and was fascinated by murals. My first "real" book was about ghost signs by the way.
Then vintage packaging became an obsession. I guess I’m a nostalgist.
When I was about 12 years old, I discovered a book named Subway Art that a friend got from NYC. It was in 1986. I remember being totally amazed by this idea of getting a nickname and painting it on subways to spread your own free promo throughout the city.
From there I started to do graffiti and became crazy about logo design etc.
Once, when I was about 16, I was painting store shutters on the week-end and this guy stopped by. I was painting letters on small white squares on a bakery. He told me painting small letters with a spray can was crazy for him as he was doing this with a brush for a living. He said he was a sign painter and asked me if I knew the craft… Sure I did, this was my dream to become one. I was so surprised I couldn’t speak. I would love to have been able to ask him for an apprenticeship… I kept this regret for 24 years.
I remember being totally amazed by this idea of getting a nickname and painting it on subways to spread your own free promo throughout the city.
My graphic design career began in the late 90’s. I was studying art at the university and I had this friend in my class I was doing graffiti with. A french rapper living in his building asked him to work on his new album artwork. As we weren’t graphic designers (yet) I proposed to another graffiti friend who was already running his freelance business to work on the project with us. This is how I learnt graphic design in fact, with the great help of this friend named Dimitri Simon. We did several artworks for the music industry together over the next 3 years, and then the 3 of us went solo.
I worked for almost 15 years doing artworks, logos, etc. for major companies.
I was bored by the industry, the computer etc. Sign painting totally haunted me everyday and I didn’t want to die with regrets. I decided to quit this graphic designer life and to get an apprenticeship with a sign painter. There were only a few sign painters still in active in Paris, and none of the ones I contacted me helped me out.
So I started to learn sign painting by myself, reading the old books and documents I had been collecting over the years. Then I met several international sign painters, took part in workshops etc. and went full time in sign painting. Nowadays, my graphic designer background helps me a lot, but my main activity is sign painting.
Does the work you produce now feel completely different to what you did as a young graffiti artist? Or is there a tangible link between these disciplines, that informs your work today?
Totally. By the way I guess it is definitely not the same thing. Thinking it’s easy as a graffiti artist to do sign painting is wrong I guess. It’s not the same technique, same tools, same kind of lettering. But it’s obvious to be attracted to sign painting when you are a graffiti artist.
Somehow it’s about being in love with letter design, isn’t it? Some of my personal artworks are cheeky nods to the graffiti world.
I’m still painting in the streets, but in broad daylight with no cops running after me, ah ah! (and I’m paid to do it!). But it’s not the same fun… you can’t replace illegal graffiti.
What stands out as instrumental in your education and growth as a designer? This could be a person, school, or any other resources.
Definitely not the school and not a teacher. No one in my family was related to art or design. In fact, thanks to my Mom. My scholar years were a mess and no public school wanted me in art studies. She always trusted in me and let me express myself and found a school for me.
What do you love about the sign painting community? Are there are any negative traits or attitudes within the industry that you would like to see change?
This is a cool community, and nowadays it’s even nicer with social media because we can share tips and meet sign painters from all around the world. We have those meetings called Letterheads, for example, where you can meet a lot of the guys in the community and take part in workshops etc. It’s a lot of fun!
Almost everyone is helping one another. Sign painting is fun, it’s a passion… why should we be negative? I guess if you don’t fit with this attitude, you have to choose another job.
What is something outside of your industry that inspires you?
A lot of things inspire me, it’s a long list. I guess I’m passionate about crafts, craftsmen, workshops. I remember visiting a glass-blower workshop in the south of France when I was about 7 or something… this was a shock. I guess this is when I knew I had to do something creative in my life, and work with my hands one day.
– Interview by Dave Coleman.