Cigarettes: mandatory. Respirator: optional.

(Click here for the video.)

Between a half day in a tattoo studio (more on that soon) and eating some wonderful buckwheat crepes with our friend Sharla, we just happened to walk through the square at Place du Capitole where Toulouse Graffiti Jam 3 had just started. Half of the square was transformed into a maze of plywood walls with paintings in-progress by over 30 artists, while a live DJ spun French hip-hop and timely tributes to Beastie Boy MCA, who had passed away less than a week earlier. Most of the artists were native to Toulouse and Paris, while others came from UK, Spain, Italy, and even Atlanta and LA.

Graffiti seems to be a reoccurring theme, even back to our first day in Reykjavik. It continued in Glasgow where I thought to myself, “…can’t tell if there is a lot of decent street art here, or if I’m just from the midwest and don’t know whats normal.” In Paris, I spotted an Invader tile mosaic strategically placed next to one of Hector Guimard’s Metro station entrances. The artist who tattooed me in Madrid (… also more on that soon) started sneaking out to spray paint when he was 13, and even had plans right after my appointment to go paint some walls with friends who were in town from northern Europe.

I was vaguely familiar with a couple of the French artists at the Toulouse event, which made it exceptionally cool to just happen across giant pieces of their work in public.

The first was a giant floating one-eyed head by Leopold Geb. I recognized his style from seeing a few of his drawings online. When I searched around enough to find out his name, his tumblr linked to an artist I had met with earlier that day.

Then there was a piece by Vincent Abadie Hafez, also known as Zepha. Zepha’s work is composed with broad-stroked and impeccably (impossibly) balanced writing, influenced by arabic calligraphy. That writing was instantly recognizable in giant gold brush strokes amidst darker layers. I loved it enough to get a decent photo, not even realizing it was actually unfinished. When we walked through again a couple days later, it was covered in an almost-opaque red except where he had encouraged random viewers to rub it away with their hands. This revealed an under-painted circle of lettering he had put down beforehand, which I think told an interesting story about this type of art.

Graffiti has roots in defacement. And the defacement side of graffiti is sadly still kicking. The territorial pissings of taggers exist in every city we’ve been in. It defaced legitimate street art in Reykjavik. Our first view of the Eiffel Tower was through the harshly scratched-up glass of a Paris Metro car. The lift room for the tower at Sagrada Familia was filled with carvings of every kid who ever had to stand in line. At Vardzia, the nearly thousand year old frescos outside the tiny cave-church are barely out of reach, but the feet of saints and angels are almost erased by names and pledges of young love.

To say the graffiti at this event is something completely different is an overstatement. Street art culture has evolved to form a collective conscience that keeps most of it on dilapidated buildings and other urban decay. It’s also become respected enough as medium that artists like Geb and Zepha now display their work in galleries. Another artist that was there, TOTEM2, does commissions for advertisement murals. But none of them honed their talent on municipal plywood in this much sunlight. They retain their credibility as street artists because they still get out at night and make art in the street.

Maybe it’s getting hard to use the word “defacement” any more when so many of those surfaces are being improved. But Zepha brought that term full circle in Toulouse, where the finished product of his work would only be fully realized through literal defacement by the public– ironically, the only defacement taking place at a graffiti exhibition. He described it on his site as “Calligraphic text and then covered… To be newly discovered by curious hands.”

-T