Aero 164: What's in a Name?

interview by marie chung

Hidden in the camouflage of the urban landscape are graffiti artists who appear to us under a different guise by day. At work we encounter the young professional and colleague, but without the uniform we encounter the not so conventional artist.

Guillaume Morin carries a split identity. Aside from teaching, studying and his love of fishing, Guillaume invests in his work as the graffiti artist Aero 164. Friends with Guillaume, Same2 chooses carefully not to reveal his professional name. By day you may recognize him as a photographer.  

It was – 32 degrees wind temperature with fresh snowfall when I caught up with the boys. We begin this BTL story of graffiti culture with Aero 164. In bright pink cheeks and chapped lips, Aero 164 and I quickly heat up the discussion and explore the tensions between graffiti art and vandalism. 

Where did you get that name from, Aero 164?

I used to write with another name but we were caught by the police, so I had to change it. You know those chocolate bars Aero? Well my friend threw the packet at me and said “here, this is your new name”.

How would you describe graffiti and what got you into it?

Graffiti is about exploring letters. It’s about the aesthetics of the whole thing put together. When I was around 13, there was a guy called Shok who was doing graffiti and he was quite popular. I liked that idea of being famous from the art work. There were a lot guys who started younger than I did because I went to a private school.

We used to do illegal work all the time. Now there are all these kids coming up who do ‘graffiti’ but really they are doing murals. It looks like graffiti, but they are not keeping to the tradition and aesthetics of it. The whole process is different. There are two different worlds – the purists who do the bombing, the tags and then there are those who keep to more aesthetically pleasing art forms like murals. There is the idea of getting the graffiti well known, being accepted as an art form, and doing huge beautiful murals. I think graffiti in its original form, is not structured. You work on the sketching, on the tags, letters and what goes well together. Everybody has a name that means something. I am Guillaume, but I am also Aero164. It is part of myself and my identity, I can’t separate the two.

When you do your work, do you feel like a different person then?

When I do my thing, I can be Guillaume, the teacher that I am, the student that I am. But as a teacher and student, it is not a good thing to be known as Aero. It is not well seen by others.

How did you go about sneaking around at such a young age?

Montreal graffiti scene is pretty young, it started in the mid 90s. When I started in 98 – 99, it wasn’t a big deal and we didn’t have to sneak out at night. We would go after school or at parties. My friends and I would take a walk, find a spot, do our thing, call the parents and go home.

Since you started, have attitudes changed?

Graffiti started to get big around 2001. By 2005, major crews were taking form and it was the golden age of graffiti. There are people that see it as destruction, but there is massive advertising everywhere that is more destructive.

Would you encourage your students to do graffiti?

By my social status I can’t encourage them, but as a teacher and graffiti artist, I think I should help them understand the graffiti movement and the risks they are taking. When you are young, there are consequences to what you do. The most important thing is not to tell them what to do or how to do it, but to help them understand what is in it and the risks so they can make their own choices and do it the right way.

Do you know the whole hip hop movement? There are people now who teach in college and high schools that are well known rappers, they are not scared to say it but back 10 years ago, rap was seen as a gangster or bad thing. Graffiti is similar and it is slowly progressing. I think right now is not the time for graffiti artists to tell everyone.

You are confident that it will be socially accepted in the near future?

There are good guys and bad guys who do graffiti, just like with everything in the world.

One day I will be able to tell my kids that I was a graffiti artist. Right now I have just shown my parents pictures of my work but they don’t like seeing pictures of trains. They know it is dangerous but they see all the work I’m putting in my drawings and my books. I’ve been drawing so many sketches just to get the perfect line between letters.

Do you think it is valid for the public to associate graffiti with lower class communities or drug taking behaviours?

Most of my friends are university students or have professional jobs. One friend is a plumber, the other a dentist. My friend and I work for the Canadian government. There are also those guys that don’t go to school and they live by the gangster type of life, but I find that most artists in Montreal are not from that movement. We grew up with the hiphop culture and mentality and we don’t associate ourselves with the gangster type of living.

It is not that gangster to put paint on walls. All the trendy colours now are baby blues, flashy green and pinks – that’s not really gangsta. Look at me, I’m not a gangster at all.

Why do you think that stereotype exists?

It’s a stereotype that is associated with everything that is not the norm. When something is not appropriate, people will scare the kids so that they don’t do it. They use words like vandalism and crime, they won’t tell you it’s fun. It is something that is used to dissuade people from doing it.

What’s the difference between putting stickers up or ads up? The action is the same. It costs more in Montreal to remove stickers and sale signs than it does removing graffiti. When you think about it, there are a lot of other things that cost more and are tolerated.

Is there a public and private divide in the graffiti world? Are there public spaces that are more acceptable to do work?

There are non-written rules which are not rules anymore because there is always that young generation that learns the wrong way and don’t care about anything – that’s a minority.

You know you aren’t supposed to write on a church or house, but now people do it. We used to have a lot of empty spaces to go to, and a lot of abandoned buildings. There were many walls. Now they don’t want people to go there, they destroyed all those walls. We had 10 or 15 legal walls and now we have 4 or 5. People start to do it everywhere but I don’t think it is a bigger problem than it was. I don’t think it is a growing problem.

I think all the cities that have graffiti really show their nightlife and their underground culture. When you go to Iowa there is no graffiti and well, it’s a boring city.

Can you describe the creative process?

There is this part of it that is considered vandalism but it is surely an art. You have to create things, you build something, the drawing itself is dynamic. It has to be a whole, each letter holds the other one. Everything has to cohesively fit together – there is a flow from start to finish.

Graffiti artists are artists.

"The definition of an artist is that you have to do art and you have to be recognized as an artist by the art district community. Graffiti is commonly judged by mainstream societies who are not art specialists. It is commonly seen as vandalism, but it is also an art".

Do you agree with it being called vandalism?

If I do it on a wall it is vandalism, but if I do the same thing on a piece of paper, it is art. I don’t see the difference. It is the same work, la meme oeuvre.

Graffiti has been in mainstream culture for a long time now but people don’t usually recognize it. All the letters and outlines are used in advertising. Fonts with shadows and arrows come from graffiti. If you watch Style Wars about the creation of graffiti culture in New York in the 80s, there is this guy that talks about the arrow and how it gives movement to your piece. Now you find arrows and drippings everywhere.

People love it but they love to hate it as well. They love the colours the movement and everything about it but they don’t like it when it is on the wall.

On the other side of things, if it becomes too mainstream, graffiti will die. It won’t be graffiti anymore. You have to understand where graffiti comes from and the process behind it. Right now in Montreal, it is a problem that is well controlled. It lives in a balance between art and crime.

Outside of the law, what is it to you?

It’s a lifestyle. I wouldn’t be the person I am now if it wasn’t for that. It has a big place in my life. I spent so many nights up waiting for trains and finding new clean walls because you don’t go over other artists’ pieces. Graffiti has become part of the urban scenery. It lives in the bricks and walls. Most people don’t understand it – they see lines but we see the name.

Would you safely say it is a culture that needs to be better understood?

Yeah. It is associated with underground nightlife, there is a misunderstanding. Because of that, there is fear that comes with it. It’s like racism, people don’t understand different cultures and they start to act against a race. People don’t understand why we do it, but once you start doing it and become part of a movement, the process and creating it, you gain a lot. The biggest problem is that people don’t understand it and they don’t tolerate it. They closed all these legal walls because people saw it from their backyards and they didn’t like it. People don’t come out of their house and talk to us.

How can we better understand the culture of graffiti?

Come meet us, come to the events, come see us at the walls when we are doing our work. Mostly we are good people and we will show you how to do it. I taught a 90 year old lady to spray on the wall. Last summer I was painting with a friend and the woman came with her grandchildren, “look grandma look at the colours”. She was explaining to the kid what it was, and then asked if she could try. Grandma left for home walking with a big smile on her face – now she loves graffiti artists.