XOOOOX interviewed by Rory MacLeanen

Norbert Kentrup with Rory MacLean (behind)
Rory MacLean in front of a Berlin wall stencil by XOOOOX. Copyright XOOOOX
Rory with graffiti by
In all the memorable Cold War photographs of Berlin, the Wall is covered with graffiti – on its western side only. Its eastern face, guarded by armed border police and watch towers, always remained bare concrete. Until 1989 when a revolution opened the Wall. Then Berlin’s street artists set about working on the blank concrete canvas, claiming the brutal urban environment as their own.

Those artists quickly moved beyond the death strip and today parts of Berlin are as splattered as was New York in the Seventies. Circleculture Gallery represents many in the city’s rising urban art movement including Anton Unai, Daniel Tagno, Marok and XOOOOX.

A prolific graffiti artist influenced by Pop Art and DADA, XOOOOX’s signature stencil work graces the streets of Berlin and Hamburg as well as Paris, Milan, Vienna and New York. His life-sized portraits of fashionable women, provocatively posed like fashion models, are hugely evocative, recalling the work of street artists like Blek le Rat, Misstick and Banksy. As soon as I saw them I wanted to meet the artist. But arranging a face-to-face interview proved to be impossible. XOOOOX doesn’t meet writers. Why? Because “XOOOOX has to protect his/her identity so he won’t be sued for vandalism,” CircleCulture’s director Johann Haehling von Lanzenauer told me.

So we compromised on an email interview, conducted over a number of weeks. I started by asking him – although he was unwilling to confirm whether he’s male or female – how he began as a street artist.

Stencil in Hamburg. Copyright XOOOOXStencil in Hamburg.  Copyright XOOOOXStencil in Berlin.  Copyright XOOOOX







"I started with classical graffiti at the age of 15, I think,” XOOOOX told me. “I never went to art school. I taught myself by practicing under railway bridges and while travelling around big cities like Frankfurt, Munich and Cologne.”

But why spray cans and exterior walls, I asked. Why didn’t you choose to work indoors in a studio?

“There’s nothing wrong with working with a paint brush in a studio,” he replied. “But I believe if an artist really wants to reach people, he or she simply has to go outside. A statement sprayed on a public space hits the viewer much more intensely than does the advertising hanging above it.”

Hence his interest in advertising campaigns and the fashion industry. Elsewhere XOOOOX has acknowledged that his figures and appropriated designer logos pay homage to couture culture while criticizing the mass-merchandising of global retail chains.

“I believe that you can use the power of fashion like a personal weapon,” the artist declared. “It can act like a shield, or it can destroy you.”

The location of a graffiti artist’s work has always interested me. I asked XOOOOX how he chooses his ‘canvas‘? And does the wall itself effect what he paints on it?

“Yes. The subject matter depends on the location and on the wall itself. For me, both have to work together. It’s really hard to find a nice place sometimes. Before I start working on a stencil, I like to observe the wall from a distance to try to catch the atmosphere of the place.”

Have you ever been disturbed while working? I asked.

“Not really,” he replied. “Sometimes people do pass by while you are working on a stencil so you have to learn to move quickly. If someone asks what you are doing here, just be smart and answer the questions.”

For me, it’s XOOOOX’s use of stencils which sets his work apart from that of his contemporaries. Why, I asked, did he move away from the ‘traditional’ spray can?

“After a few years of doing graffiti, I started cutting out photographs from fashion magazines and pasting them on walls. But it annoyed me having to carry around a bucket of paste and always having sticky fingers. So I decided instead to cut out stencils of the images. I loved their simplicity and the efficiency. And of course stencils are an established medium of protest, and rebellion.”

For me part of the reason man creates works of art is to defy mortality. The artist captures life’s fleeting moments and, in his or her work, tries to make something that will endure beyond death. But all of XOOOOX’s street work is destined to be lost, due to weather, demolition or an unappreciative owner with a scrubbing brush. How does he feel – I asked – about the inevitable destruction of his work?

“I find it exciting to see how time is working on the pieces. In fact I love seeing an older work deteriorate and become fragile.”

What does the future hold? I asked.

“My new pieces are growing more into installations created from objects collected at abandoned places. I’m trying to combine them with new, totally different materials.”

This summer XOOOOX will have a new show at the CircleCulture Gallery. But he won’t be at the opening, or at least he won’t tell anyone if he is there.

“I won’t visit my opening, just as I haven’t attended the openings of any of my previous shows. I don’t like arty parties. I much prefer to see exhibitions while surrounded by silence.”

But the gallery director Johann Haehling von Lanzenauer will be there. As he told me, “XOOOOX is a conceptual artist who creates highly-contemporary abstract installations, guerilla campaigns and sculptural works. His freshness, multifaceted expression and intellectual breadth make him an artist worthy of broad public attention.”

Rory MacLean
April 2009

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