Cyril Kongo Reinterpretes Graffiti


The self-taught French-Vietnamese artist has come a long way from tagging the streets of Paris to collaborating with luxury names like Hermès, Chanel, Richard Mille, Maserati and La Cornue. Cyril “Kongo” Phan shared his universe and savoir-faire with Indonesia Design at his latest atelier at the highest point of The Apurva Kempinski Bali.

Cyril Kongo

How did you spend your time during the pandemic?
I spent most of my time in the studio. During my nine-month stay in France, the front medical liners and their selfless dedication inspired me, so I started working on my paintings and then donated them to the Paris Hospitals Foundation, which they auctioned to raise funds. My second initiative was an installation at Lariboisière hospital to thank everyone who worked there during the pandemic. I also collaborated with Pierre Hermé for Valentine’s day. Later, I launched my first flagship gallery in Hanoi and the second one in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.

What got you started with graffiti?
I was always creating stories since I was six years old. Arriving in France as a political refugee with fake ID and paper, I did not speak French very well and was shy. Living between two worlds, I created my stories with pens and papers.

When I was 16, hiphop came into my life through friends who had just returned from New York with new music and style. The energy was enormous. Graffiti was an element of hiphop, and naturally, I was drawn to it. I started with a marker, creating stories from my basement to my city. Later with my friends, the MAC crew – we started representing our neighbourhood, doing huge paintings for East Paris versus West Paris. It was not only about creativity, skills, letters, colours, but creating stories and recognitions.

Back in the day, there was no internet, but we had fanzines and magazines that got us to connect with renowned graffiti artists worldwide. We started travelling from Europe to the United States and then the rest of the world. Now I’m here and I never stop.

Kongo's L'Atelier at The Apurva Kempinski Bali

What was your vision when you started?
First was to express myself and then to be recognised. But today, it is more than just writing my name on the wall. I’m more interested in pushing graffiti to the different universe and looking for excellence to add to my universe or cross over two universes.

Each age has its own goals, like today in my fifties; I paint less on the street and more at the atelier. I need to create stories and push out of the box as far as I can to achieve my vision and different mediums that interest me.

What were the challenges for you back then as a graffiti artist and how did you overcome them?
I wasn’t a kid who had a big bank account. I was out of society, so we created our society. Streetwear didn’t exist then, so we created it. Galleries didn’t want to work with us, so we created our own gallery. We created everything. It was a steep learning curve, food for life.

For more than 20 years, people called me a vandal. I was getting arrested by the police more than securing a show. A lot of my friends were put in jail because of graffiti. I travelled and arrived in places like Germany, where they welcomed me as an artist, but I was still a vandal back in my city. To illustrate the criminality, it’s crazy.

So together with the MAC Crew, we decided to create Kosmopolite, a graffiti festival – in my hometown of Bagnolet, a suburb in Paris – to change the way people perceive my culture. The festival ran for 12 years, during that time collectors and journalists started talking about graffiti as a culture. Eventually, it became street art, with more and more artists. And now it’s aesthetic on the wall. It’s nice that people applaud you when you paint on the street today. We did our job!

Your work has evolved a lot from walls to luxury goods like watches and airplanes. So how do you translate graffiti to these mediums?
With my artistic vocabulary coming from graffiti, I try to push it to a different universe – uniting traditional savoir-faire with my contemporary vision. This is the real luxury, made by hands. It takes time, and the excellence of it is that you can feel the warmth.

Would you still call it graffiti?
Graffiti is in my DNA. But what I do now is painting, creating stories and crystallising my time as an artist.

Can you tell us more about your collaboration with luxury brands?
I met Richard Mille at a dinner with my friends from Airbus, all engineers, except Richard and me. We shared some pictures and got to know each other better.

My collaboration with Hermès begun when I was approached by the managing director of Hermès Asia Pacific as I was doing graffiti on the street. I started with a window display and later on I was proposed to design the silk scarves by Pierre-Alexis Dumas, the current artistic director of Hermès.

And with Chanel, I had a discussion with Karl Lagerfeld. I told him that my work was about creating stories, and he understood. He put me up in his studio and spent a few months there creating my paintings that later manifested into Chanel’s Métiers d’art collection with a runway show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My collaborating work with La Cornue was to commemorate the brand’s 100th anniversary. What interests me was working using enamel and fire. The work took us to win the Architectural Digest – Great Design Award 2018. It’s my first ever to receive an award.

How about your collaboration with The Apurva Kempinski?
They proposed to have my studio set up at the resort and I really like the savoir-faire here. From a studio, I started talking to Vincent Guironnet (general manager) that I want to include the lifestyle aspect. I have an exceptional lifestyle and I want to share it. I’m here now, a part of The Apurva.

What is the studio concept and ambience?
I want to create something really exclusive here with special people who are always looking for excellence. With only ten tables on the balcony, it’s an ideal spot to enjoy the sunset. The people I know call me Mr. Colourful, so I want to share my colours and collections of cigars, whiskeys, wines and champagnes at the newly unveiled L'Atelier, surrounded by my universe.

I also just bought a piano, which I will paint. If you play piano, play it! If you want to sing, maybe I’ll sing with you. I want to create a unique vibe. It’s a new experience and maybe the people who comes here will be a part of my next installation, maybe it’s an artistic experience, maybe it’s wisdom. We will see.

What sort of design element that you find interesting in Indonesia?
I find that I relate to the story of batik. I’m half Vietnamese. I grew up in Vietnam and then France. And in-between, I spent some time in Congo following my French mum, who was assigned there for work. While in Africa, I learned about African wax fabric and its Indonesian origins.

I was introduced to the Indonesian batik world when I went to Solo. I learned that there are many types of batik depending on the kingdoms and occasions. I initiated a batik project two years ago in Solo and the project is still ongoing. I have started putting my hands on indigo batik, carving, sculpture, white stone, lava stone, and more. It’s fascinating. I feel good here.

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Shaza Dzulkifly
A Malaysian who now calls Indonesia her home. Shaza's career has taken her across multiple communications channels such as radio, TV, print, digital and social as well as PR and advertising.