From Paris to Queensbridge and back to Paris: how CHAZE’s music has always been connected to his graffiti
Many people know Paris as the cutesy dainty city of love. The city of lights, with endless grandeur, luxury fashion houses and the peak of the museum elite. But on the other side, the side Paris city marketing doesn’t want you to see, it is also a city of crime, pollution, dirt and raw, rough energy. In reality, Paris is probably more La Haine than Amelie.
30-year veteran CHAZE has been bombing the dark streets all over Paris. CHAZE is featured on Writers On Wax: The Sound of Graffiti Volume 2, a new compilation album by Ruyzdael, bringing together music-making graffiti writers worldwide. In September 2022, we spoke with CHAZE about his city, his history as a writer and his music.
CHAZE prefers to stay anonymous to prevent this story from tampering with his practice. However, a little research doesn’t make it hard to find his government name. The Parisian graffiti legend was part of the Underground Kings and has had some of the most iconic and controversial pieces to his name.
The graffiti writing days are now (mostly) behind him, as he focuses more on photography and music with the group 72, which he formed together with Benjamin “Diamond” Cohen. Diamond is one of the founding members of the French Touch band Stardust, known for their 1998 mega-hit Music Sounds Better With You. 72 incorporates that sound but blends it with different styles and genres. The song featured on Writers On Wax: The Sound of Graffiti Volume 2 is called Talking Like That and creates a perfect bridge between the dark techno from the States and the French electronic music scene we know in Europe.
Of course, the imaginary bridge to the US has always been there for many European graffiti writers, especially those from CHAZE’s generation. New York being the mecca of graffiti, its influence reached far across the ocean. Of course, it also found Paris, and CHAZE was one of the first to catch up on it. “I think I started writing graffiti in 1987,” he explains. “A guy in my class showed me the book Subway Art (the iconic book from 1984 by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant), which formally introduced me to graffiti. I don’t think I had ever seen graffiti before. Not consciously, at least, as it wasn’t in my neighborhood. We went to the north of Paris to do some bombing, and we quickly started to destroy our school.”
CHAZE is part of what is seen as the second generation of graffiti writers in Paris, standing on the shoulders of the people who introduced it in France, such as BANDO. At that time, CHAZE went by the name of STEM, a name that conquered the city until it abruptly disappeared in 1991. A now infamous splurge at the then newly renovated Louvre-Rivoli station also meant its funeral, putting CHAZE and his crew on the brink of stopping with graffiti writing altogether. “I started painting the subways in the early nineties because that’s where most people see your work,” he says. “The new subway station was renovated with these awful fake Egyptian statues. Everything was fake, made to look like a museum. On May 1st, 1991, we destroyed the whole station, and everyone went nuts. It was all over the news and in the papers. Even the mayor talked about it. A couple of months later, they raided our apartments and arrested us, putting us in prison for weeks. They took all my books, notes and the keys I had to the subway. I had to start from scratch, so I had to come up with a new name as well.”
The name CHAZE was inspired by the name of American comedian Charley Chase. “I just liked the look and sound of it,” he explains its origins. “Of course, I had to turn the S into a Z because that’s what you did back then.” Like Ruyzdael with a ‘Z’ instead of an ‘S,’ CHAZE with a ‘Z’ restarted his legacy. Little did he know that the name CHAZE would greatly surpass STEM in the years to come, with tags reaching walls and trains from the UK to Germany, The Netherlands and even Slovakia.
You wouldn’t find CHAZE running around the nightly streets of Paris anymore in 2022. Or, at least, not as often. With his Underground Kings crew, CHAZE scoured through Paris in the 90s, bombing trains and buildings from the first to the twentieth arrondissement. Now, CHAZE is part of the Grim Team and occasionally will bring his spray cans out and about to make conscious commentary through what he calls “#contemporaryrat.” “It obviously is a play on contemporary art,” he explains. What people nowadays consider ‘street art’ is often confused with graffiti and vandalism. They put everything under one umbrella, thinking I’m making a nice mural with a cloudy blue sky or something. But at the same time, they don’t consider vandalism or graffiti on a subway train street art. So by using the metaphor of the rat, as something dirty and out in the streets, but still phonetically close enough to the word “art,” I use it as a name for what I do.”
In the past decade, CHAZE’s focus moved from writing graffiti to photography, resulting in a limited edition photobook, Point And Shoot, with photos of 3 years of European adventures. “Last three years, I started taking film photos again. I printed them and framed them with spray-painted wooden frames to still create a graffiti vibe. Then I contacted this gallery in Paris, and they liked it, so we turned them into a book.”
Whether it’s writing, photography or music, graffiti has always been the main theme for the past 35 years in CHAZE’s life. In the early aughts, CHAZE lived a second life as a hip-hop producer in New York, making beats for up-and-coming rappers. “After a while, I couldn’t handle it anymore,” he says about his time as a hip-hop producer. “At that time, as a white boy from Europe in Queensbridge, you would feel out of place. Once my English improved, and I understood what they were saying, it became clear that what I was doing made no sense at all.”
During his time in New York, in the mecca of graffiti, CHAZE spent over a decade without writing. “I didn’t even dare to touch a spray can,” he admits jokingly. “I was there on an artist visa, and if they catch you, you’re done. I was too much into the music dream. I really wanted to make it as a producer. I would paint a bit and write when I went back to Paris, but in general, I kind of let it go in that time.”
CHAZE returned to France in 2014 and went back to his first love. Upon returning to graffiti and Paris, he also went back to music, but this time doing it differently. “To me, music has always been connected to graffiti,” he says. “Be it writing, music or photography; graffiti is always the main theme in my life. When I started writing at first, I went to raves and clubs with other writers. That’s also where we get inspiration with 72. I think our sound relates to images. It’s very cinematic. When you hear our songs, you see something.”
What one sees in 72’s music can be different, But what’s evident is that the spray paint from CHAZE’s pieces drips throughout their songs. In Talking Like That – the song featured on Writers On Wax: The Sound of Graffiti Volume 2 –cyou hear the voice of a typical Puerto Rican woman from New York over a hypnotic Larry Heard-like beat. It combines CHAZE’s rave days, his graffiti adventures from the 80s and 90s, and his time in New York. Whether it is music, photography or graffiti, the connection between New York and Paris is always made through the “contemporary rat” of graffiti. In both the literal and figurative underground. Wherever there’s graffiti, you’ll find him. And wherever you’ll find him, you’ll hear music.