Words by Ryan Michael Commins
Walking down a street in Paris, you see a man coming towards you. He has a smirk developing on his face as he walks right out of a black brick wall. He is colorless. This is an image pasted onto the wall in a faint grid. This man’s classy whitewall shoe will hang in the air, until somebody scrapes him off or paints over him. He is what you might picture when someone mentions, ”a real man.” Who is this man? From the look on his face, the person behind the camera was someone very close to him. Now he is looking at you familiarly and you wonder if he is still alive, if he was a good person. Then a different thought should occur: Who brought this man back to existence with paper and wheat-paste and a bit of nerve?
My initial awareness of the street artists Leo and Pipo came from a YouTube video shown to me by my friend, Marcel. The artists were sitting down on some steps wearing blue and yellow Lone Ranger masks, both of them about thirty years old. Behind them was a finely dressed black family standing at full size, super-imposed onto the wall, posing for some formal occasion. Leo was mustached and sporting short dark hair. Pipo was a bit scruffy, wearing the mask above a soft upward waft of slightly lighter hair. Whenever one of them is speaking, the other is listening and thinking. It becomes clear (even for one that doesn’t speak French) that these men have invested much of their lives into pursuing this passion. I know this because of the cadence and inflection of their words, the glimmer in their eyes behind masks, and the fact that bullshit sounds the same in all languages.
I wanted to know more, so I visited their Flickr gallery. There were so many of these striking street portraits, sizes ranging from stickers to installations of seven full-sized human beings, their largest to date. People close to them provide the images they use, allowing them to reinvigorate these dusty stacks of history. Something about that shakes my brain a little bit. The idea that this person posed for a photograph a hundred years ago and today is passed on the street by countless strangers. It makes me wonder what will come of our photos in the future, and if those passing people spend any of their walk thinking about those pasted specters — or maybe if they wonder about Leo and Pipo themselves.
Leo and Pipo met at the age of seven while attending a Catholic school in a small town east of Paris called Val-de-Marne. They had similar tastes and before long began collaborating, first with music. They combined early American blues with contemporary material to see what would happen. Their street art project parallels that same exploration. Does bringing the past and present together create a new meaning of its own? I had been picturing graffiti artists that felt a pull towards figure-based art statements. It was quite the opposite. They had never even done any type of graffiti. These were artists that were drawn to the street, not for the destruction or to purge their angst but because that is where the real audience is. They are not the first to examine this type of juxtaposition, nor will they be the last, but it is undeniable that they have done something unique and markedly more positive, more inquisitive, than the vast majority of street art I’ve observed. They say the Leo and Pipo project has taken on a life of its own. Once they had come to an agreement on the precise course of the project, it became a matter simply of listening to it.
Their figures are currently haunting the streets in twelve separate countries, the work lasting anywhere from a few days to several years. They can put up more than four hundred figures in an outing, pasting the larger figures in about five minutes, moving quickly and discretely while the good people sleep. Regardless of this exportation into new territory they are quick to point out that this movement is intrinsically Parisian. They grew up in a suburb where people knew each other’s names. The social bonds were strong. Upon moving into Paris they found themselves completely anonymous, only known to one another. Leo and Pipo decided to set out and create an imaginary family, echoing a time when Paris was still just a big village.
When I asked them about the derivation of the names they use, they said that they were a kind of sobriquet they’ve been calling one another for quite a long time. After looking up the word sobriquet (meaning nickname) I started picturing this pair of inspired scamps as children. Two running boys wearing tiny blue and yellow Lone Ranger masks, maybe thin red-and-white striped shirts, two kings of their own shared world, calling each other Leo and Pipo in the dying afternoon light.
Click here to see more of Leo and Pipo’s work.