“To stop painting graffiti is to stop breathing,” says Romain Picardi, known by his artist’s name, Abuz. He was born with a pencil in one hand and an aerosol can in the other. For the past fifteen years, graffiti has been his life. He took the award for the Fenua Student-ATN during the first Ono’u International Graffiti Festival that took place in Tahiti in 2014—an event that brought forty artists together from all over the world to decorate the city of Papeete and participate in a competition. Ever since, Abuz has become a key graffiti artist on the French Polynesian art scene.
“This award brought me amazing professional and personal outcomes. People request my work, I am recognized and people look for me. This is all so new to me!” reveals this humble young thirty-something. He is sitting at the table in a restaurant located in the Fare Ute neighborhood, close to the Papeete harbor. The artist knows this neighborhood well. His work is visible from almost every street corner. It is impossible to not recognize his signature style. It is either colorful or sad. His themes are abstract but always perceptive. His soft lines are often cut to the quick.
“I decorate a lot. I paint stores or shop walls, hotels and private homes.”
Abuz has no qualms about saying it—decorating is his living. He is not just a street graffiti artist. This young man survives off his passion thanks to commissions. The world of graffitti does not always appreciate this business aspect and opinions can vary. Some artists advocate tag graffiti, done on the fly, stealing spaces to paint illegally and freely. Others decide to not set limits on themselves and attempt to make a living at it. “Graffiti art comes from the streets but it is evolving. Today, money has become a part of the game. Americans get it and aren’t embarrassed. I respect those artists who do graffiti on the fly, but I have decided to go further and earn a living doing what I love,” states this artist who is distinctive from the other graffiti artists from the Fenua due to his themes and particular style. “I often take on the topic of the subconscious or do abstracts. I am also really into graphics, characters and décor. I don’t really care for tagging, which is more traditional graffiti. Over the years, I have sought my own signature style and improved it,” says Abuz. He admits that he readily uses Polynesian motifs from time to time in his work. “Sometimes, I reinterpret shapes or symbols from French Polynesia. I am careful not to fall into traditionalism. I want the message in my designs to remain universal.”
It is after receiving a degree in English from the University of French Polynesia that this young man, who first became initiated into graffiti during a brief stay in France while in high school, decided to become an artist. With the support of his family, he found some paid gigs and his first major work: the logo for Morisson’s Café in Papeete, a popular bar-restaurant in the French Polynesian capital. “In the beginning, it was quite difficult. I had very few commissions. I was making about $900 a month and I wasn’t creating the type of work that I wanted. But I had no choice. I had to make do with what I was doing,” says this same person who four years later would create one of his greatest works on a wall of the famous Four Seasons Hotel in Bora Bora. “I always strived for a good work ethic. It is so important to do good work. This is what makes a graffiti artist lucrative. This is how I learned and how I evolved.”
A promising Tahitian graffiti scene
Persistant and determined, Abuz never gave up despite material and financial difficulties. In the beginning, even though graffiti has been around for the past twenty years in Tahiti, it wasn’t that widespread. To find aerosol cans to paint the city walls was truly a challenge. Graffiti artists had to import their supplies from Europe. By the end of the 2000s, sales started to develop in the country with the opening of the Old School shop in Papeete, now known as the Mata Store. Local artists could then buy supplies on the island, and therefore paint more regularly.
Quite the opposite of their fellow artists in the big cities of Europe or elsewhere who are used to the disdain of passersby as they paint walls in the streets, French Polynesian graffiti artists are encouraged and even admired. “Here, people stop and watch you and often complement your work. In their eyes, we are not hooligans being destructive, but artists embellishing the walls of the island. It is so enjoyable!” explains this artist who is happy to see new work and new murals occur every day in Tahiti. “The movement is still fresh. It exploded about ten years ago but it is evolving very quickly. Today, there is a true graffiti scene in Tahiti. You can see all kinds: tagging, wall art or canvas,” confides Abuz before adding, “more and more young people around 14 are starting to place their signature everywhere. There dare to do it and it is a good thing.”
This is one of the outcomes of the 2014 Ono’u Festival that gathered the best international graffiti artists in Tahiti last May. “All the big names in graffiti were there! For the first time, we had the opportunity to go up against other artists. It was a true blast of fresh air.” Besides having the chance to rub shoulders with bigger artists, what was even more important for Abuz was that the festival united local graffiti artists. “Before, we were more or less in our own little corners. The festival brought us together. For some, we got to discover new artists among us. Some of the international attendees were impressed by our level of artistry. Five Tahitians were selected as some of the best out of all the others. This was a huge accomplishment!”
This exploit is even more impressive since two local graffiti artists, including Abuz, were among the ten finalists. Mast, a NewYork graffiti artist, was awarded the grand prize. However, Abuz walked away with the Fenua Student Award and an Air Tahiti Nui ticket for Los Angeles. However, this is an opportunity and reward that he almost missed.
A sensitive and brave artist
A few months before the beginnning of the time to register for the festival, Abuz went through a difficult period. In the midst of a breakup, the artist, a young father of a little boy now three and a half years old, started questioning things. He felt lost and decided to walk away from graffiti. Abuz rebecame Romain Picardi and left to find a job “like regular people. “ He found a position as a store clerk in a garage. This experience lasted three months until he realized he was on the wrong path. “I had to test myself. I did it and I understood that graffiti was my life. So I quit the job and grabbed my aerosol cans.” What happened next justified his decision. By the end of 2013, a rumor about a graffiti festival and competition in Tahiti turned into a reality. Abuz registered right away. He was selected and found himself thrust into the finals. “I believe this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I grabbed it and dove in,” said the artist, who has signed up for the second annual Ono’u festival that will take place in Tahiti May 5-9, 2015.
From one day to the next, this French Polynesian artist found himself painting a wall in the famous Melrose neighborhood in Los Angeles alongside the winner of the 2014 festival and some other international artists. “The experience was awesome. The guys are so good at what they do, yet they remain humble and cool. Coming up against them, I realized that I, too, am a graffiti artist. I know my stuff but I also know I have a lot to learn.” Since this lesson in humility, Abuz has also understood that in order to exist as an artist, he must show his work. He must go outside of the Fenua (home country) and open himself up to the world. “The big names in graffiti merge styles. They leave traditional graffiti styles behind to create a new identity for themselves. I want to be free like they are and not limit myself.”
Abuz attempts to not only hold onto this line of conduct while he decorates walls, but also with projects that are more artistic and humanitarian. “I have have been recently asked to paint in a psychiatric hospital and a prison. These projects don’t pay but they are spiritually enriching.” This humanist side also helps create the signature of this talented and promising artist.
Artist contact information: Facebook : Abuze.ink
Event : The 2015 International Ono’u Graffiti Festival will take place from May 5-9 in Tahiti.