Before they discovered André Saraiva, Parisians were already acquainted with his pictorial alter ego, “Mr. A.” In the late 1980s, France was just starting to discover graffiti. While other graffitists at the time were spraying walls with simple tags and hate messages, one young artist created a winking stick-figure character with long legs and a croissant-shaped smile.
To take things a step further, André Saraiva gave his graffiti character a top hat and called him “Mr. A.” The cartoon figure recalls Fred Astaire’s character in the musical comedy Top Hat, dressed to the nines in a tuxedo with hat and cane, the Monopoly Man, or perhaps some wild cousin of The New Yorker’s monocled, aristocratic mascot Eustace Tilley. Fascinated since adolescence by dandies and seedy nightlife scenes, the artist André sees Mr. A as more of “a gentleman cambrioleur.”
“Thirty years later he’s still my accomplice,” writes André Saraiva in A Graffiti Life. By his own estimate, he has painted Mr. A over 216,000 times: on storefronts, postal boxes, road signs, and delivery trucks in Paris; on phone booths and water towers in New York City; and on the wall surrounding Château Marmont, the Los Angeles hotel where he often stayed: “I used to draw on their stationary paper to pay for my long stays!”
Graffiti, a “Beautiful Crime”
André Saraiva was born in Sweden in 1971. His Portuguese parents fled the Salazar dictatorship and found refuge in Uppsala, a university city north of Stockholm and the birthplace of Ingmar Bergman. “It’s kind of paradise for kids. They let you be creative, go around and paint.” But his stay there was brief, and he moved to Paris with his mother at the age of ten or eleven.
It was in France under Mitterrand in the mid-1980s that he discovered the artists of the figuration libre movement – Robert Combas, Hervé Di Rosa, Jean-Michel Basquiat – and bought his first work of art: a Keith Haring T-shirt. His artistic education naturally led him to graffiti. By the age of 14, he was already going around the streets of the capital, spray can in hand, tagging his name on the city’s walls up to twenty times a night. One time the police caught him red-handed at a metro station, roughed him up, and arrested him. The experience only strengthened his taste for painting and rebellion.
“As soon as I was out of the police station, I went back to the metro station and tagged again,” he says. “It is a bit like when you fall from a horse; you have to get right back to it otherwise you are scared and scarred for life.” As a nod to the years he spent playing cat and mouse with law enforcement, the artist’s book includes a collection of his “diplomas”: tickets and court summons for damaging or stealing street furniture. Without money to buy canvases, he just borrowed doors and signs!
The City as a Playground
In 2015, he was fined 275 dollars after tagging a rock in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. But nowadays most of his works are legal. “Now people ask me to paint their walls!” Like the time he graffitied the women’s restroom at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles as part of an exhibition entitled Art in the Streets. Or when he painted his signature character on the facade of the Galeries Lafayette in Paris during a high-flying artistic performance.
André Saraiva has since collaborated with Adidas, Agnès B., the clothing and accessories brand Bally, Converse, Longchamp, Sonia Rykiel, Uniqlo, and Off-White, a fashion label founded by his American friend Virgil Abloh, who died last November. He also designed a series of wine bottles and labels for the Provence-based rosé producer Château La Tour de l’Evêque, and curated a capsule collection for Smiley to mark the brand’s fiftieth anniversary.
He recently met the widow of Charles Schulz, the cartoonist who created Snoopy, in California and – with her approval – created a series of works featuring both Mr. A and the iconic beagle. Visiting the archives of the American artist, “I discovered that we both had a fascination with George Herriman and Krazy Kat, which is my favorite comic. I also noticed that Schulz’s sketches had shaky lines, just like mine. Sharing similarities with Schulz made me very proud. I hope that one day Mr. A will play in the same league, that he is able to exist by himself and be as lovable as Snoopy.”