Words and Photography: Joy Celine Asto
In early May, I had the pleasure of meeting Spag and Seb Toussaint from Caen, France and watching them work as street art duo Outsiders Krew in one of the grittiest slums here in Manila. After welcoming my companions and I, Spag led us through the narrow streets and labyrinthine alleyways of Gagalangin in Tondo – something which surprised me because he navigated every turn like a local. By then, they were almost done with the Manila leg of their “Share The Word Project”, so he took us to the murals they already completed. We were also lucky to have seen the Krew get started painting their last piece: the impressive “Future” mural, which was one of the biggest they made for Manila. Fast-forward to recent times, I reconnected with Spag and Seb, asking them a handful of questions to learn more about the team and to take a closer look at the motivations and stories behind their work.
JOY: To start, please tell us something about yourselves as individual artists and as a team. How did Outsiders Krew come about? When did you start planning for it and when did you realize that it was really going to push through?
OUTSIDERS KREW: We met at primary school and then became best friends a few years later, when we were about 12 years old. We didn’t like school that much, or maybe it was just that school didn’t like us. The best part of school was playing football in the playground and talking about travels we’d like to go on. In our teens, we started going on small adventures along with another friend of ours. As young adults, we started taking things further, and we cycled around Europe in 2009, and then around the world in 2011 and 2012. Spag would always do a lot of photography on our different trips, and I would paint and draw, like I’ve always done. When we came back from the cycling trip around the world, we thought about working together and mixing graffiti and photography. And this was when we thought about “Share The Word Project.”
JOY: Can you share with us some basic facts about the “Share The Word Project?” What was the inspiration behind it? Where and when did you embark on your first journey for this?
OUTSIDERS KREW: “Share The Word Project” is an on-going global art project. The idea is that we go to slums or low income neighborhoods, and ask people to give us words they want to share. We then paint those words in freestyle on their houses. We usually stay one month in one country, working in one particular slum each time. We want to highlight these communities through their own words. We go to places where the people are often ignored and sometimes hated by the rest of society. We want to know what these people want to express, and we want to expose this to the outside world through photography and video. We started this in August, 2013 in Jakarta (Indonesia), and since then we’ve been to Nairobi (Kenya), Kathmandu (Nepal), Bogota (Colombia), Cairo (Egypt) and Manila (Philippines). For the moment, we’ve painted 85 different murals in six different countries, but this is just the beginning.
JOY: Can you tell us something about the very first mural you did for “Share the Word Project?” What were your first thoughts as you worked on this first piece?
OUTSIDERS KREW: The first mural we painted was in a low income neighborhood called Kampung Bayur in Jakarta. We had visited the neighborhood the day before, and we’d bought some paints. People were very surprised seeing two white guys on their streets, walking around with paint. We found a good little wall, and asked the family if we could paint their house. They said yes, and chose the word, “Assalamu’alaikum”, which is a usual way of greeting in many Muslim countries. So we got to work, and painted in front of a curious and somewhat puzzled crowd. The people really liked the result, and it felt great seeing that the idea of our project was something that the people enjoyed just as much as we did. We knew we were onto something. So we painted a few more walls, and soon the whole neighborhood wanted their houses painted. By the end of our stay in Jakarta, we knew that we had to carry on with this project and take it to as many places as possible.
JOY: I’m pretty sure I asked you this before: how do you choose which city to go to next? Can you tell me about the criteria again?
OUTSIDERS KREW: Firstly, the cities we go to must have some marginalized communities, slums, ghettos, or whatever you want to call them. But that is the case with so many large cities around the world. Then the most important thing is to go to a country at the right time of the year. We don’t want to be painting during a rainy season because that would make painting outdoors very difficult. Apart from that, it’s quite random. We don’t have a bucket list of places we want to go to, every city is interesting in its own way, and no matter where you go, you’ll always find really kind and generous people who’ll make you enjoy your stay.
JOY: While street art has become well-known in many parts of the world, some of the people in places you visited for the project are most likely not so familiar. How did they respond or react to your pieces? Was there ever a time that people did not take it well (as graffiti in general still has a negative connotation), or didn’t understand it?
OUTSIDERS KREW: Everywhere we’ve been, people have really liked our work, whether we’re in a city where people are familiar with graffiti like Bogota, or whether we’re in a city with very little street art like Nairobi. I think that quite naturally, people like having colorful walls. Most people in the slums just enjoy graffiti for what it is; they haven’t been brainwashed into thinking that it’s something negative.
JOY: Of all the towns and cities you’ve been to for this project, which one is the most memorable to you and why?
OUTSIDERS KREW: Honestly, we’ve enjoyed every single one of the six slums and cities we’ve worked in. We miss people in all of those places. Maybe Nairobi (Kenya) stands out as the city in which we learned the most. It was our first project in a large and violent slum and it prepared us for the rest. Our days in the slum of Mukuru were full of great moments followed by very difficult moments. Before going to Kenya, we had never had a friend who was a slave, we had never had a friend who got shot in the head in gang-related violence, we had never been to a place where so many people were HIV positive, or where so many people were hungry. We learned to deal with a lot of things while we were there and it changed us.
JOY: Has anything crazy or dangerous happened to you in the middle of finishing your pieces in these slums that you had to reconsider your stay?
OUTSIDERS KREW: Slums are full of crazy moments. Bad things and great things happen all the time, and of course there have been a few dangerous moments. Only once have we considered leaving the slum and not coming back. It was in Nairobi. There was a rumor going around the slum that we were spies working for the FBI and spying on the Somali community of the slum, and in particular the “Al Shabaab” terrorist organization. After three weeks of work in the slum some people believed the rumor, and one day as we had finished painting, a few Somali men called us over and told us to leave the slum and never come back. That evening, as we walked back to the place we were staying, Spag and I asked ourselves if we should carry on or not. We had a good sleep and in the morning we decided that we should carry on because we knew that the most influential leaders of the slum would protect us.
JOY: Out of all the murals you’ve done in all these cities so far, which ons are your favorites and why? What about the most difficult or challenging ones?
OUTSIDERS KREW: The huge “LOVE” mural that we painted in Manila was definitely one of our favorites because it’s so big that it’s visible from outside the slum. I like the fact that we were asked to paint a very short word on such a large wall. Each letter was huge! And it was also a very challenging one since it took us five days to paint. It wasn’t easy since we weren’t very well equipped and the wall was almost nine meters tall, but we were very happy with the result. The Hindu temple that we were asked to paint in Kathmandu was also huge and very challenging, but again the people really enjoyed it, and that’s what made us happy, too.
JOY: Were you able to squeeze in some free days or sightseeing in any of the cities you visited? If so, do you usually rely on tips from locals or do you prefer to do your own research on where to relax or have good local fare?
OUTSIDERS KREW: We usually stop painting when the sun sets, so we like wandering around the city in the evenings. We don’t necessarily go to see particular sights, we like walking about and accidentally finding interesting places. We don’t believe the interesting bits are those sold to us in tourist brochures. This is also why we can appreciate cities that don’t really have typical sights like Nairobi, for example. Occasionally we have a day off, but it’s rare because there are so many walls to paint in the slums.
JOY: What keeps you busy aside from the “Share The Word Project?” Any hobbies, side projects, or personal works?
OUTSIDERS KREW: We’ve been having a few art shows lately where we’ve shown our photography and paintings to the public in Europe. We’ve also been busy teaching kids graffiti in our hometown of Caen (France). And as always, we’ve been playing football, watching football, and talking about football.
JOY: What is the future like for Outsiders Krew and the “Share The Word Project?” Have you guys picked the next city?
OUTSIDERS KREW: We are young artists with a lot to learn, and we want to carry on painting in slums. The more we work in slums and the more we love those places, and the more art we want to do in them. We want to show the world that these places are rich in many ways, and that we shouldn’t ignore these communities. In October, we will be working in another slum for the seventh episode of “Share The Word Project,” but we haven’t yet chosen where it will be.
Joy Celine Asto is a film photographer, writer, and traveler from Manila, Philippines. She runs on caffeine, lives on books, savors good music, and thrives on everything creative. You can follow her and her work on Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook.