Resurrecting the street saints

One of Malta’s most prolific and consistent street artists, James Micallef Grimaud talks about the evolution of his style, the challenges for his chosen genre on the Maltese island, as well as its ability to directly tap into sociopolitical themes while also being able to provide immediate pleasure for its viewers

'Year of the Cock': Illustration by James Micallef Grimaud on the occasion of the Chinese Year of the Rooster
'Year of the Cock': Illustration by James Micallef Grimaud on the occasion of the Chinese Year of the Rooster

How long have you been painting, and what was the spur that first got you going? 

 I started painting around 20 years ago. Before that, I was always sketching,  scribbling on anything i could find. But when I tried painting for the first time – everything changed. Using colour in that way... I got hooked. What got me going on this path was probably the creative culture I grew up around, and all the mind-altering experiences I’ve had along the way. Especially since I spent my teens and early 20s skateboarding in the streets of Malta, which meant a constant battle with the law with some of the greatest, most creative people I know.

What were some of the main and most important stages of your artistic development that led to your current style? 

I guess one of the most important stages in my artistic career was the realisation that I could merge my Street and Fine Art into one, and use my art to portray a more refined message. 

Prior to that, these were two forms of art which I kept separate, I was doing stencils on socio-political themes in streets under the cloak of night, and painting with oils on canvas for exhibitions on more subtle subjects during the day. 

'Vanquishing the Demon' - Mural by James Micallef Grimaud in Strait Street, Valletta. Forming part of the artist's 'modern day saints' exhibition
'Vanquishing the Demon' - Mural by James Micallef Grimaud in Strait Street, Valletta. Forming part of the artist's 'modern day saints' exhibition

Street and mural art is your current specialty (at least, it’s the style you’re most known for). What attracted you to this mode of self-expression and political commentary, and what do you find enduringly appealing about it?

One of the main factors which attracted me is the possibility to add colour and a tinge of folly to the mundane, grey backdrop of the streets. Another factor is definitely the immediacy of it all, and the ability to reach large audiences quickly. I guess street art came as a natural progression, since my youth was mostly spent skateboarding in the streets, so the streets became a canvas for me.

Street art and murals became a way to voice my opinion on all the injustices surrounding me and give a wider picture of the craziness of it all. 

Do you think street art has more of a shot at altering people’s perceptions and responding to day-to-day happenings than other, more ‘polished’ forms of art? Why so? 

Street art definitely tends to leave more of an impact on all generations, wether positive or negative. Most people spend a large chunk of their daily life  on repetition mode, viewing the same surroundings while stuck in traffic, commuting to work so as soon as you alter that, you tend to create an element of curiosity. The street art they spotted while stuck in traffic becomes a topic to speak about during the lunch break.

I have personally found myself a few times in various locations, overhearing discussions about some street art I would have put up while people were totally oblivious to my presence.

Street art, especially murals, also have a tendency of creating places of public memory which people can associate with and use as meeting points. 

What are some of the main challenges that the working artist in Malta faces, going by your own experience?

The largest challenge I face in Malta is possibly a thematic one. The consumerist part of the art world on this island is very biased towards a certain choice of themes. The choice of location to exhibit certain themes is also a difficult one and quite limited. I actually find it easier to exhibit abroad. There has been a huge upgrade though, in the possibilities for artists. Many new funds and aids for the working artists have been emerging and the internet has laid out a wide platform for artists.

What have been some of the most important new projects you’ve been involved in, and what’s next for you?

 I’ve been working on a reinterpretation of the saints over the past year. I set up an exhibition last December and Jan in Strait Street, Valletta on the same subject. It’s an ongoing project which will be linking a few other countries in the Mediterranean.

I’m currently also working on a project with Valletta 2018, which we will hopefully launch early next year, and I’m also working on an exhibition for early 2019 at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier. That exhibition will be focused on some pressing sociopolitical themes.