Cyril Phan was born in Toulouse, in 1969, of a French mother and a Vietnamese father. His childhood was spent first in Vietnam, then in the South of France. At 14, he moved with his mother to Brazzaville, in the Democratic Republic of Congo—hence his signature, Kongo. Four years later he returned to France, where he settled in the greater Paris area, despite living and working between Paris, Hong Kong and Guadeloupe. The same diverse cultural influences that helped forge his identity and artistic style have made him a man at ease on every continent.
A street artist and autodidact, Kongo first attracted attention as a tagger and graffiti artist on the urban scene in Paris, but over the course of 20 years as a practicing artist, he has become an internationally recognised figure in the world of graffiti.
Today, Kongo is not so much concerned with bringing graffiti in off the street or changing its ephemeral quality, nor yet freeing it from the weight of the connotations it carries, but encouraging people to see it as the precious object it is.
" As artists, we take action, we crystallise an instant at time t.
We craft a message that bears witness to what’s going on at that precise moment."
It’s as though, starting from a complete automobile, I had to paint the chassis, the engine, each piston etc. And, as I did not wish to limit myself to a monochrome scheme, I needed to mix pigments while limiting the amount of paint. I handled and painted each and every component of the watch, which had never been done before. Prior to this, I had always worked on fixed surfaces—this was to be ‘Kongo in motion’ thanks to the movement, a technological miracle
" I’ve never been restricted to a single surface as a painter "
We worked closely with Julien and Salvatore of the Richard Mille R&D team.
First, we selected an asymmetrical case that added extra punch. Then I started experimenting under the supervision of Laurent Paroz, head of decoration at Renaud & Papi: stencils, masking… The paints also had to be tested—how well they adhered to the titanium movement, and how much they weighed, so as not to throw the pieces out of balance or impede the tourbillon mechanism!
It took the better part of a year to perfect a process and design the necessary protection so that the gears wouldn’t get paint on them, the special tweezers for treating the pieces without touching them and microscopic letter stencils, barely visible to the naked eye, cut from incredibly thin sheets of metal. I also employed very special pens, an airbrush system that deposits paint drop by drop, like for tattoos, but with infinitely small heads, in order to apply this particular paint on the metal surfaces.
When I began doing studio work, I engaged in some deep introspection.
I wanted to inflect this graphic vocabulary,
to take it apart and reassemble it differently.
It was a different kind of investigation from before,
but always on the same basis: letters, words, colour.
Except, instead of defining the letters through their contours,
it’s about pushing the colour outward. Always moving outwards from within.
It’s like breathing.
A completely different sort of picture. These watches could be exhibited in a gallery alongside my canvases. Each one is an original work of contemporary art.
It took over a year of experimentation of tools and for me to be capable of painting on a watch some five centimetres (two inches) square. Certain pieces were barely a few millimetres long, some even smaller, and I had to put the lettering directly on them, enough for visual effect but without using much paint so as to avoid throwing off the balance of the movement.
" No, that’s not what I’m looking for.
If it’s only to paint the pieces, I don’t need you for that.
All you’ve done is put paint on a Richard Mille piece.
You have to really get into the whole watch, the movement,
the tourbillon, the dial, casing…everything."
When I first began applying colour to the watch, I felt the same tension I experienced when I was about to illegally paint a wall or sketch an outline on a train or truck. You don’t know what might happen, you wonder if you’ll be seized the first time your finger unleashes the nozzle, or the tenth, or if you’ll be able to finish your piece and take off after snapping its pic.
Each watch is painted by hand—it’s basically the same as painting on a canvas, except that for canvas I don’t need a whole team, and I have a handle on something I’ve been doing for 30 years. For the watch, I worked with a genuine technical team.
There is no such thing as a big or a small project—but there are a few life-changing ones: wondering all the time if it will work or not, where all this is going—it’s an incredible experience.