(Hell'O Monsters / from left : Antoine Detaille, François Dieltiens and Jerôme Meynen)
Hell’O Monsters is a talented threesome who during the late 90's started out making graffiti and wall art, progressed towards drawings & paintings and finally combined all of it into dreamy installations. Looking at their work, there’s a lot to take in: colours and delicate patterns, references to Danse Macabre, street art, MC Escher, tattoos, comic books, carnival, etc. Their art always looks friendly and pretty enough to reel you in, but there’s an edge to it all that will draw blood anytime you take a closer look.
Their newest exhibit at KNOTORYUS favourite A.L.I.C.E. Gallery in Brussels is called ‘Deaf, Dumb and Blind’ and is open right now, unless you’re reading this after 20 December 2013.
Two days before this interview, I stopped by my other favourite art-crack dealer + Case Studyo/Toykyo-founder Mathieu Van Damme. While I was looking around his studio, this beautiful little blue book caught my eye. Mathieu saw me stroking it - as one does- and went : "That's the new book I produced for Hell'O Monsters." I answered : "I'm going to be interviewing them. But wow, this is so beautiful!" And he went : "Take it. It's yours." And I just said "thank you" and also thought this to myself.
(By the way : if you have people with a decent taste level in your life, go buy all your Christmas presents HERE)
Fast forward to me walking into A.L.I.C.E. gallery and being greeted by 2/3 of Hell'O Monsters.
Antoine : You have our book! We don't even own a copy of it ourselves!
KNOTORYUS : It looks amazing!
Antoine : So you know Mathieu. Have you seen our room at Design & Breakfast?
KNOTORYUS : I taped a TV-show in there a couple of years ago. So how are you guys?
Antoine : Good. Not too much pressure.
KNOTORYUS : It’s the second A.L.I.C.E. exhibition in two years, though.
Antoine : The first one was a duo show with another artist, so for us this feels like the first time here. We have been showing a lot abroad in the meantime, but now we're back in Brussels and it’s exciting!
KNOTORYUS : The new exhibition is called “Deaf, Dumb and Blind”. I assume the title refers to the three famous monkeys each playing a different role...
Jerôme: Yes, the title refers to the three of us since we don’t have a theme to encapsulate this show. The connecting factor is just us three as a collective.
KNOTORYUS : So, in Hell’O Monsters, who plays what role?
Antoine : It depends on the situation, but François is the silent type and I can be the dumb one if you want.
KNOTORYUS : (laughs) It’s not really about what I want here.
Antoine : And if you steal Jerôme’s glasses, he’ll go completely blind, so I think we’ve got everything covered.
KNOTORYUS : You have been doing this for almost ten years. Tell me about your friendship and how you met.
Antoine: We met in the South of Belgium when we were still in school and became close friends really quick. We bonded over our love for graffiti, drawing and painting. The thing is we never fight. It’s really important for us that we are brothers first and work partners next.
Jerôme: At first we were spray painting big murals, old warehouses and trains together but at one point we got bored with just doing the old school graffiti, so we began to draw on paper. We used to sketch on paper before, but it was just that: sketching. But when we tried our first real drawing and it worked, something clicked. Although I have to say that even in our “just graffiti”-days we were already completely obsessed with details. But at one point using only spray cans just didn’t work anymore. So working on paper became more important than walls. Although we still love to paint on walls and bigger surfaces, it’s just a small fraction of what we put out.
Antoine: And from that moment on we started refining our work and started really functioning as a collective as well. Even when we were doing graffiti, the three of us would be working on one letter.
KNOTORYUS: I remember a couple of years ago here at A.L.I.C.E. was the Triple Trouble exhibition with So Me, 2Shy and C.R.E.A.M. But they had a very different approach. If you're familiar with their individual work, you can easily spot who did what in their paintings.
Antoine: Oh, in the early days our work used to be like that, but through working this closely together all these years it has become a lot more homogeneous, or in sync. We developed one style together.
KNOTORYUS : You make it sound like there is no ego.
Antoine: When it comes to drawing, there isn’t I think.
KNOTORYUS: That is so unique for guys that started out in the streets.
Antoine: When Jerôme starts drawing something that is really good, I don’t mind throwing away what I’m doing and start co-developing his idea.
Jerôme: Hell’O Monsters is one machine.
Antoine: We are like a music band. It’s the end result that matters.
Jerôme: I got the ultimate compliment from François a while ago. He told me he stopped looking elsewhere for inspiration because he’s got Antoine and me to be inspired by. He said he doesn’t need the Internet to get his creative juices flowing because he’s got us. How cool is that?!
KNOTORYUS: That is super beautiful!
KNOTORYUS: What is it about the “Danse Macabre” that inspires you guys?
Antoine: The symbolism of life and death: we are obsessed with the aesthetics of it.
Jerôme: Our work is very ambiguous. The biggest opposites are life and death.
Antoine: We don’t take death too seriously. Our skulls wear party hats.
KNOTORYUS: Do you think about death a lot?
Antoine: No, not really. It’s not that literal to me. We are positive dudes.
Jerôme: Wait a minute. I think it’s a good question. (Turns to Antoine) C’est présent quand-même, non?
(Thinks for a moment) I think François and I have been confronted with death at an early age. I do think it is something that gets out in our works. Antoine is right, we are positive, but I think that might also be because we are able to exorcise that darker side in our work.
(Antoine quickly slips out of the room)
Jerôme : I can get really stressed-out and I always expect the worst. I try to act funny all the time, but even confrontations like this are hard for me. I asked my girlfriend once if she thinks a lot about death and she said no. But for me it’s something I reflect upon, or something that flashes in my mind about every other day. I don’t know…
KNOTORYUS: I know what you mean.
Jerôme: It’s not an obsession though. I have other and stronger obsessions, but they are not suitable for this interview.
Jerôme: We –Antoine, François and I- never talk about the occult, or death in itself.
Jerôme: (to Antoine) On parle jamais de la mort entre nous…
Antoine: No, or if we do, it’s always with a twist. Like we said: skulls with party hats and skeletons holding pastel coloured balloons.
KNOTORYUS: Do you talk about religion, because one of my favourite Hell’O Monsters works shows a rat that has a crucifix dangling in front of it?
Antoine: Again, never seriously.
KNOTORYUS: Let me ask this differently. How old are you?
KNOTORYUS: So, we are that last generation that had to get baptized. Almost all of us went to catholic schools.
Antoine: Yes! And had to do our “holy communion”.
Jerôme: A part of my family are hardcore Catholics. I do think there’s a duality in our work. Sometimes it talks about personal stuff. Sometimes it’s a sort of commentary on general things that happen. It’s a language. You can use it in different ways. You can use it to condemn something, but you can also use it to crack a really good joke.
KNOTORYUS: Antoine, you’ll be glad to hear the serious part is done. Let’s talk about the funny stuff. Because it is true: your work does make me smile.
(Antoine happily snaps his fingers)
Jerôme: We like to act a fool. It’s important to us.
Antoine: It’s true. We are clowns!
Jerome: Also, life makes no sense.
KNOTORYUS: I’m a huge stand-up comedy fan. A week ago, we stayed at a fancy hotel in Amsterdam that was situated right next to a gritty comedy club. I suddenly knew what my idea of heaven was, although we still have to discuss line-up and catering. But: who are your favourite comedians?
(Antoine immediately starts rolling up his sleeves and shows me a huge Ron Burgundy tattoo.)
KNOTORYUS: This is amazing. Will Ferrell is one of our favourites, too!
Antoine: He’s my god!
KNOTORYUS: Which movie cracks you up every time you see it?
Antoine: I saw “The Big Lebowski” again last week, and it’s still so much fun to watch. But “Dumb and Dumber” is my all-time favourite. The second one is coming out next year, I think.
KNOTORYUS: I know! I’m scared and excited at the same time!
KNOTORYUS: Another thing I really like about your art are the patterns that you guys create. I have styling gigs going on, and I love designers that do great prints and aren’t afraid of mixing them. And you guys do both!
Jerôme: We’ve always worked with patterns even when painting or spraying on bigger surfaces. We love mixing patterns, whether they are tribal or “Memphis Group”-influenced.
KNOTORYUS: And that way you create new and interesting prints.
Jerôme: Yes, and our creatures could be from anywhere and nowhere. No gender, no nationality.
Antoine: There is the carnival-touch as well and these patterns are good to create those kinds of costumes with.
KNOTORYUS: Have you been approached by bigger brands or designers to create fabrics for them?
Antoine: Not the big international brands, but we did of course just design two patterns for Café Costume. We also just finished a collection for the French brand “Commune de Paris” which will be released in January. Working on those projects was a lot of fun.
KNOTORYUS: How do you guys want to evolve? When I talked to the OG Futura last year, for him it was all about connecting and meeting different people, having a voice, making the movement bigger… What is the bigger picture for Hell’O Monsters?
Antoine: I know we’ve collaborated with different people and we do a lot of exhibitions, but I want more. Hell’O Monsters needs to become its own brand.
Jerôme: Maybe we’ll set up a studio or something. But it needs to become something tangible and profitable. Doing 4 solo-exhibitions and a couple of group-expo’s a year is not enough any more. We need to build something more substantial, because if we don’t it’s done. Sure it’s nice to work on a certain drawing for weeks or even months, but if you don’t sell enough, it can’t continue. So we are looking forward to creating a strong structure for Hell’O Monsters.
KNOTORYUS: Do you have an example in mind of someone’s career you’d like to emulate?
Jerôme: That’s a difficult question, because nowadays you can’t just be an artist without thinking somewhat commercially and survive. But we want to keep control over our aesthetics and what we put out there as well.
Antoine : Shepard Fairey does a really good job with OBEY.
Jerôme: But he’s really big.
KNOTORYUS: Designing campaigns for Obama-big.
Antoine: Parra is a good example. He works with a lot of great brands, he releases his own gear and he does a lot of exhibitions. That would be perfect.
KNOTORYUS: Have you guys ever given away a painting to get into a girl’s pants?
Antoine: No. But we do give away too much work for free. When we're drunk we’re always like: “Drop by the atelier sometime and choose a drawing” And then we find ourselves a couple of weeks later with random folk at our front door going: “Remember me? You told me I could stop by and pick out any painting.”
KNOTORYUS: What’s the most precious piece of art you own that you didn’t make yourself?
Antoine: I don’t have a lot of art at my house. I have a little piece of wood in the shape of a Wu-Tang sign that a good friend gave me. That’s important to me. I have some work by Elzo.
KNOTORYUS: Are there any artists who’s work you can’t get enough off?
Antoine: Anything by Marcel Dzama.
Jerôme: Each time I look at “Tuin Der Lusten” by Jheronimus Bosch, I discover something new.
KNOTORYUS: Ok, final question! Since François wasn’t here for the interview, you have to tell us something about him nobody knows yet.
Antoine: He recently kissed one of our friends’ balls when he was drunk. But that’s been out there for a while.
(Thinks for a moment)
Either way, out of the three of us, he’s the perfect one.