Sébastien is a French street artist living in Berlin since 2019. Before the walls of the German capital welcomed him, this jack-of-all-trades style struggled a lot to pave his path. Here’s a look back at the journey of a self-taught artist who has finally found a cocoon in Berlin where his art can find a home.
“I don’t have the typical Berlin street artist background at all. I come from a tiny village in Franche-Comté, Northeast of France, where street art doesn’t even exist. I’m a self-taught artist. I’ve been drawing since I was a kid but I never studied it. I started painting on walls a year and a half ago, when I arrived in Berlin.”
“When you start doing artwork on buildings, it takes on a new dimension. You see that you help people’s mood by connecting them with a work of art. At least that’s what it does for me. One day, I went to see some giant murals in the 13th arrondissement in Paris. When you walk around there, you feel good, you start thinking you’d like an apartment nearby. Putting a work of art on a big grey concrete building, no matter what it looks like, makes people happy.”
The arrival in Berlin
Sébastien Nayener, alias Seboh Creation, 34, took a radical turn in 2019, unpacking his brushes in Berlin. “It’s my manager, Gabrielle, who used to live in Berlin, who told me that my style matched the German capital. We went there together for the first time in late 2018.” He presented his work to the managers of Teufelsberg, a famous street art venue, which was created on a former NSA listening station, south of Berlin. They told him he could come and paint there whenever he wanted. Yet, at that time, he had never touched a spray-paint can in his life.
“I started here in Berlin, with an organization called Paint your first graffiti, run by a French guy. That’s where I learned the basics.” He is apprehensive about the use of spray paint: “You don’t have direct contact with the medium, so it’s disturbing,” he says. Seb could talk for hours about street painting. About the spiritual symbols he uses to “transpose a story” with his own language. About his connection with the walls he paints on. He could talk about the hours of work he spends, perched on his ladder, under the scorching sun of June, much like the hard wind of December, bringing back to life the many forgotten walls of the German capital. “It’s another dimension I love in street art: bringing abandoned walls back to life. The old people often come to me and tell me they appreciate my work.”
The discovery of urbex
To sharpen his painting skills, Seb draws on abandoned walls. And that’s just great for him since there are a lot of them in Berlin. To find the best spots, he does urbex (urban exploration, which consists of discovering abandoned places) with Guillaume, an urbex enthusiast he met at Teufelsberg. “It quickly became addictive,” he admits. Discovering architectural gems in the middle of nowhere, sometimes climbing walls, dodging guards, or explaining his artistic project to them: that’s how Seb finds the concrete canvases he covers with his art. “One day, I explained to a guard that I just wanted to paint on one of the walls of the building, that I wasn’t there to degrade it. He let me in.”
Seb flirts with legality, he knows it, “but who do you want me to ask for permission?” he says ironically. These places have become parts of his daily life, far away from the debaucherous fortresses that is the Berlin nightlife and away from the tourist centre. His favourite neighbourhoods are not the popular Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain or Prenzlauer Berg areas, but rather Pankow, Lichtenberg or Weissensee. Here he discovers dilapidated and empty rooftops with a breathtaking view of the TV tower, abandoned hospitals and even old bunkers.
Gender inequality and spiritual symbols
“Berlin is a huge playground for every street artist,” he likes to repeat. And with good reason: inspiration is present on almost every street corner. “When I walk around Berlin, I see street art everywhere, and it gives me ideas.” His work is inspired by his two favorite subjects: gender inequality and animal abuse. Behind his big tattooed arms, Seb hides an astonishing sensitivity that he exorcises with a spray can. “I find the difference in status between men and women ridiculous, outdated. It pisses me off,” he asserts.
The work on the wall of Teufelsberg represents a samurai woman. Named Onna-bugeishas, these Japanese women fought on the same level as men during the Middle Ages. But these historical facts have been forgotten
Taking advantage of the popularity of Teufelsberg, he chose to convert what was on his mind into large and colourful displays. “The work on the wall of Teufelsberg represents a samurai woman. Named Onna-bugeishas, these Japanese women fought on the same level as men during the Middle Ages. But these historical facts have been forgotten, which is why I decided to bring them to life on this wall.”
His speciality lies in the symbols and representations that are hidden in the details of the work. Thus, he has created his own database of spiritual symbols from various civilizations (Japanese, Egyptian, Viking, etc.). He also uses it for personalized works that he is asked to create, for therapists, for example, who wish to decorate their practices with a unique painting. “The person tells me their personal story and I adapt it in an artistic way. During the discussion, I have visions of parts of the painting. Then I translate it through drawings of animals, according to their spiritual meaning, and through ancestral symbols.”
“I didn’t fit in”
Prior to this, Seb had a disjointed professional career. He started in the national police force. But after three years in a snatch squad, he resigned: “I was just a pawn there”. He then went back to university to become a sports teacher. After 5 years working “like a slave”, he failed, twice, to obtain the final degree. He was 29 years old back then. It was a cold shower. “I realized I didn’t fit into these institutions, which have a lots of rules,” he says. He finally randomly enrolled in a carpentry training course. “I couldn’t even hold a screwdriver,” he laughs. Yet he finished his course and even got a job at a kitchen installation company. But that didn’t interest him.
This is the moment he chose to return to his first love: drawing. To clear his head, just like that, on weekends. “I created a Master Yoda dressed as a Run-DMC and posted it on Facebook. A friend of mine contacted me: ‘Are you selling it?‘. It hadn’t even occurred to me. But that’s how it started. I was doing little drawings in A4 size, for the boys at the uni.” At the time, he was drawing his inspiration from Pinterest or Instagram and adapting them with his personal touch.
Little by little, he improved his stroke of a pen and exhibited in a restaurant. Then he was contacted by Gabrielle, his manager. And one day, he took the plunge: he quit and set up his own business to make drawing his main job. “I didn’t know anything about art or entrepreneurship,” he says. But in the end, my previous career wasn’t in vain: the police force gave me rigour, university taught me how to write essays, training in carpentry gave me a grounding in accountancy, and that’s important when you start your own business.”
Hard times in Berlin
In Berlin, despite all the positive signs, not everything is easy. “When I arrived, I spoke no German and very little English,” he confesses. Like everyone else, he struggles to find accommodation. The language barrier isolates him, although his progress in Shakespeare’s language is beginning to bear fruit. To make ends meet, he delivers pizzas. At 34, he has only one regret: that he didn’t make this decision sooner. “That’s why I make sacrifices for this wall. I’ve already wasted too much time” he smiles. Slowly but surely, the former police officer is making a name in the Mecca of European street art. “Here, things develop naturally, I don’t need to fight. People are open, they don’t look down on me,” he says. In Berlin, the walls seem to open up easier than anywhere else…
Seb’s favorite street art places
– The Graffiti Corner legal wall (Böcklinstrasse 1, 10245 Berlin Friedrichshain)
– The former Domjüch hospital in Neustrelitz, about 2 hours north of Berlin
– The Teufelsberg, a former NSA listening station, built on a hill in Grünewald, and turned into a street art paradise
– The abandonned building of the Alt Buch 74 (Karow)
– To find more urbex places: www.abandonedberlin.com