François Morel, also known as @Mo_Signs, is a lettering artist based in Paris, France. Between his studio and his various work assignments, there’s a unique cargo-bike he rides everywhere - hand-painted and without electrical assistance! François, is an avid cyclist who knows Paris like the back of his hand. From trendy tattoo studios to traditional local restaurants, he makes his mark across the French capital one brush stroke at a time. We met with him to talk about his craft, his projects and why he lives in Paris.
Bonjour François, why did you choose to be a lettering artist?
I was always attracted to graphic design, and more so, lettering. When I was 12 years old a friend father brought two books from a trip to New York, Subway Art and Spray Can Art. These books were about graffiti in the 1970s. I became very intrigued by the idea that these guys, who lived in impoverished areas, could make up their own name and have them appear everywhere in the city. They were using the codes of advertising to spread their names everywhere - walls, subways and I just thought it was awesome! I started doing the same.
I wasn't able find anyone to teach me. The few veterans in the field didn’t want to share their knowledge. They were afraid to lose clients even though there are only about 15 people who do this type of work in Paris.
Shop signs, I’ve always liked them - since I was a little kid actually. I don’t really know why. I didn’t really know that you could make a career out of it so I naturally gravitated towards graphic design. I wanted to make CD covers and, thanks to a few good encounters, I was able to work for a few big names. As I got older though, I got tired of it. I felt the marketing aspect was taking too much room leaving little room for the art of it all. So, 7 years ago I left everything and remembered that, as a kid, I used to love hand-painted shop signs.
In the beginning I wasn't able to find anyone to teach me. The few veterans in the field didn’t want to share their knowledge. They were afraid to lose clients even though there are only about 15 people who do this type of work in Paris and its surroundings. I ended up finding a few workshops in the Netherlands hosted by an American named Mike Meyer and a French-Canadian named Pierre Tardif. One of the workshops I joined was run by Joby Carter, an Englishman who was also a carnival artist. His family owned antique carousels and, in the winter, they would restore all the paints. It was beautiful! Learning with someone like that, you get to know how to get a brush ready, how to clean it… Everything else is practice. This is how you learn a craft.
So, you’ve never really stopped graffiti?
My friends tell me that I was meant to be a lettering artist because they’ve always seen me painting letters. But, to me, graffiti is really, not at all, the same thing. It’s not the same type of work on the letters, the drawings. It’s not the same medium, tools, or rules either. And I never ever sign my work. I don’t do graffiti anymore, but I continue to draw in the city. When I walk around I see my work, here and there. Sometimes my friends call me to say things like « I went by this place this morning, I saw what you did. » I try to work on atypical projects or in unusual spots. For example, this summer I’ll be working in Spain on the next Wes Anderson movie. These types of experiences are fantastic! But I do try to keep this connection to the city, to the rebellious side of graffiti. Not long ago I started this project called « Illegold »: I would paint things in gold in the street, incognito style. I like to keep things poetic.
I try to work on atypical projects or in unusual spots. For example, this summer I’ll be working in Spain on the next Wes Anderson movie!
Your bike is pretty unique, I’m sure it garners a lot of attention! Why did you choose this mode of transportation?
I don’t have a driving license so, having a utilitarian bicycle is a must! I bought it when I started as a lettering artist. It turned out to also be a great tool for communication. People take pictures of my bike; they like it and want to talk about it. I was already doing a lot of road cycling before that. I’ve loved cycling ever since I was a kid, and I follow cycling events. For the movie I’ll be working on this summer, I even asked the crew to add my bike as extra luggage on the plane ticket! When I went to New York, I also brought my bike with me on the plane, it’s the best way to see things. When you use the subway you don’t really get to see much of the city and I wanted to see everything! When I travel I want to walk around, spot a nice coffee shop and spontaneously decide to stop and take a break. With the subway, you go from one block to the other quickly but you don’t get to see things.
I’ve always loved cycling. I used to work as a bike messenger and I rode 70 to 100km every day. I also created a road cycling club with some friends and I follow cycling events. In Paris, things are starting to change, they’ve added a lot of dedicated lanes and more people are adopting cycling. It's still not evenly distributed, but there’s progress.
I don’t have a driving license so, having a utilitarian bicycle is a must!
How many bicycles do you have?
I have four: my cargo-bike, a cyclocross, a road bike, and an old bicycle. I use the cargo-bike the most. The others are equipped with clip-in pedals. So even if I just go out to have a drink, I take the cargo. I can also put the kids in it, and you always have a friend who has something heavy they need to carry. Mine isn’t electric, I don’t want to cheat! It’s like hand-lettering, I don’t do stickers so I don’t ride an electric bike.
I love this cargo bike, I take it out even when it rains. I can put all my tools in it, even my 16-kilo ladder! I’ve had it for 7 years now and it’s still standing. It’s a Bullit - one of the first cargo-bike of this type by a Danish brand named Larry vs Harry. I don’t give it any special treatment or anything - it regularly takes a lot of beating but it’s a real tank! It’s very strong, easy to ride and you can go anywhere with it. It’s not the same feeling as riding a regular bicycle, there’s some getting used to it but it’s really cool. They even organize races and competitions for cargo bikes now.
You’ve always lived in Paris, is it by choice or because you have to?
I like to live here. Part of it is really tough. The mentality is difficult, but at the same time, when I go on holidays, come back and pass by the Louvres, I always feel very lucky… Paris is really beautiful! I’m very detail-oriented, I like to notice the little things in the city. When I see an open door, I tend to go into the building and sometimes there are some crazy-amazing things: beautiful gardens, astounding stained glass panels. For example, last week I was passing by rue Fontaine (Fontaine street), near Pigalle, there was an open porch. I stepped in and there it was, a beautiful 1886 house with a private garden - in the middle of the buildings! In Paris, there are so many things and so many hidden things. I don’t travel a lot during the year and I think that’s because I feel in my element here. If I were to move elsewhere I think I would end up missing it. I grew up in Montmartre. I used to visit my great grand-mother on Wednesdays. The Poulbots would play the tambourine, we would hear the glazier scream down the building. I have this nostalgia, a connection to the past that I think fits well with the work I do.
A real Parisian is just someone who loves Paris.
A word of advice for people who want to feel like real Parisians when in Paris?
I don’t think there’s a Parisian profile. When friends visit from somewhere else, I usually lend them a bike and take them around. We go through streets and alleys. We spend time people-watching from one café terrace to the other. Even if the coffee is often shitty, it’s an atmosphere - it’s that Parisian cliché side of things that I actually like. A real Parisian is just someone who loves Paris.
Author: Vincent Nageotte | Photography: Vincent Nageotte | Translation: Awatif Bentahar