For 20 years he’s been invading cities as varied as London; Thimphu, Bhutan; L.A.; and Kathmandu with mosaic aliens derived from the 1980s video game Space Invaders. An anonymous French street artist with a penchant for pixels, he calls himself Invader and his work is on corners and walls in 30 countries worldwide.
“After putting up my first mosaic in the street, I knew that it was a strong gesture. And the fact it was a space invader gave me the idea to invade (urban) space,” he tells L.A. Weekly in an email exchange, eschewing an interview in order to protect his anonymity. “I quickly realized that such a project had to be done on an enormous scale and that I had to work at a planetary level. My main statement is that digital technologies have invaded our world for better or for worse, and that humanity has entered a new era of its history.”
And as of Nov. 17, he is back in Los Angeles. Ground Zero of the new campaign is Over the Influence gallery, in the heart of the Arts District, where his new show, Into the White Cube, in on view through Dec. 23. One wall holds mosaic variations on his signature character and other popular works, while another is pasted with photos of the work in situ in cities around the globe.
A massive pixelated slice of pizza from a wall in Manhattan hangs in the first gallery, across from the Dude from The Big Lebowski. Turn the corner and an invader takes flight on angel wings. Turn another corner and you have Invader’s first publicly displayed works on canvas; pixelated fruit, hand gestures and a skull beneath a burning candle.
“In the gallery space, the canvases are something fresh and new, obviously using a similar format from what we know him for,” says Over the Influence director Guy Rusha. “He’s trained as a painter at one of the greatest art schools in France. He’d been working on those paintings for a couple of years and he wanted to share his new work with an audience that adores him.”
Raised in an ordinary middle-class Parisian family, Invader grew up surrounded by artworks since childhood. In the 1980s, he graduated from an unnamed liberal arts university and attended the esteemed Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he says he received a good education and learned a lot about fine art.
A fan of the game Space Invaders, he tried painting images of the pixelated aliens but soon found mosaic tiles suited his subject better. Unable to find a gallery that would represent him, he began placing his mosaics in selected locations around Paris, then started traveling to regional cities lugging a bag full of tiles and grout. His family members think he’s a bathroom tiler because, to protect his anonymity, he has never told them what he does.
“Street art has been a way to take a shortcut through the system. I wanted my work to have an audience without playing the game of networking with the art world,” says Invader, whose alias works sell for $20,000 to $300,000. “The established galleries saw me as an outsider, but some young galleries started to come to me, like Magda Danysz in Paris, or Lazarides in London, and a few more who believed in the movement before the establishment.”
Since the explosion of street art’s popularity around the 2010 release of the Oscar-nominated documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, followed a year later by MOCA’s extremely popular Art in the Streets exhibit, the art establishment has struggled with the genre. Even when carved out of a wall and put up for auction, street art is still nearly impossible to authenticate, making it virtually immune to monetary byways of the art world. In recent years, many have turned to the studio to make art they can sell, while maintaining a presence in the street.
“We broke the rules of the system and some people did not appreciate that. At that time, street artists were not taken seriously. But I think nowadays this is less and less true because today you can’t deny that street art is actually one of (if not the most) important art movements of our time,” says Invader, who rigorously chronicles his work with photos, maps and published “invasion guides.”
Recently, Banksy’s Girl With Balloon, which made headlines after self-destructing at auction in October, was followed by news that street artist Ron English has purchased Banksy’s Slave Labour mural for $730,000, and plans to whitewash it in protest of the art market’s monetization of street art. Both episodes highlight a tension that, though lately subdued, nevertheless persists.
“I hate it when artists get pigeonholed into one thing or another. Great work is great work, whether it’s street art, or photography, or sculpture or conceptual art. Space obviously started in the street and still continues to make work in the street,” Rusha says. “He’s remained relevant his entire career and is probably more relevant today than he ever has been, which is extremely rare. More people will see his work than most artists alive because of where he’s placed them.”
At a glance, this author counts invaders in Echo Park, LAX, downtown, Hollywood, Highland Park, Koreatown, Culver City and Venice, not to mention every letter of the Hollywood Sign, beginning with the “D” on New Year’s Eve 1999. Arrested in L.A. in 2011, and in New York two years later, Invader is banned in several countries. He doesn’t have to keep producing street art, but he will. Fans can be sure of finding new invaders over the next month, with the help of an unnamed local accomplice, though neither he nor his L.A.-based cousin Thierry Guetta, aka street artist Mr. Brainwash, are saying where.
“Working in the streets is exciting because people can discover and appreciate it,” the 49-year-old Invader says. “I know that some of my fans travel around the world to find my work in the streets. For them, it’s a real treasure hunt, which is, I guess, an adventure much more exciting than visiting a museum.”
Invader is on view at Over the Influence in downtown L.A. through Dec. 23.