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Larger-Than-Life Street Art

"When you're on the side of a building, 30 meters above the ground, attached to just a rope with nothing but air around you — it makes you feel small! And I love that feeling", says Mahn Kloix. This building is located in the town of Rillieux-la-Pape, France; it was donated to an artist residency in 2023 before its planned demolition. Mahn is a street artist. Hanging on a rope twenty meters up, he's working on a piece of tremendous proportions, with a 30 x 20-meter blank facade as his canvas.

April 18 2024

Rope access and confined space

2023 © PETZL Distribution - Hugo Pedel / vue d'iCi

His piece depicts a man reaching up towards a huge butterfly. To make art of this magnitude with the perfect proportions, Mahn uses a grid system that allows him to easily reproduce an image at the desired scale. "It's nothing new; artists were painting frescos in chapels like this during the Renaissance", he explains. To create his design, Mahn needs to know the wall dimensions so that he can get the proportions just right on a sheet of paper. Then, he draws a grid over it. Once he's on the side of the building, "all" he has to do is transfer the grid onto the wall, marking the four corners that correspond to the squares on the paper... just a hundred times bigger! It's the crucial first stage that determines how the painting will turn out.

"I'm happy when a rope access technician can help me out because placing all the markers takes a long time.” In Rillieux, rope access tech, Ivan Muscat, jumps in to help. He spends all day drawing more than 300 tiny crosses on the wall (which is 30 meters tall and 10 meters wide). Once the first few markers are visible, Mahn gets to work. Time is limited: they only have five days. With the reference drawing tucked into a bucket hanging from his harness, Mahn spray paints directly onto the wall, tracing a faint chalk line. For this piece, the background is the building's untouched beige plaster. There's no way to erase or hide any imperfection. "There's a 'live' element that I really love", explains Mahn.


2023 © PETZL Distribution - Hugo Pedel / vue d'iCi


A "Live" Performance

To move across the building's facade, Mahn is "steered" by Ivan, who has installed anchors, pulley systems, and rope protection on the roof. "He invented a triangular rope system. He hauled me up, lowered me, and moved me side to side based on my requests over the radio. And he did it all with sheer muscle! It saved me a ton of time and energy." On a 300 square meter canvas, moving around can be complicated; it’s time-consuming and physically exhausting to make the piece. Even with a comfortable harness, Mahn struggles to sit in the work seat for longer than 6 hours with breaks throughout. "I'm not a rope access technician by trade!", he says with a smile. "I have to make the most of my physical capabilities so I can continue to work over a long period of time. The main constraint is managing effort... but I'm starting to get the hang of it!" Especially because the elevator doesn't always work. When that's the case, Mahn has to start from the ground and ascend the rope, which is far more strenuous.

As for the paint palette, it sits in a bucket attached to the harness, along with cans of spray paint, brushes, chalk, and the original drawing. “It's a bit of a mission every time. It's like multi-pitch climbing — don't forget anything and don't drop anything!” Mahn sometimes uses a bucket truck when painting building murals. It's a lot more convenient for moving around and carrying equipment. However, he's not a fan. "With ropes, there's a challenging aspect of creating the entire piece without using machines. I find that beautiful."


2023 © PETZL Distribution - Hugo Pedel / vue d'iCi


Job Title: Artist / Rope Access Technician

The challenge is even more daunting at night. Based on an idea from videographer Hugo Pedel, the project turned into "light painting" after dark. Hugo's on the ground, behind the camera. Ivan's on the roof, managing the rope systems. And Mahn retraces the contours of his mural by the light of a headlamp. The group has established a level of trust that allows Hugo, the only one with a full view, to orchestrate the two-hour operation over the phone. "It's physically very tiring", reports Mahn, "Ivan moved me around a lot and I did everything blind. But it was really fun and the result is incredible."

Using ropes to paint a giant mural on the side of a building is nothing less than a work-at-height operation and is subject to the same regulations. Hence the need for a team of two. In addition to installing the equipment and ropes, as well as helping Mahn navigate his vertical artwork, Ivan also oversees the operation with his rope access technician hat on. He marks out and secures the worksite on the ground, manages Mahn's safety, sends down any equipment he might have forgotten on the roof, and "cheers up the team when things get tough, because it was cold and rainy!”

Sometimes, the work can also be like art for the rope access techs. "When I see large surfaces that can be spray-painted, I show it to the rope access techs and they do the rest! It gives them the opportunity to do things they've never done before,” says Mahn. It can also be the other way around: Mahn is now trained in rope access and preparing to complete his professional certificate for rope access technicians.


2023 © PETZL Distribution - Hugo Pedel / vue d'iCi


A Message for the Masses

Mahn's art always has a message. Words paying homage, words of encouragement — for whistle-blowers, activists, people who are fighting for a better world. For victims of oppression, refugees, and for the environment. These messages are crafted to be shared on the street, where they can be seen by all. "I’ve worked with Amnesty International and I'm planning to work with SOS Mediterranean. There's an aspect of social and environmental commitment in my work. That's why it belongs in public spaces", explains Mahn. 

These days, certain pieces are preserved for a city’s cultural heritage, but urban art remains ephemeral. Once given to the world, it's doomed to be covered over or removed. Such is the fate of the butterfly man who appeared in five days on a building that's slated for demolition. "There will be a time lapse of the building's destruction with the mural disappearing little by little. We chose this image to represent the fragile nature of the environment. We'll see it torn down in large sections with an excavator, bringing an additional layer to the message I wanted to get across."


2023 © PETZL Distribution - Hugo Pedel / vue d'iCi

Urban art came into Mahn's life over a dozen years ago. While he’s an artist painting on larger-than-life canvases, he didn't start his career painting on a rope. First, he painted posters and hung them up in public places. Then, posters turned into painting directly on walls. And the walls eventually turned into bigger and bigger facades. At every step of his career as an artist, Mahn has taken on new challenges. "I enjoy improvising and experimenting; I love meeting new people and making new things."

And he has no shortage of new ideas. Since coming together for the Rillieux-la-Pape project, this trio has become a group of friends. They're getting back together soon to create new pieces with exciting hurdles to overcome: "I love the “living” aspect, the challenge of not knowing if you're going to succeed..."


Watch this episode of "Height, Their Daily Life": 

Article written by Anne Jankeliowitch

2023 © PETZL Distribution - Hugo Pedel / vue d'iCi

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