With his title of “Double Bodypainting World Champion” won last July in Austria, Steek, the street artist, graffiti artist and bodypainter, is the pride of Guadeloupe. His pictorial works are also present on several walls on the island. We met him on his return from South Korea. In a few days, he will also go to India to show his artistic talents.
Steek, whose real name is Benoit Bottala, was born in France, 35 years ago. His father is an Armenian and his mother is a Franco-Italian. He arrived in Guadeloupe at the age of 5 with his mother, his father just died. “I am proud of my miscegenation (…) When my father died, my mother thought that we would be fine anywhere. I am a Guadeloupean, I defend and I love this country more than some who are born there”, said the artist who speaks Creole fluently.
Before he was well-known, the name of the artist was “Stik”. This nickname comes from “Mystik” (more precisely from “Natural Mystik”, the famous Bob Marley’s song). When he decided to export his art five years ago, he realized that someone else already had that name, so he changed the spelling and became “Steek”.
Indeed, in 2013, the artist is 30 years old, he left for Montreal, Canada, he needed to think about his personal and professional life. “I wanted to do an “update”, to know where I stood. I realized that among the 8 billion human beings and the many artists, I was nobody. Many local artists are famous only in Guadeloupe but abroad, nobody knows them and they do not want to put themselves in danger; some will surely take it very badly”, he said. To solve this problem, Steek started working hard, he started painting all the time and, today, he thinks he has advanced a lot.
A university degree in sport
The artist does not think that his undeniable talent comes from any gift. “The gift does not exist. Everything comes from what we learn from our mother’s tummy, from what was developed from an early age. For my part, I think my hands were more developed than my feet, otherwise I’ll be a football player or something else… My father was a tailor, my mother likes to do odd jobs. My mother always let me do what I wanted, I wanted to draw and paint, she let me do it. I’m a self-taught artist and my art school is the street”, Steek said.
Steek had a normal education and, after his baccalaureate, he enrolled at the Antilles-Guyane University in Fouillole where he obtained a sport degree (Sciences and techniques of physical and sports activities (STAPS); he was one of the first students who graduated in the special field “Adapted Physical Activity”. Then, he started to work at a private hospital and two associations on the island.
But, the young man decided to give up his profession to turn to art. “With the patients, the relationships were perfect, with the employers, it turned out badly. I had to wait nine months before being paid for the first time”, he said. So, he created his business. He launched a clothing brand called “Solead” (“lead” for “leader”), he painted t-shirts, he decorated people’s walls and at weekends, in a night club on the island, he was a “light DJ” that means he “harmonized” the lights with the music played by the DJ.
Painting in “fat cap”
He stopped other activities to devote himself only to painting, street art. “The street is the largest gallery in the world. I was inspired by the graffiti scene from the “old school”, by artists who were there before me. When I was very young, I looked at their work on the walls when, with my mother who liked to drive, we passed the streets on the island specially those of Pointe-à-Pitre and Basse-Terre. At 18, I had my driving license and I went with friends to paint walls. At that time, we stole spray-paint in shops so we did not waste, we had to save paint. Today, I can afford it, I paint in “fat cap”, in other words I paint as I want”, the artist said.
At the beginning of his career as a street artist, people asked him to decorate their walls, today the communities, the organizations are his customers too.
Now, Steek, the street artist, also presents his works in galleries and it’s not a problem for him: “I did not choose, I began to express myself on walls in the street without knowing where I was going. I like the pressure of the spray, I do not like the brush too much, I find it too soft. I have the chance to paint on three supports: wall, canvas and human body. The hardest thing for an artist is to express himself: I paint, I express myself, I let myself go”, he said.
Paying tribute to women
Steek is also an artist who depicts women a lot on his works but he denied that his intention was to make an object. “I paint women because I was brought up by my mother and women always helped me, it’s my way of highlighting them, of enhancing the beauty of their body. What’s more powerful and more funny than a man with feminist ideas! I paint women without ever making her vulgar”, he said.
Among his latest works, there are these beautiful young women depicted on walls in Jean Jaurès Street in Pointe-à-Pitre, a project realized as part of “Vil Awt” by the Établissement Public Foncier de la Guadeloupe (EPFG) to improve the image of “hollow teeth” or vacant spaces after demolitions of houses and buildings in city centres. “On one of these frescoes that I painted in one week, I wrote: “The body of a woman is not an object but a jewel”. All men asked me to erase this sentence because I compared the woman to an object; on the other hand, all women thanked me for comparing them to a jewel, they first saw the precious side… This shows that there is a problem of perception: men perceive women first as objects and do not see the word “jewel”; the day when this problem of perception will not exist any more, inequalities between men and women will be over”, Steek said.
In addition, these beautiful creatures do not exist only in his imagination: “I can be inspired by photos of women I see on social networks for example but I also meet them in Guadeloupe or elsewhere”, he explained.
For those who are wondering where are overweight women?, the artist answered: “I am working on women who are not thin as the codes of aesthetic beauty would want it (…).
A globetrotter artist
Today, Steek had the opportunity to travel a lot in order to present his art. He has just stayed in Seoul and Daegu in South Korea. He already went to the United States (New York, Miami and Las Vegas), Canada (Montreal), Germany (Hamburg and Berlin), England (London and Bristol), Spain (Madrid), Austria (Klagenfürt ), Slovenia, the Dominican Republic, Barbados… Soon, he will take the plane again to go to India where he is invited to paint two walls as part of a festival. “Generally, the organizers know me through social networks, they like my work and they invite me to participate in their events”, Steek said.
However, the artist has a great regret. He would like street art which is an artistic discipline recognized throughout the world to be more enhanced in Guadeloupe. “Here, we have a real street art scene with several groups of artists who can compete with foreign artists but nothing is done to make our island a street art destination. In Guadeloupe, we are second to none”, he said.
Steek is also a citizen who thinks about the important subjects of the world (including nature conservation) and when he spoke about it, there was a suppressed anger. “I think I’m more rebel than before, it’s probably because I am getting old and I reach the age of those people who make loads of stupid things, like destroying the planet (… ) The people are subjected to this handful of individuals who control the world and they follow it like sheep (…) I do not imagine I can change things on my own but if we are several to say the same things, it can snowball. I think artists can point out things, be spokespersons because we give interviews, for example, we can reach many people. But every artist does what he wants (…)”, he said.
“Bodypainting World Champion” in 2017
In 2017, Benoit Bottala’s career – aka Steek – passed an important milestone: he was crowned “Bodypainting World Champion” in Austria. “It’s a dream that became a reality”, said the artist. It should be noted that, since 2011, the young man participated in this great annual competition that brings together some 35 competitors from several countries. Since this year, the Regional Council of Guadeloupe gives him a grant, the Departmental Council of Guadeloupe and the Department of Cultural Affairs helped him once or twice… Despite his French nationality, Steek asked the organizers, every year, to register him as a candidate from Guadeloupe. During this two-day competition, competitors must present a model every day. The eight members of the jury – all are artists – judge the overall view, the interpretation of the theme by the competitor for one minute and thirty seconds and the technical qualities of the works.
In 2011, it was the shock: the Guadeloupean finished in second last place. Very persevering, steek will return there every year. In 2012, he ranked 9th; in 2013, 7th; in 2014, 6th; in 2015, after the presentation of his first model, he was ranked 1st in the competition, the next day after painting his second model, he was placed 4th; in 2016, he finally was on the podium by being placed 3rd.
“I had doubts in 2017, I was wondering how a “little” artist like me from Guadeloupe could win this title. A friend of mine in Canada had told me that he wrote his goal on his mirror so I had written on the mirror in my bathroom “World Champion” and I saw these words every morning when I got up and, after two weeks, my perception had changed, I started to tell myself that if I was a “little” Guadeloupean artist, I had to show them where my country was located, I started to visualize myself as a “champion” and to work”, the street artist told.
On the first day of the World Championship, the first model painted by Steek ranked 1st. At the hotel, the artist decided to change the colors he had to use the next day on his second model. “It was the first time I had liked something I had done right away. I did not see any fault. I was with my girlfriend, I did not say anything to anyone. We waited for five hours but I knew I had won the title”, he said.
“Bodypainting World Champion” in 2018
On July 15, 2018, Steek is again in Austria to defend his title, he is the only French and Guadeloupean representative, the themes are, the first day, “Glamour of the Past” and, the second day, “I had a Dream and in this Dream…” The Guadeloupean competitor is crowned “Double Bodypainting World Champion” in the “airbrush category”. “I felt less stressed because I had already realized my dream. When the results were announced, I was holding my mother’s hand and my model’s hand, when my mother squeezed my hand, I knew that I had won for her, I had carried out my mission“, he said.
In 2019, the double champion will travel to Austria to try to win for the third consecutive time the title of “Bodypainting World Champion”, what no one has yet done, he knows it will not be easy: “the first time, I won for my girl-friend, the second time for my mother, I would like to win a third time for myself. I will have to fight against myself and find motivation. I already have some idea (…)”, the artist said with a smile.
In spite of all his activities, Steek also finds time to relax. It’s true that one of his passions – painting – has become his profession. He often paints while listening to reggae o classical music “because there are no words“, he said. He practices bodyboarding because “I’m better in the water than on land”, he said. Sometimes he plays poker because “you are in a cocoon and it allows me to see that money is anything”, he said.
Benoit Bottala, alias “Steek”, street-artist, graffiti artist and bodypainter, now wants to realize three dreams: to win a 3rd title of “Bodypainting World Champion”, to paint on walls all over the world but get paid and to be represented in an art gallery.