On a recent trip to France
, I had some time in Paris and wanted to do something “different,” something that I hadn’t done before. Of course, there’s no lack of things from which to choose, and when I came across a walking tour of street art and graffiti, I signed on before I left.
While I enjoy “good” art and design wherever I see it, I personally had a tough time appreciating street art and graffiti. So I saw this tour as something that might better explain this new art movement and my appreciation for it.
During our two-hour walking tour in the Belleville area with our very knowledgeable and personable guide, Eloise, I came to understand graffiti and street art. Eloise wasn’t looking for fans, but had a sincere and academic’s interest in providing insight into this newer art form.
Said to have originated in the U.S. in the 1970s, graffiti’s focus is mostly lettering and typography made illegally with spray cans for fellow “writers” by crews and meant more for each other and to compete with each other. Some graffiti “writers” want the public’s notice, and some sell in galleries. The level of sophistication of their art ranges widely. The best graffiti writers have been practicing for many years, and, perhaps surprisingly, many are in their 40s.
Being illegal hasn’t stopped graffiti writers and, no doubt, is a part of the game. While the minimum fine used to be 3,750 euros if caught, it is now 7,500 euros. According to how serious your case is if you are caught, a graffiti writer can face up to seven years in prison and a 100,000-euro fine. Clearly, there’s a subculture at work here: the world of graffiti is heavily coded, with rules of hierarchy and practices between different crews, changing names to avoid detection by the police, and so on.
Some of the more fascinating graffiti art we saw was a mix of calligraphy and graffiti known as “calligraffiti,” which focuses on the beauty and art of the lettering. In Islam, the very act of writing is already something solemn and sacred, and Arabic artists like “El-seed” are masters of calligraffiti.
Street art, as opposed to graffiti, is meant for a larger public audience, is image-based, and often uses other means besides spray cans. A lot of it is often executed with permission. The main characteristic of street art makes references to popular culture that are often very recognizable.
Street art is often made with the use of stencils or paste-up (where the art is made in advance and glued to the wall). We saw many examples on our walk in Belleville, from Manyoly, Kam, and Laurène. 3D street art is also on the rise, from the painted plaster breasts by IntraLaRue or the wood or plastic figures by G’Zup. And then there’s Space Invader’s mosaic tiles that have popped up in many cities around the world and who now has his own app, “Flash Invader.”
Street art also means to compete with advertising, which is readily “in our face” everywhere we look. Replacing advertisements with street art has been an effort by one artist collective here, where all the advertisements in District 11 were replaced with street art in one night. They repeatedly hijacked the advertisement wall that was rue Oberkampf, until eventually it became a street art wall. An artist is selected by the association Le Mur
, the work is visible for two weeks, then it is replaced by another artist.
Belleville is one of the most diverse areas of Paris in terms of population. There’s a Chinatown along with a North African population, people from Central Africa, and Portuguese… the lower cost housing attracts artists, so the area still buzzes with art initiatives, though the area is gentrifying fast.
If you’d care to be immersed in the street art scene on your visit to Paris, and appreciate it all the more with a knowledgeable guide, we can readily arrange your tour. Thanks to Eloise for the insights, and If you’d like to see some more of the work, you can check out these links:
Berns, COST du crew TPK, Blek le Rat, and Hazul.