Saturday, April 7, 2012

Spring Break Street Art in Paris

During my nine days chaperoning the French exchange around the city of light, I saw quite a lot of graffiti, from simple territorial scrawls to more artistic stuff. Here are some tidbits from St. Germain des Près, slightly to the north of the school where I was staying, in the 6th Arrondisement.

It took me several days to realize just how much street art was around to see. These playful characters on the do-not-enter signs appeared in many locations, but I only thought to snap the last few that I noticed. 

If you've seen Exit Through the Gift Shop, you'll remember Space Invader, who makes mosaics of creatures from the game that gave him his name. His cousin is the film's subject, a street art idiot savant.

These colorful whirls began to jump out at me after several days. I wonder how many there are in all. These three shots are from fairly distinct neighborhoods in Paris - St. Germain, the Marais, and Notre-Dame de Lorette. Clearly, this artist is making an effort at display. Note more of Space Invader's handiwork in the final shot. 

What does all this street art mean? Surely this rather distinctive feature of the Parisian urban landscape tells us something about the mood of its inhabitants. First, like American graffiti during the 1970s, some of the simpler stuff must be a cry of existence. Here I am! Near my school, one perpetrator had used the bars on a window to climb so that he could get his tag ten or more feet off the surface of the street. Why did he take such pains to make so permanent a mark unless he felt unseen?

Perhaps there is a similar theme in the more elaborate works I've highlighted here. There may also be some mimicry at work, too - the English prankster, Banksy, has popularized street art enormously over the past five years. There is something appealling about its mildly subversive, nocturnal nature. It must be a thrill to see one's handiwork prominently featured along some of the most popular walkways in the city. Most of all, however, I see playfulness in these creations. These artists are careful about their work. Their modifications are slight but deliberate. They don't fundamentally change the purpose of their wall and signpost canvasses but reimagine them to make us laugh and think. For all of Paris' celebrated beauty, the city within La Periphèrique itself is remarkably homogenous - row after row of beautiful nineteenth century townhouses. Hard as it is for us tourists to imagine, Paris may be a little monotonous to its inhabitants. Street art adds color, variety, and humor.  

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