LEARNING THE LANGUAGE OF ART ON THE STREETS
From simple tagging to large-scale commissioned murals, street art has become a familiar fixture in our modern world. Learning a little more about the techniques, iconography and motivations of the artists themselves can help give you an understanding of the public art you come across in your own city and on travels abroad.
And if those travels find you in Paris, I can highly recommend taking one of the Underground Paris walking tours with Street Art Paris. Different tours are offered each focusing on art in specific parts of the city. Lasting about two hours – where you will be walking, talking, looking and discussing. And if you’ve been listening and engaging, you should come away a language for reading street art. A street art literacy per se. For Paris. And around the world. As it turns out, this language is fairly universal.
Underground Paris Walking Tour with Street Art Paris
Street Art Paris is a network of artists, documentarians, producers, educators, which presents the Parisian and international graffiti-street art culture.”
We recently visited Paris for our winter break this February. With the timing of our arrival, we only had one option and chose an Underground Paris walking tour that traipsed around the Left Bank – in the 13th arrondissement – a neighborhood known as Butte-aux-Cailles. I had never been to this part of Paris, so seeing a new side of the city was an added bonus.
STREET ART PARIS TOUR | LEFT BANK
We were met by our guide Virginie at the iconic Wallace Fountain at the top of Rue de la Butte aux Cailles. There were 12 in our group this Sunday – including my family of five. We soon discovered that we hailed from all over – China, Israel, Spain, Denmark/United States plus a pair of French locals looking to learn some insider information about the art in their neighborhood.
For two hours we toured the alleyways and rues around the 13th arrondissement with Virginie. It was freezing and a little wet, but her enthusiasm for the art and techniques, kept us charmed and engaged. Virginie wanted us to come away with an idea of how street art is made and showed us different techniques and materials.
She gave us clues to discern whether specific street art was commissioned or unsanctioned. We discussed the legality of that unsanctioned public art and what fines, pressures and politics artists face in Paris when caught. She asked questions. And some with no answers. But they made us all think. Like the art itself sometimes. And we saw lots of art.
MOST COMMON TYPES OF STREET ART
SPRAY CAN GRAFFITI
This is probably the most well-known type of street art and what first comes to mind when you think of graffiti artists. A possibly hooded figure with a spray can who works late at night in dark corners defacing property. But it can be so much more than a quickly scrawled tag.
Spray can artists’ work is spontaneous and organic, as the piece has to be produced on the spot. A unique ephemeral piece of art that can only be viewed in that one place. Because of the time required to create a piece specifically in one place, there is a greater susceptibility for being caught. Virginie relayed the high price for fines and potential jail time for repeat offenders.
But not all graffiti is illegal and we were shown how to look for labels denoting commissioned pieces. The French Mayor for the 13th arr. has placed a priority on encouraging commissioned pieces as an attempt to draw people to this less visited area of Paris. And when you see some of the gorgeous murals – you’ll want to make a bee-line for Butte-aux-Cailles.
EXAMPLES IN PARIS:
SETH GLOBEPAINTER | Julien Malland | France
Seth is the street name for artist Julien Malland, a Parisian painter active since the 1990’s who now does large-scale murals all over the world. He is best known for his iconic children whose faces you will rarely see. Looking into buildings, through windows, into rainbows – like the example below near the Nationale Metro Station in the 13th arrondissement, Paris.
Flex | FrANCE
Known for bright and colorful googly-eyed creatures and faces, Flex brings a fun style to the streets around Paris. Are you not entertained?
In an effort to lessen an artist’s exposure to getting caught – or whether just to retain their mysterious aura of anonymity – the use of a stencil can afford expediency in application. The artist prepares the design and stencil at home and then can administer the design on the street with relative efficiency. Unlike the spray can graffiti, a stencil can be reused allowing for a repetition of iconography in different places about town. Because of this, stencil artists were originally not afforded the same street cred that traditional spray can users had garnered over the years.
But an artist’s use of different colors and layering of different stencil elements can make room for that originality and uniqueness from site to site. Large format stencils can help artists create huge wall murals and are now used by the world famous street artists like Shephard Fairy (of Obey Giant fame) and Christian Guémy (known as C215).
EXAMPLES IN PARIS:
Miss.tic | France
Miss.Tic has been adding her graphic works and words to the walls of Paris since the 80’s, back when women and use of stencils were frowned upon in this tight-knit community. Her prolific body of work and persistence has proved her popularity over the years. Her pieces most often use the female figure and have moved beyond walls and into galleries and fetch a fair price.
L’art et la vie ne font qu’un.”
Art and life are one.
EZKStreetArt | ErikZeKing | France
Erik Ze King is a self-titled “artivist” and believes that street art should always bring a message. His #ArtAgainstPoverty uses modern iconography and a play on words (French words) to make people stop and think.
Labou | UK
Labou is a French street artist currently living and painting all over London. We were lucky to see a new piece by the artist who is known for her large-scale stencil work that integrates with its environment. Her technical skill is evident and her bold use of color so fun.
C215 | Christian Guémy | France
If you know street art, you are probably already familiar with Christian Guémy or C215, a street name inspired by the jail cell he spent time in. C215 is one of the world’s foremost stencil artists and believes that art can change the world. Although he makes money for commissioned works like the cat seen here, he still makes unsanctioned art for the people. His skill and compositions are insanely good.
Designed and printed off-site, the paste-up affords the same efficiency and potential for repetition as stencils. Made of paper and then pasted up on walls around town, in Paris this method affords less financial punishment if caught. Asked to peel your own piece off the wall by police is one option to rectify any offense. But often the principal of destroying your own work overrides and paying the fine deemed lower on the sliding emotional scale for many artists according to Virginie. And while paste-ups can seem to offer redundancy of imagery, their temporary nature leads to an acceptance of their repetitive application by the street art community.
EXAMPLES IN PARIS:
Three-dimensional street art is just that. 3D. It stands out. Literally. From the wall. Often this leads to an even greater temporary-ness. This art sticks out. It is touched. It is meant to be. But in doing so it can be damaged. Knocked off. Destroyed. These artists often put their pieces in places that make use of the existing physical elements on a wall or building.
EXAMPLES IN PARIS:
Intra Larue | France
Once you’ve seen one of Intra Larue’s brightly painted plaster boobs around Paris, it will be difficult not to notice them everywhere. Placed carefully for your amusement, Intra Larue wants to destigmatize the female breast, unsexualize it. My daughter found them funny. It must be working.
Urban Solid | Italy
Urban Solid is an Italian duo whose specific aim is to create urban 3D graffiti. Truly global artists like many of the others featured on our tour, Urban Solid’s pieces are meant to make us think and to make us smile. Virginie showed how this specific piece in Buttes-aux-Cailles has been preserved and not painted over by the authorities despite the questionable legality of its placement. Take a close look in the photo below, you can see the beige paint carefully applied around the sculpture.
Invader | France
Not exactly 3D, but not paint or stenciled either – the fun and familiar works of French artist Invader are meant to make us smile. One of the most famous, but still anonymous artists in the world, Invader has probably the broadest reach of his work. He actually has a piece that was sent to space. He has created an app that allows you to snap pics of his pieces and earn points – a genius way to get you to engage and let him have up to date imagery of how his works are withstanding out in the world.
After a few hours with our charming guide Virginie, we were launched back into Paris armed with a language to look at street art. And once you start looking, you’ll find it everywhere. Colorful, charming, provoking or just pretty – public art in Paris is available for all.
GOOD TO KNOW:
€ 15 per person
Belleville street art tour – in English
107 rue Oberkampf, 75011 Paris
Left Bank street art tour – in English
29 Rue de la Butte aux Cailles, 75013 Paris
Good for kids?
While Street Art Paris allows children, be aware that two (or more) hours is a long time to walk and pay attention. It depends on your child. Our guide Virginie was able to tie in cultural references that piqued us all and kept us moving so as to never get bored. But I will admit that our teens and tween were nearly at their max capacity for attention by the end. (Note that had the weather been better, I don’t think we would have had any issue.)
Make sure they’re fed. For more tips on keeping teens (and you happy) while traveling – see here.
Been to Paris? Have a favorite street artist? I’ll leave you with a few more of our favorites from the streets. Cheers from Copenhagen, Erin
Disclaimer – We received free booking for the Underground Paris Tour. As always all opinions and views are my own.