JR might just be one of the most famous artists in the world. Chances are that in the last two decades you’ve seen at least one of his street art projects, on your TV, social media feed, or even the streets of your town. His work is everywhere and if we’re talking about the most productive creatives working today, this guy is definitely one of them. JR has been called a “photograffeur” (photographer + graffeur, which is French for “graffiti artist”); “the Cartier-Bresson of the 21st century;” and “the French Banksy.” The artist won the TED Prize and the UNESCO Prix du Jeune Artiste. He famously made the Louvre pyramid “disappear” and has exhibited right in front of the Giza pyramids.
Who Is JR?
But what’s perhaps the most fascinating thing about JR is his dedication to his art and to the people he is making his art for. He finances all of his projects himself and refuses to collaborate with brands or corporations. With such brilliant, seemingly non-exhaustive energy, charisma, and courage, he turns the street into a museum, albeit a temporary one. Using something as simple as paper and glue, the artist gives voice to the marginalized, the forgotten, and the underdogs. JR brings the urban environments back to the people, turning them into both the protagonists and the curators of their own experience.
Simply put, the man’s continuous, selfless commitment to art and the ways it can change the world is nothing short of inspiring. In such terms, the work that he’s doing is also incomparable to anything or anyone else at the moment. The story of JR and his street art sounds like one hell of a movie that just keeps getting better.
Born in 1983 to an Eastern European father and a Tunisian mother, JR grew up in the immigrant outskirts of Paris. Already adventurous as a teenager, he began doing graffiti around the city with his friends, leaving the tag “Face 3” or his initials on rooftops, subway trains, and building walls. When he found a satchel with a camera inside, forgotten on a metro stop, he got the idea to start documenting his actions. It was the beginning of his leaving a mark on the world, keeping a record of it long after it was inevitably gone. Take a look at some of JR’s fascinating street art projects!
Sidewalk Gallery Project, Paris
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At the age of 17, JR had his first exhibition, curated and presented by himself, and “hosted by” the street. Sidewalk Gallery (Expo 2 rue in French) was a show that featured JR’s photographs, printed and pasted on urban surfaces, city walls, and scaffoldings. To make sure they were not perceived as advertisements, and in order to draw more attention, the artist “framed” them using a spray can. Quickly and swiftly, in the dead of night or in broad daylight and right in front of people, JR created an open gallery accessible to everyone. When the work got damaged, the artist would replace it with new pieces. The Expo 2 rue project also took JR to other cities around Europe, where he met other people who used walls to convey their message as well. This is where he first started thinking about creating art on a larger scale.
Portrait of a Generation
In 2004, JR began taking pictures of young people living in Les Bosquets, a Parisian suburb. He then glued the enlarged prints on the neighborhood’s walls. In late 2005, riots triggered by the deaths of two teenage boys broke out and spread throughout Paris. In response to the egregious way the media and the government portrayed and referred to the rioters, people JR knew well, and who were his friends, the artist decided to act. He went back to Les Bosquets with his friend Ladj Ly (who would later become an Oscar-nominated director), to document the community again in 2006.
Using a 28-mm lens, he created close-up, full-frame portraits of people pulling faces, essentially re-creating their image in the eyes of the public, on their terms. These images of “thugs” challenged the viewers. They were also accompanied by the subjects’ names, ages, and building numbers, aiming to bring them even closer to the observer. This is where the iconic images of Ladj Ly himself come from: with a menacing face, standing in front of a group of boys, he is about to shoot you: not with a shotgun, but with a camera of his own.
Face 2 Face: Israel/Palestine
The year 2007 saw JR’s first international street art project on a grand scale and it was the biggest illegal photography exhibition ever. Once again not quite believing the media’s coverage of the Middle East conflicts, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian war, the artist and his friend Marco went straight to the people on both sides of the wall. Thinking about things that the two sides would have in common, the artists decided to photograph people who did the same jobs in Israel and Palestine. They then printed large copies of these black-and-white images on paper and pasted them side-by-side in cities on both territories.
Instead of controversy, as you would expect, the project was met with curiosity. The citizens would even help with the installation, impressed by the size of the images and the way they were exhibited. Many observers would also fail to tell which of the two people in the pictures was Israeli, and which was Palestinian. They would stand face-to-face with their invisible peers from behind the wall and would finally “meet” them, unfiltered. Similar to the Portraits of a Generation, those in the pictures made a silly face, evoking that simple gesture of being human, no matter who or where you are.
Women Are Heroes Project
JR’s Women Are Heroes project was the first to span several countries all around the world. It was an homage to women as the pillars of their communities everywhere, but who were suffering the most, especially in times of war and conflict. Way too often, women are the primary victims of crime, rape, or religious fanaticism.
The street art project started in 2008, in the Morro da Providência favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Unsettled by the killing of three young boys in a rival ghetto, JR brought attention to the story by pasting giant images of women related to these boys in the neighborhood. Very soon, the initiative spread to other women of the favela. Their faces, sometimes serious and others not, their eyes full of expression, ended up covering entire houses and buildings. Together, these come together to create an impressive, unique portrait of a suffering society; stories that linger under the surface that we can no longer ignore.
Women Are Heroes went to Africa and Asia as well. In the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, images of women’s eyes were pasted on moving trains and ground itself, but also onto water-resistant materials that were then installed on rooftops, to protect from heavy rainfall. In Cambodia, the women portrayed were fighting to keep their homes amid a real estate boom. Their paste-ups were perhaps the most short-lived, as they were put up on structures that would be torn down quite soon after.
In India, because it’s forbidden to paste posters with content, JR went with white sheets of paper painted with transparent glue. Over time, the dust from the streets stuck onto the glued parts and revealed the hidden image. The project was also presented in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan before ending in France, with an installation on the bridges and bank walls of the Seine. In addition to the street art produced, the movie that JR made about the project was part of the Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.
The Wrinkles of the City
The idea for The Wrinkles of the City, another transnational street art initiative, came to JR while he visited Cartagena, Spain, in the fall of 2008. Upon encountering the town’s older residents, he wished to honor them by pasting their giant portrait on the city’s own crumbling structures. The elderly, alongside these ruined buildings and decaying houses, represented to the artist vessels of collective memory that were about to vanish.
In cities like Berlin and Istanbul, the street art took on an additional level as well, seeing as both of these places had a rich, turbulent history. In the German capital, JR photographed people who lived through the Second World War and the subsequent divided history of their country. In Turkey, JR showed the city on two continents standing tall with its old and new architecture.
For the iteration of The Wrinkles of the City in Cuba, JR collaborated with fellow artist José Parlá. On the occasion of the Havana Biennale, the duo photographed 25 senior citizens who had lived through the Cuban revolution. JR’s trademark black-and-white photographs, combined with Parlá’s intricate abstract writings, were installed on the city’s wrinkled façades and walls, paying homage to the very people that live there.
At this point in his career, JR was quite established as an artist already. Naturally, his street art was then taken to the next level. Starting in 2011, he used the $100,000 he got as the winner of the TED Prize to fund his next project called Inside Out. This marked the beginning of yet another ambitious, global undertaking, except this time, the people were the artists too.
Inside Out gave anyone in the world the opportunity to share the untold stories of their people, within their community, and also on the Internet. The participants would send their images to JR, who would send them a printed poster back free of charge to paste in their town. Almost half a million people took part in the project in the first 8 years, with paste-ups in more than 140 countries. A documentary film about the project premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013.
The Louvre Pyramid
There is no doubt that JR is a prolific artist, right now, we’re only halfway through his abundant street art career! But the projects that perhaps set his iconic status in stone were the ones done in his native Paris. One of his best-known street art actions is the intervention done on the famous pyramid of The Louvre Museum.
Actually, JR transformed the structure on two occasions. The first time, in 2016, the artist made the Louvre Pyramid “disappear” through an anamorphic effect that takes you by surprise. Using perspective, JR created an image of the museum’s building behind the pyramid and then pasted it on the pyramid itself. When looked at frontally, the picture perfectly blends into its background, essentially “removing” any signs of the pyramid from view.
In 2019, JR returned to the Louvre to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Liking the idea of what the trompe l’oeil did for the public last time, the artist made a giant collage with the help of 40 volunteers. Using as many as 2000 strips of paper, they gave life to a whole new environment around the pyramid, which this time round remained untouched. From afar, the work imagined what the pyramid looked like underground, proposing that the part we usually see is just the tip of a much larger pyramid underneath.
There is a uniqueness to the creativity that JR gives to the world. Despite the fact his street art posters and collages are done exclusively in black-and-white, they hold more power than expected. Perhaps due to their size, but also due to the context and the message they send.
At times, JR’s images are unsettling, and sometimes they’re not even his, like in the case of the Unframed project. Ongoing since 2009, in this project JR takes archival images or photographs taken by other photographers. The most famous example is the series from Ellis Island, the entry point for 12 million immigrants between 1892 and 1954. JR managed to enter and set up his paste-ups in the abandoned hospital where the sick would be taken. To create a permanent record of the project, JR filmed a short story about Ellis Island, starring Robert De Niro and written by Eric Roth.
Another important work, this time involving murals, is the “Chronicles” series. Inspired by the art of Diego Rivera, JR photographed and filmed hundreds of people, in groups or alone, and then collaged their portraits together to create interactive narratives. These enormous compositions dealt with certain issues, such as gun violence in the US.
The French artist is also very interested in the issues of migration. In 2017, he installed a big image of Kikito, a boy whose house overlooks the US-Mexican border wall. Supported by scaffolding, the portrait belongs to the “Giants” series, which honored unknown individuals, rather than groups. Other notable projects include the artist’s collaboration with ballet groups from Paris and New York City, portraits of farmers and activists in Italy and Australia, and the Tehachapi project, on which JR collaborated with the inmates of the California prison.
The Question of JR: Can Street Art Save the World?
The risk of getting caught, the excitement of creating art in public spaces, the adrenaline of doing something illegal are what drive JR still to this day. But even more so, the idea that art can serve people and ultimately change the world we live in for the better is an endless source of inspiration for him. The artist still funds all his projects himself, sometimes through the sale of prints (some of which can go up to several hundred thousand dollars). He only ever goes by his initials, and he always wears a hat and Clubmaster sunglasses, but not because of vanity. The reason for this semi-anonymity is quite practical: he does not want to be recognized in the streets or have problems getting into countries where they might not want him.
Even after more than twenty years of making street art, JR seems as humble as ever, just doing art for people’s sake. There is never anything else at the heart of his projects other than humans, their plights, experiences, lives. The artist wants to be there to give them a voice, make them seen and heard, changing the world one giant paste-up at a time.