Graffiti in Paris: From the Streets of Belleville to the Grand Palais

Now that hip-hop is maturing in the fields of art, activism, education and business, what are the risks of hip-hop theatre itself becoming elitist and exclusive because of having penetrated mainstream institutions? What happens to graffiti’s aesthetics when the canvas is legal and the museum is commissioning you?… What happens when we share (and sell) the language that the man wasn’t supposed to understand? If the answer is that we create a new language, then where is it? What happens when hip-hop moves into the opera house and we still don’t own the opera house? What happens if we do own it?
Danny Hoch from “Toward a Hip-Hop Aesthetic”

While hip-hop around the world has been coming to terms with its own maturity for years now, I don’t know if there is a more appropriate place to apply this quote than France. Here, actors in the hip-hop community are especially torn because they want their work to succeed but are deeply concerned about compromising the integrity of their art and of hip-hop’s original values for success. Previously, I’ve looked at how rappers and dancers feel about hip-hop’s transcendence into “high art” but, after a chance encounter with a graffiti artist in Belleville and the coincidental discovery of a Tag exhibit at Paris’ beautiful and historic Grand Palais, my last two weeks have been filled with graffiti and questions about what to do when the canvas becomes legal.

Last week, while walking around the neighborhood of Belleville, known for its diversity and great outdoor markets, I noticed a young guy meticulously tagging a wall on a side street that was already covered with graffiti. Curious about his art, and also about why he wasn’t afraid of getting arrested, I stopped and asked him some questions. As Beck (or Kebe) explained, artists learn by bouche-à-oreille or “word of mouth” when walls on streets like this are authorized by the town hall for graffiti. Beck admitted to tagging unauthorized spots as well, but expressed that he appreciates the approved walls because he can devote more time (in this case it was about 5 or 6 hours) to his work. While time is a definite plus, I also asked how he felt about spending so much of it on something so ephemeral, since his tag could easily be painted over by another artist in a few hours. He replied like the rest of the artists with whom I spoke during that week by saying that he accepts it as part of the game, and that they take photos to keep their work alive. Click here to see Beck’s MySpace page.

  • Slide show of photos from Belleville and Tag au Grand Palais
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    On Tuesday, I met the female artist Kashink (photo at the top of the page), an artist whose work is inspired by bold colorful online casino Mexican artwork and believes that all artists, especially in the world of graffiti and rap, need to go beyond typical themes and find inspiration in other cultures and styles. We wound up having a great conversation about hip-hop, graffiti, and the media (she even gave me a “dedicace” in her mural!) and I definitely plan to interview her for my film. Click here for Kashink’s MySpace page.

    While Kashink, who started by painting on canvases, has a problem with elitist art fans who rave about the simplest tags when they are in a gallery and ignore inspired works that can be found on the street, she ultimately supports graffiti artists who choose to sell their work and display it in galleries. However, Star, an artist whom I met the next day, is completely against selling graffiti. Despite the fact that this aspiring architect’s work is largely inspired by professional artists including the 19th century Russian painter Kazimir Malevich and the members of the Constructivism movement, for Star (who is part of a collective with Beck), graffiti belongs in a particular place: “Graffiti was born in the street and it should stay in the street” he said.

    A few days after spending this week with the artists, I learned about the Tag exhibition at the historic Grand Palais in the heart of Paris. The exhibition, which contains 300 canvases of the same size and theme, is the personal collection of French architect Alain-Doninique Gallizia. Over the course of several years, Gallizia, who was at the exhibition answering questions, commissioned an international group of 150 notable graffiti artists to each paint two 180 x 60 cm canvases— one with their name or “tag” and the other with their own personal representation of the idea of “love.” While the simple, uniform layout was really cool and it was great to see the pieces by artists who have been famous in the movement from 1970s to today, I have to admit that the intrigue and the rush I felt when I first saw Beck painting on that wall (before and after I knew it was legal), wasn’t there. It was beautiful art, and I strongly appreciate both the State’s recognition of that, and the artists’ willingness to be commissioned for this collection, but the permanency, the lack of danger, and the uniformity does bring a new element to a hobby that was started by a rebellious kid running around and writing TAKI 183 throughout New York with a felt-tipped marker.

    Since I am not a huge fan of blatant vandalism, I, like these artists, am also curiously conflicted about graffiti’s maturity. I liked the exhibit, but I loved watching the artistic evolution of that street in Belleville and I get an even bigger rush when I see incredible art in impossible places and wonder whether or not it was legal, who painted it, and how. As an aging young adult myself (turning 23 tomorrow), I’m particularly curious to see how street art will be preserved and celebrated in this city as graffiti continues to grow up.

    51 thoughts on “Graffiti in Paris: From the Streets of Belleville to the Grand Palais

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