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Street Fighter

A 26-year-old Parisian artist travels to places that armies avoid to make some of the world's most compelling, important and dangerous art.

Author Rachel Sturtz

A SUNNY DAY IN THE FAVELAS OF RIO DE JANEIRO. Five young Frenchmen slop wallpaper glue on the steps of a rough stone staircase. Some boys watch them with curiosity. A woman in a colorful tank top climbs past and continues up the stairs, which slice through a steep maze of dilapidated shacks. The Frenchmen have paid two shady characters to guard them, and they occupy the steps above. The woman passes them, turns down one of the narrow alleyways and climbs stairs that fork a dozen times over between homes, like a game of concrete Chutes and Ladders.

The Frenchmen unroll a length of paper as long as the steps are tall—around 100 feet—and smooth the paper over the glue. They’re busy brushing one more layer of glue over the whole thing when, from above, five gunshots pierce the air.

There is no screaming, just the sound of feet in motion and chopped French phrases. “This way!” The team scrambles into the nearest doorway, which leads into a courtyard where people are already huddled against a wall. The artist in charge of the project—a tall man sporting a well-trimmed beard and Ray-Bans who goes only by the name JR—leans out the door and yells, in English, “Kid! Kid!” at a young boy standing alone on the stairs, in the sun, not knowing which way to run.

JR reaches out, yanks him in and slams the door shut.

A few minutes later, it’s over. The boys return to the steps and the Frenchmen return to their work. It’s just another day in the favela—except, if you look from a distance, you can see the 20 paper-covered sets of concrete stairs in this slum start to reveal a giant image of a woman’s chin.

BACK IN HIS PARIS STUDIO, JR stands before his newest project: a stack of 40 large box speakers glued and screwed together to form a 10-foot tall oval, which is currently blasting the bass-heavy loop of a heartbeat. He sips an espresso and scratches the top of his forehead, which is hidden beneath a straw fedora. Behind his sunglasses, he squints.

A large black-and-white picture of an older woman’s face is pasted over the speakers. Her eyes bug out and her lips are pursed, and as the speakers throb, sections of her eyes, nose, mouth and forehead move with the heartbeat. JR is pleased.

Three days from now, this installation will occupy a wall in Paris’ esteemed Emmanuel Perrotin Gallery, as part of “Stages,” an art exhibition organized by Lance Armstrong to coincide with the Tour de France. The piece is a departure for JR, a 26-year-old Paris native, mostly because it is neither illegally displayed nor four stories tall and affixed to the side of a building, which is his preferred canvas. (Other canvases of choice include rooftops, swimming pools, buses, trains, crumbling brick, broken doorways.) You get the picture: JR doesn’t do galleries. His last project, the 2007 series “28 Millimetres: Women,” was more typical. Depicting women surviving in difficult circumstances, it led JR from Kenya to India to Brazil to take close-up photos of women’s faces and blow them up to superhuman size before pasting them all over various cities.

“JR is able to use art to confront people with a point of view about society without it being political or malicious,” says Marc Schiller, cofounder of international street art blog the Wooster Collective. “Instead, it’s life-affirming.”

“The media only gives us one angle, and it’s usually from a helicopter circling a riot or war,” JR says, motioning up in the air with a pen made from a bullet casing he found in Rio. “You only see the guns and violence. I’m hoping to give people another angle.”

The walls of his studio are lined with more giant vignettes of faces and eyes, each belonging to the Brazilian, Cambodian, Indian and African women who lined up to have their picture taken. This October, during fashion week no less, Parisians will see these faces on their bridges, banks and city buildings when JR wraps up his project with exhibitions around the city and the release of his book, Women Are Heroes.

But for now, he needs to find two more speakers to even out the left side of the woman’s pulsating face.

“THE KIDS ALWAYS SHOW UP FIRST,” JR says as he opens a photo on his laptop of five Brazilian boys from Morro da Providência, the oldest and most dangerous favela in Rio. Leaning up against one another, laughing with arms crossed, the boys hold sheets of newspaper that they’ve twisted and folded into the shape of guns. Trust takes time in the favelas, which are notoriously hostile to outsiders, and JR relies on the curiosity of its youngest residents to gain access.

In another photo, the boys have returned, and instead of guns, they’re carrying newly constructed newspaper cameras, turning the tables on JR’s crew. This is a good sign. Gaining the adoration of the favela children means the women—the mothers, aunts and sisters—will follow suit. And if the women trust JR, the men—the fathers, uncles and brothers, who are also the drug traffickers and street enforcers—will give him the space to work and even spare his life if a “situation” arises. The process is the same in every country he’s visited, hotspots like Kenya, Liberia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and India.

“He takes risks without a safety net,” says Marco Berrebi, his longtime friend and collaborator. “But by going in with no protection, he’s relating to people on a human level.”

JR first came to Rio last year, after a particularly brutal event caught his attention. In December 2007, the Brazilian government began a program to rehabilitate a crumbling favela. To ensure the safety of the workers, soldiers accompanied them. What should have been a feel-good gesture to the residents quickly disintegrated into a nightmare that summer, when soldiers carted off three “unruly” boys.

The poor in Rio are well-versed in corruption, but what happened next knocked them to their knees: Instead of taking the boys to jail, the soldiers handed them over to drug lords from a rival favela. The traffickers killed them and tossed the bodies into the garbage.

The media broadcast the story globally, shining a light on the endemic corruption. JR watched the news from his Paris apartment. Two months later, he landed in Rio, armed with a camera and a supply of wheat paste.

EVEN AS AN 18-YEAR-OLD GRAFFITI ARTIST in Paris, JR had an affection for forgotten places. His earliest work—tiny tags that read “JR was here”—were sprayed under electric boxes in Metro tunnels and hidden corners of rooftops. His only fans were fellow artists and vagabonds.

“When I started, it felt like I was walking on the moon and leaving the first human mark,” he says. “I knew then that graffiti only speaks to people who like graffiti. But I soon realized that photography would speak to everyone.”

When he switched to photos, he started small, shooting pictures of his friends spray-painting around Paris. Then he’d print out the black-and-white images, return to the place he shot them and quickly glue them to the wall. Thirty seconds later, he was done, running down an alleyway before the police caught on.

Soon, documenting his friends wasn’t enough. “Graffiti was about the action,” says JR. “As I began to paste bigger pictures, I wanted more. And when I began going to other cities, it became about concept.”

to the youth involved in the 2005 Paris riots, which led to his first complete project, 2006’s “Portrait of a Generation.” As part of the exhibition, he pasted the photos around the ghettos in Montfermeil and Clichy-sous-Bois, to the youths’ delight, and then wallpapered the wealthy arrondissements in Paris, to the residents’ disgust.

After that he made “Face 2 Face,” photographing Israelis and Palestinians who held the same jobs—actors, musicians, hairdressers—and pasted their images together along the West Bank and on shops in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He wanted to see if people could tell the difference between the two faces.

“I realized in the Middle East that there are places in the world where people have no concept of art, especially the kind you’d find in the street,” says JR. “In Paris, people can walk by street art and recognize it and put it in a frame. But in the Middle East, the photos actually made people stop and ask questions. And the discussion it creates is far stronger than my message. That is the purpose of art.”

Whenever he goes into a community, JR sits down with restaurant owners, businessmen and priests to explain his project and get their blessing to paste on their walls. Even so, it’s generally illegal. City officials consider JR’s work vandalism, and they’re often confused when a business owner charges up to defend him as they try to make an arrest.

Which is why when the media comes calling, he (usually) lets his work do the talking. He prefers to be anonymous, so much so that no one outside his circle of friends knows his real name, he never attends his exhibitions (his assistant Emile goes in his stead) and almost never grants interviews.

His intentions at the start of a project are simple: shoot and paste. Occasionally, though, he gets much more involved. After a few days of photographing the women in Kenya, he pasted the roofs with vinyl pictures instead of paper to protect the shoddy homes from rain. In Rio, he turned an empty house into a community center for the children (which he continues to finance) and rebuilt a home for one of the favela’s poorest families by hiring local men to do the job. Finally, when he finishes each project, he creates a special-edition book of stories and photos for the community he’s visited.

“JR goes to see these people to create something with them,” says Berrebi. “There is no stage, no border. Whatever he creates belongs to them.”

“They are so proud of their story,” says JR, flipping through one of the oversize books. “They are the true owners of these photos.”

RACHEL STURTZ, whose street art experience is limited to hopscotch chalk drawings, is a writer living in New York City.

2 Responses to “Street Fighter”

  1. Susan Newman Says:
    October 4th, 2009 at 5:37 am

    Wonderful article. So sorry there are no photos here. I came to the site because I wanted to share on Facebook but no one would get it without the photos.

  2. furendaaa Says:
    October 6th, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Thank you for this article. I really discovered something special..

  3. Jason Says:
    November 16th, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    wonderful article, made a major impact in my day to day travel