DANS LA RUE: Paris Urban Youth Culture
Why go to the Louvre to see art when all you have to do is walk around Paris and look up?  With a vibrant street art scene decorating the walls, the city becomes a gallery in itself.  Allow me to take you on a tour of a few of Paris' most eye-popping areas. 

Let's start with Montmartre, the bohemian sanctuary that served as home and inspiration for many renowned artists like Picasso, Renoir, and Van Gogh.  So it comes as no surprise that this neighborhood is overflowing with illegal creativity.  It also has one of the highest concentration of pieces by iconic Paris street artist Space Invader.  While other tourists stop to stare at the Sacre Coeur, position your eyes on the walls around it.  You'll start to uncover an abundance of hidden treasures peaking out from corners and above street signs.

The 13th
...meaning the 13th arrondissement, home of the artist tenement/incubator Les Frigos.  Start there and in its immediate vicinity, you'll notice art spreading out to the surrounding streets.  From there, head towards Place d'Italie, the commercial center of the district.  Along the way, you're sure to spot the massive orange mural by Polish street artist M-City jutting out of the Paris gray.  M-City recently had an indoor exhibition nearby, but couldn't keep his paints away from the walls outside.  Once you arrive at the shopping mall at Place d'Italie, traverse along the narrow back streets in the area and you'll spot a bevy of wheatpastes and stencils including a slew of cutesy cutouts by Paris' THTF (The Hand That Feeds).

The Moving Gallery
The third and last stop in this installment of Paris' Street Art Gallery is one that you'll only see if it does stop.  It's everywhere and yet nowhere in specific.  That's because the graffiti in this case adorns the walls of moving vans.  Just as it's become popular in New York to cover moving vans with fully developed graff pieces (since the drivers don't really mind), so too have vans throughout Paris begun to carry more than simply furniture.  First trains, now trucks, I hope someday soon airplanes will be next.  So keep your eyes peeled and make sure art doesn't pass you by.


In France it seems that there's no question whether skating is hip hop.  B-boy competitions mix with BMX contests, Nas rhymes while Saint Denis youth grind.  Paris' skatepark at Bercy is just another iteration of this intertwining culture. 

Here the energy of young skaters is matched by raw Paris graffiti blanketing every available surface.  A skater's explosive aerial tricks compete for your attention with a graff writer's eye-popping aerosol colors.

Lying at the edge of Bercy's tranquil park and in the shadow of its Palais Omnisports, the skatepark is easy to overlook.  But once there, you become completely enmeshed in the grittiness of street culture.  It's impossible to focus your senses anywhere else.

Graffeur Jen, whom I met at Les Frigos, first told me about the skatepark, telling me it's another major place for writers to get up.  On the cold, dank afternoon I visited, I ran into PESCA who was in the middle of going over someone else's tag on the main wall.  Apparently, on these walls, there's no police intervention or fear of repercussion from rival writers. 

Bercy Skatepark in the early days, before it was graffitified
It's only when you go over someone on the illegal walls that you may run into problems.  It's like honor among vandals, rules that govern illegal activity.  At the park, it's all fair game.

Behind him, 8 or more skaters and skateboarders casually hit the ramps, taking smoke breaks in between tricks, chatting it up with their friends or their dog.  It felt more like a chill session than a training one.  They were young, mostly high school age, and the park was their hang out spot.

Ironically, Bercy is the site of the oldest known human occupation in Paris, dating back to 4000 BC.  In recent decades Paris has revitalized the area, transforming it into a commercial center and the home of the Ministry of Economy, Finance, and Industry. 

Yet nestled at its corner is this haven from any of that, a detached shelter for the city's expressive youth.  But perhaps that's the point, to draw the skaters and graff writers here and away from the public, keeping them off the city's beloved architecture.  Rather than police them, enable them.

It's history is unclear to me, but I do know the park has been around since at least 2006.  It was also temporarily closed in 2007 as they constructed a roof for it, providing a vital place for youth even during the crappiest of weather (much like this week's when I visited).

So there I sat with PESCA at the top of a skate ramp.  He told me how Paris writers stick to bubble and block letters mostly, some 3D, but rarely wild style.  I asked if he's ever been to New York, and he expressed that he wants to but like other writers here, he spends too much money smoking. 

During the conversation, one of the inline skaters sped up the ramp.  When he reached the summit, he launched into the air like a rocket and somersaulted over our heads.  Unphased, PESCA carried on as if nothing happened while I was still sweating for my life.  Here, the graff writers are used to the skaters.  To them it's all the same.

PESCA and TULE get up
Entrance to Crea Street
Delving deeper into the Paris graffiti world, in my latest podcast I interview Olivier Jacquet, graffiti artist, Graff It! magazine publisher, and owner of the street art store Crea Street. I was lucky to get the interview since I stumbled into his store on a random Saturday afternoon waiting for my ride at the Gentilly train station.  Olivier was extremely friendly and gave great insight on where Paris graff writers get down, how they're cleverly evading the police, the different styles that come from various cities in France, and who's who in the Paris scene.

A few other interesting things to note:
  • Olivier is a family man, best evidenced by the fact that his 5-foot-tall mother was working behind the counter with him and knew every product in the store.  Sadly, she declined to be photographed.
  • Olivier also mentioned (if memory serves) that the graffiti scene in Paris goes way back to at least 1980.
  • The woman that came in and started interpreting for us purchased not spraypaint, but a can of wood furniture varnish.  Crea Street really does serve ALL creative types.
  • Olivier has been publishing Graff It! since 1994!
  • Olivier seems to frequent New York City and is tight with legendary graff writers like Cope2 and TATS CRU.
  • The track "Police" that bookends the podcast is by Supreme NTM, the same Saint-Denis rap group that Olivier mentions had a significant impact on the graffiti scene since both were also graff writers.  Here's their video for "My People" which celebrates graffiti culture:


The top taggers in Paris according to Olivier are:

In this slide show, I take a look at the work of Paris street artist Speedy Graphito in his latest show at Art Partner Galerie.  He comes from Paris' first generation of graffiti and street artists.  In this exhibition, he draws on that long history, incorporating a number of street art styles and playing on the evolution of street art from its days as loathed youth vandalism to its current stature as darling of the art world.  Like Bansky and Mr. Brainwash (whose work is appearing on the streets and stores of Paris right now), Speedy is cashing in but with a very knowing, self-aware wit.

Here Speedy demonstrates his process as he prepares his painting "Dead or Alive."

Speedy Graphito

"What Did You Expect?"

Art Partner Galerie (Galerie Brugier-Rigail)

8, rue Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie 75004 Paris 

from now until 30 October, 2010


    Brian is a writer, dancer, activist, and general hip hop head from New York City. He is currently working towards his Master's in Global Communications in Paris.  


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