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Known only by his initials, always hiding his appearance with sunglasses and fedora, the anonymous artist swapped spray cans and stencils for analog and digital cameras. He discovered his subjects in the citizen faces of the world. And his studio is still the largest workspace on the planet — the street.
Monochrome photographic paste-up is an unlikely discipline in the street where art commonly embraces the immediate and the colorful. But JR made it work, and then put it work on a global scale with his “projects.” The artist’s international reach raises questions about the intention and meaning of his work. Is he trying to change art? Is JR trying to change the world?
Details to be filled in later
The early part of JR’s life is mostly unknown. He joined the human race on February 22, 1983 in the outskirts of Paris. His mother was Tunisian, his father Eastern European. Nothing else is known of his childhood, so skip ahead 14 or 15 years.
By 1988, JR could be found tagging his name in and around Paris. He has downplayed his graffiti as nothing special, considering his work inferior compared to his contemporaries. In those days he called himself “Face 3” and he worked without artistic purpose. The notions of political statement or social change never entered the picture. For JR and his comrades, it was all about intrigue and action, compromising unusual spaces, the more precarious the better.
“It was more about the adventure,” JR has explained, “going on rooftops, going in tunnels, seeing the city from another angle. And leaving a little mark there, but I was not good at it.” Good or not, the street had seduced him with its church windows, buses and subway trains. The subway, in fact, changed his life.
A chance find in a metro station in 2000 turned JR’s street-art life completely around. “When I found a camera, I started documenting those guys who were really good.” JR still went out with his crews, but he gave up aerosol cans and stencils for his new, used automatic camera, testing every kind of black and white film he could. While his comrades tagged the streets, JR shot their portraits, sharing the same old risks and adventures, but with a new format all his own.
He began turning his new work into pasteups in 2001. He created in the relatively small A4 format, spray painting a frame around each print. The 18-year-old described himself and his work as “photograffeur.”
During this early phase, the photograffeur adopted a new tag as well, signing his work simply with his initials, “JR.” He realized the graffiti artist tradition of unidentified persona would serve him well. JR once claimed, “It’s easier to stay in the shadow of the work.”
“The real heroes are sometimes not where you think they are, they are right there in the street, everywhere around you.”
JR earned credentials and clout beyond the street in the wake of protests and riots that rocked Parisian suburbs in 2005. The civil unrest broke out after two teens were electrocuted in a power substation, apparently eluding police. Media coverage included JR’s pasteups of the local “thugs.”
He used the opportunity to return to the community for his “Portrait of a Generation” project. His engaged a fish-eye lens to shoot ultra close-ups of suburban street punks making funny faces. He posted his expansive prints throughout the bourgeois districts of Paris and soon received support from the local government — he had put a warm, human face on a controversial issue, and the community embraced it with great enthusiasm.
The hits keep right on coming
JR’s next big thing tempted international adventure and controversy in the extreme: aided by co-conspirator Marco, JR posted close-ups of Israelis and Palestinians making silly faces throughout eight Middle-Eastern cities on both sides of the hotspot’s security fence. JR dubbed the 2007 venture, “Face 2 Face.”
In 2008, the artist undertook took two projects. “The Wrinkles of the City” aimed to convey the collective memory and history of a country through the faces of its residents. His canvas broadened to include a range of cities experiencing change: Cartagena, Shanghai, Los Angeles and La Havana.
“Women are Heroes,” his second 2008 project, attempted to capture the dignity of women who suffer the brunt of life’s conflicts. His idea was to pay tribute to those victimized by the often brutal and violent ways of society. This extensive project encompassed Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, Brazil, India and Cambodia.
His projects received special recognition on October 20, 2010 when JR won the TED prize (officially awarded in 2011). As the recipient, JR created his “Inside Out” project, a venture designed to turn the tables on his work. He invited the communities of the world to take the pictures and to submit them with their statements of purpose. Every submission has been archived online, developed into poster size prints, and returned to each photographer for exhibition. Participation came from more than 100 countries, and the “Inside Out” team sent out more than 100,000 posters.
Belief in the work
JR has observed that no one expects art to make any difference in the day to day turning of the world, and maybe it’s that precise lack of expectation that has given his work its impact. “I am not trying to change the world, but you know, when I see a smile up there in the favelas, or down there in Cambodia, in a way I feel like I achieved my goal.”
The artist’s work creates a striking change to the landscape, across the rooftops of a village or throughout the streets of a borough. He engages and works with each community, its everyday inhabitants joining in as real-life models and pasteup artists — the local people always become an indelible part of the process.
At the very least his artistic endeavors are meant to transform old perceptions, to shake up traditional points of view and create a fresh analogy. He likes to boil down his formula for a world project into the simplest of nave elements: all you need, he says with a smile, are the citizens, energy and lots of paste.
His work relies on a romance of hope, an idealistic view that puts all its faith in common humanity. Through a turn of phrase with echoes of Shakespeare, JR reminds us, “Many more things are possible than we think there are.”