Fourteen years ago, street artist JR started doing graffiti, writing his name everywhere. He recalls going into the tunnels of Paris, on the rooftops, and treating each trip as an adventure. For him, it was a bit like leaving his mark on society and saying: “I was here, on the top of a building.”
One day, he found a cheap camera on the subway, and he started documenting the adventures with his friends by taking pictures. But he took it a bit further, and gave the pictures back as photocopies. At 17 years old, he started pasting them, completing his first sidewalk gallery. He was careful to frame the pictures with color, so people wouldn’t confuse them with advertising.
In November 2005, the streets of Paris were burning. Riots had broken out in the projects. JR says that all Parisians, including himself, were glued to the television watching images of “thugs” throwing Molotov cocktails, attacking cops and firemen, and looting everything they could in the shops. The media portrayed the aggressors as people intent on destroying their own environment.
But everything changed for JR, when he saw a picture he had pasted a year earlier, on television, still there, looking back at him. He says he knew these guys and while they weren’t angels, they weren’t monsters either.
He decided to go to Les Bosquets, known as the projects, where the riots were happening. Only this time, he went back with a 28-millimeter lens. JR says that with that lens, he needed to be 10 inches away from his subject, so he could only take the pictures with their trust. He took full portraits of people making scary faces, creating caricatures of them. And then JR made a statement by posting huge posters of his subjects in the bourgeois districts of Paris with the subjects’ name, age, and building number. A year later, this illegal project became “official” when the images were displayed in front of the city hall of Paris. JR says this was the moment where he understood the power of paper and glue.
In 2007, JR was listening to all the noise regarding the Middle East conflict. With his friend Marco, he headed to the Middle East to see who the real Palestinians were, and who the real Israelis were. JR says he wanted to answer whether Palestinians and Israelis were really as different as the media was portraying them to be. Upon arriving, they took the streets and started talking to people.
Soon, they embarked on a project called Face to Face, taking portraits of Palestinians and Israelis doing the same jobs: taxi drivers, lawyers, cooks, etc. JR and Marco asked their subjects to make funny faces as a sign of commitment, and all subjects agreed to be pasted next to their counterpart. JR and Marco pasted the portraits of Israelis and Palestinians face to face in eight Israeli and Palestinian cities.
And on both sides of the Separation wall, they launched the biggest illegal art exhibition ever. JR says that experts told them: “The army will shoot you and Hamas will kidnap you.” But JR and Marco moved forward, deciding to push as far as they could. Face 2 Face was completed with 2 ladders, 2 brushes, a rented car, a camera, and 20,000 square feet of paper. JR says they had help from all walks of life.
His favorite moment of the project was when either Palestinians or Israelis gathered around and asked what they were doing. JR explained that they were doing an art project, pasting an Israeli and a Palestinian doing the same job. Often, the observers sought confirmation that they heard right, and a brief silence always ensued. It was then that JR or Marco asked: “Can you tell me who is who?” JR says that most of them couldn’t.
Four years later, most of the photos are still there. JR says that Face 2 Face demonstrated that what they thought was impossible was possible and even easy. “We didn’t push the limit, we just showed the world that we were further than anyone thought,” he told TED.
In Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa, JR and his friends covered the roofs of houses. But they didn’t use paper because paper doesn’t prevent rain from coming inside the house. But vinyl does. “That’s when art becomes useful,” JR told TED.
In India, due to cultural norms, JR and his team would have gotten arrested at the first pasting. So they circumvented that by pasting white papers. Over the coming days, as India’s dust circulated, and stuck to the sticky part of the white paper, the photos revealed themselves.
Launching INSIDE OUT
In 2011, JR won the TED prize, which gave him the chance to make a wish to change the world. In response, he created INSIDE OUT, the biggest international participatory art project that allows people to take pictures of whatever they’re passionate about and whatever they stand for. Once the picture is uploaded, JR and his team send back a poster. Participants then paste their picture wherever they want to make a statement.
With no signs of slowing down, over 120,000 people from more than 108 countries have participated in INSIDE OUT. Including Chad, who used INSIDE OUT, as a platform to fight homophobia in Russia. He gathered a bunch of friends and stood in front of Russian embassies around Europe, with their pictures. There was also Monica, in Juarez, Mexico, who covered one of the most dangerous borders in the world with thousands of photographs. For street artist JR, these stories prove that art can change the world.
INSIDE OUT shows that when we act together, the whole thing is much more than the sum of its parts. JR’s hope is that, together, we’ll create something that the whole world will remember.