Street art belongs to no one – and to anyone. That’s the philosophy of two Parisians who have used it to remake their neighbourhood. In 2004, an art prof called Mehdi Ben Cheikh opened an urban art gallery he dubbed Itinerrance. Located in the city’s 13th arrondissement, the artists it features are as varied as that quartier.
Via the Internet, Ben Cheikh locates them all over France but also in England, Chile, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Brazil. Others, like him, are Tunisian.
His neighbour Jérôme Coumet was born in the 13th; it’s where, at age 16, he joined the Socialist Party. In 2007, Coumet became the neighborhood’s mayor.
He was elected by a quartier of tower blocks and new Parisians. But this working-class area, home to many of Asian residents, has both history and heroes of its own. It’s home to the famous Gobelin tapestry works, the Bibliothèque Nationale, trendy Butte-aux-Cailles and Louis XIV’s Hôpital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière. Famously, much of Hugo’s Les Miserables also takes place there.
Mayor Coumet is passionate about art and attends every opening at Itinerrance. Early on, he became fast friends with its owner. Coumet was especially drawn to Ben Cheikh’s pet concept, that of making the quartier an ‘open-air museum’.
Coumet’s enthusiasm was welcome. Ben Cheikh knew the mayor could help artists work on a bigger scale. Street art, he maintains, needs a different kind of gallery. “Many of its artists are already stars online. So if they want to sell work, they can do it themselves. What they really need are different ways to intervene. They need someone to supply that change, someone who’ll make things happen”.
Right away, Coumet came up with propositions. The first was that a stencil artist called C215 (Christian Guémy) paint the electrical boxes sited along the river. Then the mayor took Ben Cheikh at his word about a ‘people’s museum’.
With the authorities and housing projects, they began to argue its pluses. Not least, of course, they also had to win over residents. As their actual works got commissioned and finished, they discovered less and less resistance.
Ever since the ’50s and ’60s, officials have wanted a “new” 13th. First city planners razed its old slums and street haunts, only to replace them with giant blocks. By the ’90s, their plan was to make it la Seine Rive Gauche, a costly gambit whose financing foundered. Transformed into the ZAC Rive Gauche initiative, it has resulted in a new bridge, a swimming pool in the Seine and the Cité de la Mode et du Design.
Although they are all successful, none have brought a new identity. It took sponsoring some spraycans to achieve that.
Not any random set of murals could have done this. But Coumet and Ben Cheikh make sure the street art is “more than decorative”. They want it to suit the surrounding architecture – as well as the mix of people who live and work in its shadow.
For the 13th, this means politics.
For instance, during April of 2011 the mayor wanted to salute Tunisia’s revolution. So he arranged for artist-activist Rero to stencil the slogan of Tunisian civil resisters (Dégage!) across a building. Owned by Paris Habitat, this hugs canvas was condemned. But, for two lively weeks, it was a living artwork.
In June 2012, with help from Ile-de-France authorities, Coumet backed a 50-metre-high work by artist Shepherd Fairey. While the work was being done, the name of its maker was secret. Nevertheless, when waiting at the nearby métro stop, Monsieur Le Maire was stunned to see a driver stop his train – just to leap out and grab a quick photo.
It remains one of his favourite stories.
Ben Cheikh was soon pursuing a showcase of his own: a tall, doomed tower block sitting on the edge of the Seine. By the end of summer 2013, he had permission to use it.
He recruited a hundred artists – with sixteen nationalities – then divided up every space between them. Carefully working around the few remaining residents, graffeurs from France, Brazil, Spain, Saudi Arabia, north Africa, Australia and America created something Ben Cheikh baptised Tour 13.
In October, their site opened for public visits. But the Tour was already a citywide sensation. Its fluorescent orange paint and external calligraphy by eL Seed were ultra-visible. By November, when it closed for demolition, over 25,000 visitors had been inside. Its art is preserved in hundreds of thousands of photos.
City authorities have not been slow to respond to such impact. Last summer, they offered a complementary smartphone app called My Paris Street Art. Technically, its maps cover every city arrondissement – but, clearly, it focuses on the 13th. Only last month, the neighbourhood unveiled Europe’s tallest mural: a 66 x 15 metre piece by Portuguese artist Pantónio (Antonio Correa).
These are not the kind of riches every mayor would treasure. But, in Paris 13, murals have come to matter. Artists, say Coumet, love to come and work here. “The minute they start a project, people are bringing them food all day – waffles, coffee, croissants.”
Many locals do even more than that. When the Chilean artist Inti (Inti Castro) worked on Avenue d’Italie, he proposed three projects. Residents and local business people then voted to determine which one they wanted. Involvement at mural unveilings is also high, involving old age pensioners as well as quartier youth. On a bet with Guémy, the mayor himself has even ascended to paint via cherry-picker.
Not all the area’s murals are made by artists from Ben Cheikh’s gallery. But the works are all donated – the quartier pays only for paint, required hydraulics and tools. Coumet is often asked how he persuades the artists to contribute.
His response is simple. “It’s because we’re Paris. In the mind of every artist, Paris remains the capital of art.”
• The Mairie of the 13th has an excellent guide to its street art parcours.
• If C215/Guémy paints in an area, he likes to do portraits of locals. Often these are “social exiles” such as the homeless, seniors – or even smokers.
When French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira (the power behind our ‘Marriage for All’) received an onslaught of racist abuse, C215 paid homage in the streets. In addition to the Minister’s open-air portrait, Guémy added her to Douce France – his gallery show at Itinnerance.
Taubira sought out the artist to thank him. This resulted in Guémy painting the Justice Ministry, as a part of the country’s Rendez-Nous Nos Filles/Bring Back Our Girls efforts.
• Tour 13 is the subject of a forthcoming documentary.