A Conversation With JR, Intrepid French Street Artist


French street artist JR claims to own the world's biggest art gallery. A semi-anonymous photographer who won this year's TED Prize, he posts giant portraits of human faces where people least expect it, from the facades of favelas in Brazil to broken bridges in Kenya's capital city.

The photographer, who goes by his initials because his work often involves criminal trespass, uses public art to tell stories of the voiceless. Since finding his first camera on the Paris metro, JR has plastered portraits of thugs in rich French neighborhoods; mounted side-by-side images of Palestinians and Israelis on the West Bank separation barrier; and displayed photos of dignified women in areas of conflict around the globe.

Hoping to spread his movement farther, JR created the INSIDE OUT project so other people can make a statement with their own enlarged photographs. Here, the artist discusses the blurred line between art and its audience, the danger of brand sponsorship, and why people should see their cities as a canvas.

What do you say when people ask you, 'What do you do?'

I am an all-surface wallpaper man that retired to become a printer.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about art?

The Internet doesn't always play a great role for art, especially art in the street, as people take what they see for the final image of it. But the most interesting thing about street art is to see it for real, to understand what it means and where it's displayed. Not seeing it in person is like visiting a museum online -- you miss the spirit of the artwork.

Most of the time people look at a piece of art online when it is just a few blocks from their house. Changing the way you walk home everyday fills life with surprises.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

That there is a story behind the image. In my work, for example, an image is just the first layer of the work. The context, the people behind it, and the time it took to create it gives the actual frame of the artwork.

What's something that continues to interest you about your work?

One thing that I find interesting in this process is to actually leave one of my pieces of art in the street. You can be a part of it by being the portrait, helping to paste it on the wall, or just walking in front of it, even months or a year later, seeing it deteriorate.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the art world?

The walls are falling in many institutions. The artists have hundreds of ways to show their work by themselves if a gallery doesn't want to exhibit it. Reaching your public is easier than it was 10 years ago, which is affecting the art market in hundreds of ways. For me, the gallery legitimates the art production and helps build collections. I don't think an artist should do everything by himself forever. I did it for years and then slowly built my circle of trust. I have been working with the same team for 10 years.

What's an art or design trend that you wish would go away?

The way that brands take over the artists, sometimes not supporting them but using them. I believe there is a very fine line and a frame to respect if you want to keep your ethic. As most of the financing from states has disappeared, the only way left to live from your art, for the ones who don't sell in galleries, is through brands.

Most of the brands don't actually support the artists for the purpose of the artists' goals, but for their own communication beliefs. I am still dreaming of patronage and philanthropy, but all I see is sponsoring.

Who are some people that you'd put in the street art Hall of Fame?

I am impressed by the work of Zevs because his artwork has been evolving for more than 15 years in the same direction, digging in different ways. He is a complete artist for me. I like Blu because he has a strong statement about financing and he sticks to it. Even if he could get more money by signing with many brands, he is still making his work happen all around the world -- proving that it's possible without having to create a business around your work.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Photography was always a medium [that interested me]. Either I took photographs or not. I might evolve into sculpture or installations. Whatever it takes to make art.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

My two hands. My work is really minimal; I have to paste strips one after the other, for days or months, with hundreds or thousands of people. That's what I like about the pasting: uniting people.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"The Rose With a Broken Neck," by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi.