If all the world’s a stage, it may as well be a canvas too.
As you visit Paris, scurrying perhaps between one art museum and another, keep your eyes peeled for the many works of art on display right out on the street: sprayed or stenciled on a wall, pasted to a pillar, affixed to a street corner or integrated into a road sign.
The streets are probably the best place to view the very latest, freshest contemporary art. Some of the works you see may have been added in the wee hours of the previous night. Often ephemeral, always changing, it turns a city’s public spaces into an open-air museum for all to enjoy. No entrance fee necessary.
In Paris, street art (or art de rue in French) as we know it today began to appear in the late 1960s. One of the first major works was the 1971 installation Les Gisants de la Commune de Paris by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, who is still active today. Paying homage to the Paris Commune revolt 100 years earlier, it consisted of silk-screened images of fallen men unfurled down the steps leading to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in the Montmartre district.
“Places are my essential materials,” the artist told biographer André Velter in a 2014 interview. “I try to understand, to grasp everything that can be seen there—space, light, colors—and at the same time everything that cannot or can no longer be seen: history, buried memories.”
For more about the history of street art in France, I recommend this Widewalls article. Also check out the highly entertaining Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop for an insider’s view of installing art around the city in the dead of night (Paris features prominently).
One of my favorite street artists is Invader, who in 1998 began his ongoing project Space Invaders. As of this writing, there are now 3,564 of his tile-mosaic creatures in 74 cities around the globe. See him at work here.
In homage to the 1980s video game that inspired his characters, the artist created a game, Flash Invaders, in which players compete to scan as many mosaics as they can with their mobile phones. Each piece has its own number of points depending on size and elaborateness, and when you scan Invaders in new cities you get bonus points. Since the artist is French, Paris is the city with the largest number of these creations (1,305 as of today), and finding new ones as I go about my daily life is always a little thrill.
Street art is something you will inevitably notice as you stroll around Paris, but the works are often enigmatic. Why do Kashink‘s faces always have four eyes and a mustache? What does it mean when a little crown is spray-painted above a head by another artist?
Whether you live here or will be passing through, a fun way to learn more about street art in Paris is to join one of the English-language street art walking tours offered by Kasia Klon, who is an artist herself. During each three-hour tour, she focuses on a specific district of Paris (La Butte-aux-Cailles, Belleville, Montmartre and others) and also offers tours in a few of the near suburbs. Kasia takes you straight to the most interesting works, often pointing out pieces that you wouldn’t have noticed on your own, explaining their significance, back stories and how they fit in with the history of Paris. When a series of pieces by different artists appear together on a single wall, she highlights the subtle common themes between them, showing how the artists have responded to and built upon each other’s work. As she knows many of the street artists in Paris personally, she can offer insights that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
Kasia’s tours are now listed above all other street art walking tours on Tripadvisor and were named Second-Best Tour of Paris in 2016 and 2017 (for all tour categories combined) by Expatriates Magazine as well as Local Experience of the year 2018 for Paris by Travel & Hospitality Awards. She is also the only official guide for the Street Art 13 mural project launched by Galerie Itinerrance.
The following are some noteworthy pieces I photographed in Paris and the suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, either on my own or during one of Kasia’s tours.
Robert Dalban from Les Tontons Flingueurs, revisited with nicer weapons by Jaeraymie.
Muhammed Ali and Ryu from Street Fighter face off in the Butte-aux-Cailles district (Combo).
Yarn bombing (artist unknown).
A mural by German artist MadC.
Fierce warriors guarding (or menacing?) Vitry-sur-Seine (Kouka).
A decidedly chill Zelda Bomba face looks over toward Canal Saint-Martin.
A wheat-paste figure gives me a taste of my own medicine (Noar Noarnito).
A unique figure in the Batignolles district by Anne-Laure Maison.
A portrait of late singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and (not late!) partner Jane Birkin on the façade of their rue de Verneuil residence, which keeps getting covered by more layers of new street art paying tribute to them (Jo Di Bona).
A few of Kashink‘s four-eyed characters, this time in a special project called Kashink Kids, in which local children are invited to fill in the faces.
A crow’s nest in the Batignolles district (artist unknown).
Heartcraft‘s stickers spread kisses and love all over the city.
A collaboration in Vitry-sur-Seine (artists unknown).
Persian calligraphy by Iranian artist A1one.
Kabuki theater with Irish artist Fin Dac.
A portrait of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who helped legalize same-sex marriage in France (C215).
A decidedly French robot in Vitry-sur-Seine by Italian artist Pixel Pancho.
And sometimes all it takes to create a work of art is a well-placed heart (artist unknown).
Finally, whether you join a street art tour or strike out on your own, be sure to wear comfy walking shoes!