Street art in Paris

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.

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Elf-like creatures by Fred Lechevalier try to get a better view of the city’s most famous landmark.

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.

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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).

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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.

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Robert Dalban from Les Tontons Flingueurs, revisited with nicer weapons by Jaeraymie.

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A Space Invader eyes the road construction with some trepidation, while a calmer person with ruffly clothes takes it in their stride (Invader and Kam & Laurène).

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Muhammed Ali and Ryu from Street Fighter face off in the Butte-aux-Cailles district (Combo).

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Yarn bombing (artist unknown).

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A mural by German artist MadC.

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Fierce warriors guarding (or menacing?) Vitry-sur-Seine (Kouka).

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A decidedly chill Zelda Bomba face looks over toward Canal Saint-Martin.

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A cat and some other creatures brighten the way to this parking garage thanks to Lala Saidko and Bebar.

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A wheat-paste figure gives me a taste of my own medicine (Noar Noarnito).

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A street sign revisited by Clet Abraham next to yet another Invader.

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American artist Alloyius McIlwaine brings life to this wall (see it happen here).

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A unique figure in the Batignolles district by Anne-Laure Maison.

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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).

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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.

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A crow’s nest in the Batignolles district (artist unknown).

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Heartcraft‘s stickers spread kisses and love all over the city.

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A collaboration in Vitry-sur-Seine (artists unknown).

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Persian calligraphy by Iranian artist A1one.

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Kabuki theater with Irish artist Fin Dac.

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A portrait of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who helped legalize same-sex marriage in France (C215).

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A decidedly French robot in Vitry-sur-Seine by Italian artist Pixel Pancho.

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And sometimes all it takes to create a work of art is a well-placed heart (artist unknown).

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Finally, whether you join a street art tour or strike out on your own, be sure to wear comfy walking shoes!

More information about Kasia’s street art tours can be found on her website. Also check out her Facebook page and Instagram.

Decking the halls

I’m not usually one for holidays. Halloween? Eh. Fourth of July? Don’t really feel it. New Year’s Eve? I guess. I just don’t really get worked up over many of them. But Christmas is another story. Not for the consumerism aspect—in fact, a few years ago, my family and I agreed not to exchange Christmas gifts anymore unless we see each other in person—but for the decorations, the carols, the old movies and the joyousness of it all. Maybe it’s also because everything instantly takes a vintagey turn once this holiday comes around.

Anyway, when I’m in Paris in the holiday season, one of my favorite things to do is to check out the window displays of the beautiful old department stores on boulevard Haussmann. Every year, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette unveil elaborate holiday-themed dioramas, complete with animatronic dolls, highlighting the apparel, shoes, confectionery and other high-end wares on offer. At Printemps, they spend three months creating the props for the displays, which are designed a year in advance. An estimated 10 million people come to see them annually, and they’re naturally a hit with children, who love climbing up on the wooden platforms to get a closer look.

The best display I’ve seen so far, a few years back, showed a swarm of little Karl Lagerfelds preparing to direct a fashion shoot on the streets of a monochromatic Paris as catwalk music played.

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So, the other day, I happened to be in the area and decided to check out this year’s windows. This year, the showcases tell the story of Jules and Violette, two children with old-timey names who wake up in the store in the middle of the night and amuse themselves in the various departments, meeting strange characters along the way. Some 70 dolls and marionettes were created over a three-month period for these dreamscapes, and the installation took two weeks. Below is a selection of my photos, but don’t miss this interesting five-minute documentary showing everything in motion.

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Inside Galeries Lafayette there’s always a Christmas tree set up under the stained-glass cupola. The beautiful 1912 Art Nouveau structure alone is worth the detour, with its graceful undulating balconies decorated with floral motifs and gold paint. As you ascend the levels, you get an increasingly interesting view of the tree, animatronic decorations (polar bears in aerial cable cars, this year) and the bustling perfume and cosmetics department on the ground floor below. Altogether, it looks like some kind of futuristic, self-sufficient Edwardian city enclosed under a weatherproof dome, which strikes me as a pretty cool place to live.

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While there, I stopped in at Lafayette Gourmet across the street from the main building with the cupola. Offering high-end deli foods and grocery items of every description, it reminds me a bit of Harrods in London. But this is something that really deserves a post of its own, so more on that another time.

To my delight, another new arrival on boulevard Haussmann is a Prêt à Manger! People reading these lines from England may despair of me, as this chain (which, despite the name, is English) is tuppence-a-dozen over there, and you can hardly go two blocks without passing one. But I actually really like Prêt, or at least the concept of it—we have a similar (Belgian-owned) chain in Paris called Exki—fast food that isn’t so unhealthy. Anyway, I wandered into this Prêt mainly out of curiosity, to see if they had any veggie things. Although there’s usually a vegan option at the ones in London, in Paris I wasn’t expecting all that much. But what did I find? A vegan Mediterranean sandwich with avocado, Kalamata olives, pinenuts, arugula, basil and sundried tomatoes—and only one of them, sitting there as if waiting just for me. I could not resist. What’s more, they also have soy milk for hot beverages (another rarity in France). A yummy sandwich AND a cappuccino? That was the cherry on top of an already nice afternoon.

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So if you ever find yourself in Paris in December, these are a few things you can do to soak up the holiday ambiance. Free of charge, unless of course if you opt for a sandwich and hot beverage!

Little South Asia

Some years ago, I lived in San Francisco—still one of my favorite cities. One of the things I loved about it was its neighborhoods populated by minority ethnic groups, including Chinatown, North Beach (Italian), the Mission (Latin American), Japantown and even a tiny French area (a few restaurants, a French church and the French consulate between Union Square and Chinatown). I loved the cultural and linguistic plurality these areas brought to the city, in the form of distinct architecture, street signs and advertisements in languages other than English, restaurants and grocery stores selling foods from other lands. In some of these districts, especially Chinatown and the Mission, I sometimes felt as though I had stumbled through a portal to another land.

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Like any self-respecting major city, Paris has its minority ethnic neighborhoods too. My favorite one is the area roughly between and around La Chapelle, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, home to large numbers of people whose families hail from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan as well as countries farther afield such as Madagascar and Mauritius. There isn’t really an official name for this neighborhood, although I very often hear it referred to as the quartier sri lankais. For the sake of full inclusion I will refer to it here as Little South Asia.

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All along rue du Faubourg Saint Denis and the various side streets are shops selling colorful saris and jewelry, sweets and Bollywood DVDs, as well as restaurants and cash & carry stores. Garlands and fluttering mobiles can sometimes be seen decorating the streets for various holidays.

The most festive time of year in this neighborhood is definitely La Fête de Ganesh in late August or early September, when an elaborate and spectacular parade honoring the elephant god winds through the streets from the Temple Sri Manika Vinayakar Alayam (17 rue Pajol) around the La Chapelle area and back again. The participants include women wearing pots of burning camphor on their heads, shirtless men pulling the Ganesh statue down the street with ropes, flutists and drummers, mustachioed dancers with papier-mâché horses and larger-than-life ambulant statues. The festivities are accompanied by energetic smashing of coconuts on the streets and free distribution of cold drinks.

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The rest of the year, this neighborhood’s main draw for me is VT Cash & Carry (11-15 rue Cail), a wonderland of spices, lentils, nuts, teas and exotic fruits and vegetables hidden behind a nondescript storefront on a side street. When you enter, the shop at first appears to be fairly small and cramped, as many of the cash & carrys (carries?) in the neighborhood are. But as you proceed further through the coats at the back of the wardrobe, it opens up, revealing a much larger space full of aisles packed to the ceiling with wares and edibles of all kinds.

It is of course a great place for spices, both common and rare, at better prices than at mainstream grocery stores. And it’s also where you can stock up on staples like lentils, rice, flours and grains.

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Lentils of every description and color!

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If you’ve got the muscles to carry it, and room at home to store it, a 20 kg (44 lb.) bag of rice is really your best buy. Or, of course, if you run a restaurant…

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Every time I go here, I plan to get a can of ramboutans to see what they taste like, but then I invariably end up with too many other heavy things and decide to leave it for the next trip.

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Some interesting jams and chutneys (ginger, chow chow, candied citrus peel, pineapple, lime, ambarella, passionfruit, tamarind, soursop, baobab and more) and a mysterious English thing called golden syrup that I have not tried yet. My favorite jam ever, which I discovered here, is made with physalis fruit, also known as aguaymanto in Peru and pok-pok in Madagascar, where this particular brand comes from. It is simply heavenly, with a tanginess reminiscent of kiwi and a sweeter side that brings to mind raisins or dried cherries.

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These metal bowls, usually seen only at restaurants, are an elegant way to serve dal or curries at home.

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Here, you can get many imported European items that are hard to find elsewhere, such as Marmite (if you enjoy it, or like me are trying to acquire a taste for it), psyllium powder (good for thickening raw desserts), date syrup, the aforementioned golden syrup and (not shown) Heinz baked beans, cream crackers, Scottish and Irish oatmeals and baking ingredients. VT Cash & Carry is also the place to head when you’re looking for your favorite brands of English tea.

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Other often-tricky-to-find items include fonio, an African semolina, and peanut butter. Yep, in France peanut butter is a somewhat exotic item. You can still usually find it at regular grocery stores, but at really high prices. My favorite place to get PB is actually at Franprix, in their growing organic & fair-trade section, both because of these characteristics and because the taste is just nice.

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Some ready-made sauces in foil packets that you immerse in hot water to heat up. Some of them are vegan (just check the ingredients carefully).

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The produce section always contains a few items I’m unfamiliar with, so I sometimes buy things to find out for myself what they are and how they taste (trying to remember to note down the name before leaving the store!). Here, among other things I was already able to identify, we have fresh and dried turmeric root.

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I did once buy a wood apple in spite of an Indian fellow shopper’s warning that they aren’t very good. Turns out she was right!

Also available toward the front of the store is sugarcane, young coconut (good for raw dishes) and fresh aloe leaves.

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If after your lengthy shopping experience you need to rest a bit before facing the crush of people on the metro ride home, pop into one of the three Krishna Bhavan restaurants on the same street (at 15, 21 or 24 rue Cail) for a tasty bite. At the one shown above you can also get take-out veggie samosas at the front counter for €1 a piece.

Enjoy your explorations!

Vide-grenier

Every fall, an event is held in my neighborhood that I look forward to with much the same excitement I used to feel when I was little and Christmas was approaching: the vide-grenier. Literally “attic-emptying”, it’s what we in the States call a rummage sale.

Paris is also home to the largest antiques market in Europe, Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen just north of the city limit. It’s like a gigantic partially outdoor museum of beautiful furnishings and art, and I love to visit it, but it can be a source of frustration in that the prices are often prohibitive. This is where rummage sales become an attractive alternative. But they’re also an excellent way to renew your wardrobe or book collection at low cost while helping maximize the longevity of consumer goods and protesting planned obsolescence. Plus, pretty much everything you find is unique.

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For a small sum, neighborhood residents can sell unneeded items from a space on a street bordering the park or an adjoining street a block away. Like at rummage sales all over in the world, you can find dishes, clothes, books, jigsaw puzzles and Scrabble games.

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Everything 60s at this table. I adored the color of the deep turquoise ashtray, but couldn’t talk myself into buying an ashtray.

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Pre-loved mystery novels with yellowing vanilla-scented pages. I love the typeface and simple illustration.

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I quite liked this large oil painting, but don’t have enough wall space at my place. But it would be perfectly at home in a cobbler’s shop (of which there are still many in Paris).

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Like Proust and his madeleines, one look at an album like this whisks me back in time to my grandparents’ house.

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This table was run by a man and his pre-teen son, who seemed to be liquidating his toy-car collection in preparation for adulthood. I bought the Paris bus (more on that later) but soon noticed that one of the wheels was missing. The boy briefly rummaged around for it at the bottom of a box to no avail, and then, regaining control of the situation, puffed out his chest and instructed his father to refund me 50 cents.

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What seems like a reasonable thing to buy while on vacation often ends up at a rummage sale. Souvenir plates from various European destinations are a mainstay of Parisian sales. Andorra is a common one, for some reason.

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Another item you always find at French rummage sales is ceramic fèves from inside the galette des rois (king cake), which is traditionally eaten in January. Whoever gets the piece with the fève hidden inside is the king or queen of the evening, and gets to wear the paper crown supplied with the cake. Some people become serious collectors of fèves, which are often figurines of people in medieval dress but can take other forms. The word fève means bean, as a dry bean was originally the thing hidden inside these cakes when it first came into being some 300 years ago. I picked up two of these for 50 cents each.

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An ingenious telephone-lamp, from the 60s and made in the 60s, as the stand-keeper explained. Both parts work! Somehow I can’t help thinking of Jemaine’s camera-phone on Flight of the Conchords.

So what did I end up taking home?

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One of my best finds this year! A recipe book whose title could be translated Cooking with the Mafia—now that’s something you just can’t refuse. The lady at the stand, recognizing my accent, told me in very good English that her mother was American. She threw in this little cookbook for free. What is American cuisine? Even I am not sure.

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A set of presses for making beautifully shaped turnovers and ravioli. May just come in handy for the Mafia book!

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A set of old metal canisters for tea, coffee and sugar.

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My personal collection of fèves, with a 50 euro-cent piece (similar in size to a US quarter) for scale. The pink lady and purple guy in the back row are the new acquisitions.

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The bus! I think this is my favorite among all the things I found. I love that it’s a replica of the real buses of Paris (even bearing the RATP logo), and I find it so charming that a vehicle as decidedly unglamorous as an articulated city bus was manufactured in miniature for children who, one imagines, would normally be more interested in racecars. I also couldn’t resist getting this mini Paris garbage truck for my three-year-old nephew, who has a burning passion for anything on wheels. I often take photos for him of the real thing—much to the amusement of the garbage-truck men, when they catch me—and send them to his mom via Telegram. Actually, I have a feeling he’ll end up with the bus too.

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All aboard for Porte d’Italie!

My neighborhood has its big vide-grenier only once a year, but there are other ones in different parts of the city most weekends. Sometimes they’re devoted to higher-priced antiques, art or stamps, in which case it might be referred to as a brocante. Whether you live here or will just be passing through, you can check out this dedicated site to find upcoming vide-greniers all over France.