“I didn’t spend enough time in school for any of the teachers to remember me. The only role models I had were the guys in the neighbourhood doing graffiti,” reflects JR, on his journey from street-smart tagger to world-famous conceptual artist. “I guess what’s nice is now, at 38, I can tell my mother I am not a vandal but an artist.”
The career trajectory of the first-generation Frenchman, who refuses to publicly reveal his real name, has been fascinating to observe. With a mother from eastern Europe and a father from Tunisia, JR grew up on the wrong side of the Périphérique, a ring-road that acts as a barrier between the middle-class districts of central Paris and the concrete jungle of project buildings on the city’s outskirts that are home to a largely immigrant population. “It was tough, but there was always such a great sense of community,” he says from a plush art studio that’s only a few minutes away from the Parisian grave of Jim Morrison. “Doing graffiti meant that I had to have eyes in the back of my head. Even today, I am always naturally looking around [for the police].”
JR spent much of his childhood being chased by law enforcement angered at the noxious smell of his paint fumes, yet he managed to turn his raw connection to the street into a successful career that has been weighted on turning real-life communities into living, breathing art installations. Over the past 15 years, JR has illegally pasted giant portraits of everyday Israelis and Palestinians on either side of the separation wall to highlight the two groups’ similarities, installed a giant set of mournful eyes on the Mexico and US border to criticise the barbarity of punishing immigrants escaping poverty for a better life, and placed stirring shots of pensioners in cross-global communities where the local elders felt like their voices had been erased.
JR erects these building-sized photographs with the permission and help of locals, the process an extension of the socialist politics he holds close to his heart. “I realised very early on that I was obsessed by the power of community,” explains the artist, whose high-profile advocates include Banksy and the late Agnès Varda. “The process of making art together [in a big group] is actually far more interesting than the final piece. My main aim is to show the humanity in people.”
The aforementioned pieces will be celebrated throughout June in the JR: Chronicles exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery, his first major art show in the UK. Has coming from a working-class background ever felt like a barrier to success in the art world? “No,” comes the assured reply. “It actually made it easier now that I think about it [more]. Growing up I knew zero artists. I didn’t even know who Basquiat was. But that meant I was forced to figure it all out.
“Rather than just being born into privilege [of the art world], I had this freedom to experiment because I had no preconceptions of anything. It means I wasn’t scared to take risks or talk to people,” adds the dapper, fedora-wearing artist.
The new exhibition traces JR’s artistic evolution from graffiti artist to architectural interventionist. Yet it’s one of the artist’s early photographs that arguably leaves the biggest impression. A shot of JR’s childhood friend Ladj Ly (who went on to become an Oscar-nominated film-maker) clutching a camera like a machine gun, while surrounded by kids on the block, has lost none of its power in 2021. Taken in 2004 in Les Bosquets housing project, the shot took on a deeper meaning after this community became the nucleus for countryside riots in 2005 when two local teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted after hiding in a nearby electrical substation following being chased by police. When the riots broke out and images of the protests were broadcast on television channels across the world, JR’s shot, which he had blown up and pasted on buildings throughout the burning suburb of Montfermeil, was often seen in the background of news reports.
Its central idea – of the oppressed turning the camera back on an audience that has been brainwashed by the media into looking at them purely as looters and dissenters – remains timeless. “That photo was an insight into our lives. We painted it on the buildings in the area [just before the riots] and the mayor sued us,” JR recalls. “The riots, which were the largest since the French Revolution, started at an electrical station that was just a few steps away from that photo. The media were ever-present, pointing their cameras like guns. It was about pointing it back at them and changing the power balance. Maybe the image has more power now than it did at the time.”
JR admits the France he lives in today, which has seen a rise in Covid deniers, is a ripe breeding ground for “radicalism and extremism”. Yet he insists: “As an artist I am not here to judge. Who am I to say we should change this or that? I don’t let the heavy energy that can happen around me impact my work. It’s a mental fight, but when you choose to be an artist, you choose to fight all of your life.”
This fearlessness is something JR is proud of. He tells me of how he transformed favelas in Rio into an art piece celebrating local women, something he achieved by getting the permission of everyone from politicians to drug dealers and the homeless population. “There have been moments where I have feared for my life,” he admits. “But I always believed in what I was doing because I did it in partnership with the community.” He was most scared by a visit to North Korea. “If I go to a country and the streets are clean with zero graffiti then that tells me the people are unable to express themselves. It’s a marker for me to say they don’t have rights. I realised that quickly in North Korea. If I continued there then they would have locked me up.”
However, there’s an argument that not all of JR’s work has aged well. The idea behind his 2007 project Face 2 Face, where shots of everyday workers such as Palestinian and Israeli taxi drivers are sat side-by-side through the border line, seems to be built around showing that the two conflicting sides have more similarities than differences. Yet with tensions and inequality only rising in the years since, some would argue this message no longer holds up.
“I never try to compare,” he replies. “I don’t say the wall should be bigger or smaller. Who am I to say that? As an artist I don’t offer answers, I raise questions. I think it’s important that people go there and speak to the Israelis and Palestinians and listen to their POV [as that’s what will create change]. But they often don’t take the chance; they would sooner go to Ibiza.”
JR agrees that a lot of art and photography that is centred around poor communities can be voyeuristic. Yet he claims he has seen a universal demand for his projects coming to your local city or town. To date he has sent 400,000 posters to more than 130 countries, so locals can create their own JR-esque projects. “I never walk in with any brand,” he clarifies. “I don’t impose communication of any product on the people. Because of where I come from, I know how important it is to listen to their perspectives. I want to show their dignity.”
The Saatchi exhibition also features The Wrinkles of the City (2008-15), a multi-city project illuminating the history and perspective of some of society’s oldest citizens. JR, who in 2017 co-directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Faces Places with Varda, says the French film-maker changed the way he looks at growing old. “Because of my upbringing, it was normal to be under the same roof as your grandparents. But spending so much time with Agnès really taught me of the power of being inquisitive, no matter your age,” he says.
“She was more curious than anyone I ever met, even at 90. Until her last day, right before she died, she was planning her next show. That is something people often misunderstand between our friendship; we were considering ourselves the same age. We didn’t see any age difference. I was talking to her like I would talk to any young artist. Sometimes people saw her more as an elderly person, who deserved more respect somehow, but she hated it. Why at a certain age can’t you think a certain way? We tried to show that in our encounters.”
Aside from his role as teacher to art students and even as restaurateur (JR helped create Refettorio Paris, a restaurant where Michelin-starred chefs create meals from surplus food for the city’s elderly and homeless), JR says he is most committed to maintaining the positive outlook that has long defined his work. He concludes: “Being an artist, you can’t ever renounce the idea of believing in a better world. Agnès certainly believed in that, and when I wake up in the morning, I don’t give myself any other choice. Perhaps I am naively invested in the idea of utopianism, but if, as artists, we lose that utopianism then I think the world becomes lost.”