Who is JR?

Not much is known about the semi-anonymous artist who calls himself "JR." We know that he is young—flirting with age 30—French, and presumably has a name involving the letters "JR." But not much else is known about the enigmatic past of the artist who has emerged on the world stage as the most lauded street artist since Banksy.

When people hear the words "street art," they immediately picture graffiti: spray-painted images, slogans, or "tags," illegally marked onto the side of derelict urban buildings. This idea of street art must be abandoned when examining the oeuvre of JR. While it is true that JR began as a traditional street artist, using aerosol spray cans to paint on buildings around his native Paris, his artwork and his vision drastically changed when he discovered a camera that had been lost on the Paris metro. He began to document his artistic escapades, and those of his friends, and eventually abandoned traditional graffiti for something more easily duplicable: photocopies of the pictures themselves. Thus began the principle act of JR's craft, the pasting of large copies of his photographs on the sides of buildings. As with most street art, this started out as an illegal act, and one that mainly took place on the sides of run-down urban structures.

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But then something happened: JR's art started to capture things that were extremely relevant to the general public, and capture them in extraordinary ways. His exhibitPortraits of a Generation spanned the 2006 youth protests and riots, a turbulent period in recent French history. It would've been easy for JR to capture scenes of burning cars, looted stores, or angry teenagers holding weapons; the essential stock photographs of a small-scale revolution, material that would surely gain him some acclaim and media attention. But JR did the opposite: in a time where there was rhetoric about the pervasive lines drawn by race and class in modern French society, JR chose to challenge the paradigms and media representations of the rioting youth. He visited friends in housing projects and captured them in a way the media had not, and perhaps had chosen to not: black French youth making funny faces, teenagers of Middle Eastern origin crossing their eyes at the camera— images that were unexpected, light-hearted, honest and, above all else, human.

JR blew up the photos to huge formats, and pasted them on the walls of the most bourgeois areas of Paris. It was all very illegal… at first. But there was something unmistakably powerful about JR's art: these were giant images of individuals previously viewed to be dangerous thugs, but here they were: kids, fooling around, unthreatening. JR's images worked to diminish the tension inherent in interactions between Parisians in the mainstream and in the margins. And then something happened: his images were wrapped around the buildings of the Paris City Hall. And then JR's street art became "official." Although he would have continued even if it hadn't.

From Paris, JR began to work on the largest canvas on earth: the world itself. His work has taken him all around the globe, from his famous Face 2 Face exhibition where he posted pictures of Palestinians and Israelis face to face in a number of Palestinian and Israeli cities and on the Wall itself; to the most dangerous favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or the space above the High Line in New York City. His work captures the faces of the world's marginalized groups and populations: women, the extremely poor, the indigenous. He takes those who are often off the radar and makes them a large and profound part of the everyday experience of cities. His art does more than turns heads, it changes perceptions.

JR’s work has won wide international acclaim, even winning him the 2011 TED Prize. At first put off at the notion that he was supposed to save the world, JR sighed when the mandate was clarified: change the world, not save the world. “Oh, alright,” he said. “That’s cool.” In a TED Talk later in 2011, he continued by saying, “Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world.” And his art really has.

Calah Singleton recently graduated from Yale, where she majored in Political Science. Her interests include urban studies, international development, and learning new languages. 

Images courtsey of www.jr-art.net