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The City is a Canvas

It’s not easy being subversive. Oh sure, there are the clandestine meetings, the lurking about with dodgy characters, the guerrilla strikes in the middle of the night—all de rigueur risk. But if you’re good at what you do, the really hard part comes when you wake up one day to discover that the prosecco set likes you. Really likes you. The mayor even sanctions your previously illegal activity—tough break there. On come the interviews, the magazine covers, and—more bad luck—a TED Prize. Is there such a thing as a subversive celebrity?

Women Are Heroes, Rio de Janeiro, 2008. All images courtesy JR and Agence VU.

Click image above to view slideshow.

And yet such seems to be the fate of JR, the 27-year-old French street artist known only by his initials. Seemingly well launched on a career as a street punk at the age of 13, his life changed at 17 when he found a camera left behind on the Paris Métro. Spraying graffiti became less interesting than posting photographs of his fellow graffitimeisters. And then came inspiration and fame: the 2004 project, Portraits of a Generation, featuring photographic portraits of disenfranchised immigrant youths from the Paris suburbs—pasted on city walls without permission.

Portraiture allowed JR to put a face on political issues, to make them social issues as well. The Face2Face project featured pairings of Israelis and Palestinians; Women Are Heroes brought attention to one of the most notorious favelas in Rio de Janeiro. The city is his canvas, and he has found an ample supply around the world: Kenya, Brazil, Liberia, India, Cambodia, Shanghai, Los Angeles. Calling himself a photograffeur, he is fiercely protective of his anonymity and continues to work largely by stealth with a trusted team. He rejects corporate sponsorship, funding his projects through sales of books and photos of his installations.

JR takes his place among the pantheon of bad boys who have elevated graffiti to “street art”: Basquiat, Haring, Banksy, and others. (Shepard Fairey tries too hard to be bad; Boston’s Pixnit is a girl.) While building owners, neighborhood activists, and police gang units understandably rail against vandalism and a phenomenon that revels in its illegality, art-world tastemakers have already pushed the underground movement toward the bright light of commercialism.

JR exudes an earnestness that suggests that he is resisting the sell-out. His work is at its best at its most political; but even these projects seem to share the innocence of Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man, the landmark 1955 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art rep-resenting an age before we became cynical and ironic. No doubt Abercrombie & Fitch ad directors will find inspiration in his work. But so, too, will other artists and, yes, architects, who will see new creative possibilities in walls, rooftops, and entire cityscapes.