The story of the French street artist who goes by the name JR is not unlike that of most graffiti artists. At the age of 15, equipped with a can of spray paint, he began scribbling his name on every building he came across. He never viewed his activity as an art form, rather as a way of making his mark on history. Over time, JR began photographing his adventures and those of his friends. But then something changed. At the age of 25, JR found himself in the midst of the social unrest that was taking place in Paris. He decided it was a time for change, and he began contributing the only way he knew how. With the use of paste and a photocopier, JR began illegally posting massive portraits of Parisian “thugs” on the walls of city buildings. The public was confronted with towering images of the people they feared most and sought to avoid. JR used his art silently to provoke conversation. During his 2011 lecture for the TED organization, he commented that, “it was there that I learned the power of paper and glue. So could art change the world?”
Since then, JR has viewed the world as his gallery space, using everything from streetcars to synagogues as his canvas. He pastes up portraits of members of the community as a way to raise questions. He is interested in documenting the community, not the conflict, which is what separates him from most photojournalists. He has traveled to the Middle East during the heart of the Palestinian conflict and to war-torn nations in Africa. When anyone asked what he was doing, he simply responded with, “art. I’m just doing art.”
Due to the nature of the medium, his work becomes the property of the viewer after he leaves. Decay is part of the process. The passer-by is welcome to graffiti over his work and, over time, weather wears the image down to nothing more than a memory. His art is not meant to change the world; it is meant to change the way we see the world.
He said, “What we see changes who we are. So I hope that, together, we’ll create something that the world will remember. And this starts right now and depends on you.”