The Giants of Parisian Street Art

Written by J. Scott Orr

Street art has never been a more vital part of Paris’ artistic life’s blood than it is right now. Many factors have contributed to this flourishing citywide open-air museum. There’s the embrace of street art by Paris officials, its acceptance as a legitimate and valued contribution to the French capital’s culture and the love it draws from residents and visitors alike.

However, it would be a mistake to overlook the contributions of the first-generation street artists who crafted a legacy that allowed this culture to develop in Paris. Here are some artists of whose work was foundational in creating the city’s street art scene.

When Rat = Art

“Street art is made for the people who don’t have an access to art in galleries or museums,” – Blek le Rat

That rat is an anagram of art is not lost on Blek le Rat, perhaps France’s most famous and influential street artist. In countless interviews over the years the artist, recognized globally as the father of stencil graffiti, has said he was conscious of the letter-play in his street art sobriquet when he modified the name of 1950s comic book character Blek le Roc to create it.

The 70-year-old former Ecole des Beaux-Arts fine art and architecture student began his practice on the streets of Paris in the early 1980s, decorating the landscape with stenciled images of a rat, which he calls “​​the only free animals in cities.” His later creations, which melded stencils, paint and photos, never shied away from controversial topics including war, religion, and the plight of the underprivileged.

Blek, whose real name is Xavier Prou, and his ubiquitous rats brought stencil art into the forefront of a nascent street art movement in 1980s Paris. Eventually, his monochromatic masterpieces would include images of musicians, dancers, children, soldiers and other animals. Among his iconic images: The Man Who Walks Through Walls, Princess Diana, David avec AK-47 and the Mona Lisa.

Blek has been cited as an influence by no less a street art legend than Banksy, whose appropriation of Blek’s rat image is widely recognized. In a 2008 Daily Mail interview, the secretive British street art superstar acknowledged his indebtedness to his French predecessor: “Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek le Rat has done it too, only Blek did it 20 years earlier.”

But like all artists, Blek has also been influenced by those that came before him. Blek’s work Death Of Caravaggio acknowledges the inspiration he drew from the Italian master. Other masters that have been cited as his influences include Michelangelo, Guido Reni, and Leonardo da Vinci.

In a 2017 interview with Street Art News, Blek said he always believed street art would eventually find its place as a legitimate art form.

“Street art is made for the people who don’t have an access to art in galleries or museums,” he said. “I remember to be sure in 1981 that graffiti was the future of art and would be accepted by the people as an art in its own right. I did not know that it would take so long though,” he added.

Street Invasion

“I try to create pieces as adapted as possible to their location in terms of their immediate surroundings and the city and country,” — Invader

Invader is an innovative Parisian street artist who prefers tile mosaics to spray paint or wheat paste. His work can be found at locations around the globe and beyond, in outer space and below the ocean. Invader’s global exploits have included thousands of pieces in more than 80 cities across Europe, North America, Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Earlier this year, Invader went to Potosi, Bolivia, a city at an altitude of 4,000 meters, for his 4,000th work. This was his second highest tiny mosaic installed, the first from 2015 at an altitude of nearly 250 miles aboard the international space station. Those installations followed one currently in place below sea level, affixed to an underwater sculpture by Jason Taylor de Caires off the coast of Cancun.

Invader’s ubiquitous images harken to 1970s era 8-bit graphics made famous in video games like Space Invaders, from which he took his name, and may be intended as a comment on the encroachment of technology into people’s lives. Over the years Invader’s universe of subjects expanded to include characters from other games of the era like Pac-Man, Mario Brothers and Q*Bert.

While Invader often strives to place his works at heights that make them difficult to steal, their small size has made them vulnerable to theft. And his increasing fame has added to his work’s value, making them even more enticing to thieves. In 2020, Invader’s piece “Rubik Mona Lisa,” a recreation of the da Vinci masterpiece made using 300 Rubik’s Cubes, recently sold for more than half a million dollars.

In a more wholesome manner, Invader’s fans have embraced hunting his work for photos, most of which are small and easy to miss. Flash Invaders, an app launched in 2014, allows fans to earn points by locating and photographing his earthbound and above-water works.

“I try to create pieces as adapted as possible to their location in terms of their immediate surroundings and the city and country,” Invader said in a June interview with Sophie Stuber of Bloomberg CityLab. “I like the idea of taking people to parts of the world they would otherwise never visit, and on a more local level, to neighborhoods or back streets where no one usually goes,” he said.

The First Lady of Street Art

“So often it’s not understood that you can be young and beautiful and have things to say,” – Miss Tic

Miss Tic was among the world’s first female street artists, joining her male colleagues in the practice in the mid 1980s. Her death at 66 earlier this year saddened her colleagues and legions of fans worldwide. An early adopter to the emerging practice of stencil art, Miss Tic also was one of the first to bring words and pictures together into binary artistic creations.

Poetry is a luxury of first necessity.

To life, to love.

To live is the bomb.

Of my escapades I make frescoes.

In our secret gardens the desire is created.

These and so many other brief yet profound and poetic statements demonstrate her knack for dramatic wordplay. They are made all-the-more engaging when delivered to passersby on the streets of Paris by Miss Tic’s beautiful, sexy, formidable and self-assured, raven-haired pin-ups. Though she insisted her spokespeople were not based on her own stark beauty, the resemblance is hard to overlook.

She noted that it was the words that came first; the beautiful women were employed for their effectiveness in delivering them.

“I decided to find a spokesperson to report my quotes,” she told journalist Fanny Revault of Art Interview. “At the beginning, I went on self-portraits that I quickly abandoned and I was inspired by the images of women that we are given to see in the media, advertising, fashion… I decided that this muse, the woman of today, would carry my word,” she said.

Growing up as she did in the shadow of The Basilica of Sacré Coeur, it is no wonder that her works can be commonly found in the streets and alleys of surrounding Montmartre. After a 1999 arrest for defacing public property, Miss Tic changed her strategy and began seeking permission before breaking out the stencils. Her work found its way into galleries almost instantly and she produced art for global French fashion giants like Louis Vuitton and Kenzon.

Artist, poet, but perhaps more than anything Miss Tic will be remembered for the breakthrough she made for women in the art world and the staunch feminism that led her to the use of beautiful young women to make serious points.

“So often it’s not understood that you can be young and beautiful and have things to say,” she told Agence France-Presse in 2011.

The Art of Aérosol

“As long as I can paint, wherever that may be, I’ll keep doing so,” — Jef Aérosol

Another influential first-generation French street artist, Jef Aérosol began his stencil art practice on the streets of Tours in 1982. He soon adopted his trademark red arrow, which sets off his otherwise black-and-white pieces.

He credits Futura as an early influence, pointing to a touchstone moment when he saw the 1981 Paris performance of the Clash during which the New York graffiti artist live-created a mural as the band played.

“I had never seen anybody using a spray can for artistic purposes before. That was definitely a starting point for me. A year later or so, I started stenciling on the walls of Tours,” Aérosol told Widewalls in 2017.

Aérosol’s work often depicts the famous – Presley, Lennon, Hendrix, Basquiat, Dylan – but also anonymous characters like children, the homeless, beggars and buskers. His “Sitting Kid” image was the subject of a 2010 short film “The Sitting Kid in Hollywood.”

At 65, Aérosol acknowledges that the vagaries of age have slowed him a bit, but they have not dulled his appetite for creation. His next masterpiece may be only a half a spray can away.

“I still have the energy but the body doesn’t always allow! I know that I should slow down the pace, as my wife, friends and doctors tell me. But, as long as I can paint, wherever that may be, I’ll keep doing so,” he told Urban Culture Blog.

“My favorite piece is probably the next one,” he said in a 2014 interview with Almost CURATORS.

JR All Blown Up

“People were calling us vandalistes, and then they said street artists, and then artists—and I think “artist” is what I’ve always been, in a way, without knowing,” — JR

JR was an early Paris graffiti artist who found his artistic focus behind the lens of a camera, where he captured black-and-white images he would enlarge and display on surfaces ranging from the plaza surrounding the Louvre Pyramid, a prison in California, and the U.S. Mexico border wall.

Listing JR as one the “giants” of French street art is easy: if there was ever an artist who fits the term it is him. His work often includes stark and engaging images of the powerless and marginalized, but what sets them apart are their sheer gargantuan size. His website has an entire section called “Giants.”

Among his most noted, and biggest works: the 2019 installation that covered the yard of a maximum-security prison in Tehachapi, California, with images of inmates; the 2017 installation in Tecate Mexico of a giant image of the toddler Kikito playfully looking over the U.S.-Mexico border wall; and the 2019 installation that marked 30th anniversary of the Louvre Pyramid by covering the Napoleon Court to give the appearance of an excavation of the pyramid.

“As an artist, I can fail. I can try something and fail. But if it works, like the project in the prison, the project at the border, if that works, then it shows you, oh, maybe the world is not exactly how I imagined it was,” he said in a 2020 interview with Hari Sreenivasan of PBS.

In a 2018 interview with Juxtapoz, JR said he made the transition from graffiti writer to street artist after meeting other artists.

“When I started with graffiti, it was more a way of saying, ‘I exist.’…But then when I started meeting other graffiti writers and realizing there was a whole community, I kind of discovered a world.…People were calling us vandalistes, and then they said street artists, and then artists—and I think “artist” is what I’ve always been, in a way, without knowing,” he said.

When Art Interacts with Reality: Levalet

“I like the idea to give a body to a mental projection, and that each work live his own life, totally disconnected from me,” — Levalet

A man riding one of three ostriches. A dude shooting pool with a hand grenade. A man in a boat navigating a side street. A businessman taking a tumble, that one has appeared a couple times. These are all products of the whimsical mind and sketching talent of Charles Leval, better known under his pseudonym Levalet.

More than any of the other great Paris street artists, Lavalet infuses his black and white characters with playfulness and a sense of humor. A high school teacher in real life, Lavalet relies on exaggerated body language and frequent interaction between his hand drawn subjects and real-life items to bring his creations together. His wheat paste creations are hyper-realistic and always life-size.

“My first motivation is the desire to make my ideas and my phantasms exist even if it’s through representation,” he said in a 2014 interview with Street Art News. “I like the idea to give a body to a mental projection, and that each work live his own life, totally disconnected from me,” he said.

In his narrative project Odyssée, begun in 2019, his down-trodden character, dressed in ill-fitting slacks and a black and white striped shirt, appears in a range of predicaments on Parisian streets. He gets drafted into the military, gets high, goes delirious, shrinks down to less than a foot tall, gets captured by a giant cyclops.

On his website, Levalet says his work boils down to drawing and installation. His characters are drawn in Indian ink in the public space “in a game of visual and semantic dialogue with the present environment. The characters interact with the architecture and unfold in situations often bordering on the absurd.”

In his interview with Street Art News, Levalet went on to say that as a street artist “you do something that nobody ask for, in a place who is not a place for art, you do it for free, and there is nothing to win except the relative success of your action. But I believe the most important thing for us…is the quality of the location.”

This list is hardly exhaustive. When today’s street artists apply their talent and expertise to the Parisian streetscape they stand not just on the shoulders of these giants; they also stand with all of their predecessors whose contributions, big and small, helped make the Paris street art scene one of the world’s most acclaimed.

J. Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine.

Instagram: @bscenezine