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Street art towers over Paris district

The Paris 13 tower-block Alison Hird

The biggest collective exhibition of street art ever imagined opened in a Paris tower-block on Monday. Over the last seven months more than 100 street artists from all over the world have dropped in at the Tour Paris 13 (Paris 13 Tower) and graffed the walls and floors of 36 apartments.

True to the counter-culture spirit, it’ll all disappear by the end of the year when the tower-block, which used to house railworkers, is demolished.

You talkin' to me? Vexta, a renowned street artist from Australia, chats to one of her skulls. Alison Hird

Vexta, an Australian street artist who now lives in the US, spent two days on her skull-inspired mural.

Like many of the artists she was drawn to the ephemeral nature of the project and is curious to know the public’s reaction.

“It’s very much part of Street Art and graffiti culture to go into empty buildings and paint," she says. "So I think probably every artist that’s made work in here has climbed into an abandoned building and painted on the walls. It’s just something that usually the public don’t get to see.”

The project was the brainchild of gallery owner and Street Art fanatic Medhi Ben Cheikh.

With the backing of local officials in Paris’s 13th arrondissement he’d already brought in street artists from abroad to work on huge murals in the neighbourhood. When he heard a tower block overlooking the Seine and right next to the overland metro was due to be demolished, the idea for a huge Street Art lab took shape.

“We wanted to bring the tower back to life once more before it disappeared,” he says.

Every time he heard a street artist was coming to Europe, he’d get them on board. The project provided accommodation and materials; in return artists gave their art for free: a key ingredient for keeping street cred.

Ben Cheikh wanted to show the international nature of the movement. Artists are from 15 nationalities from countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Brazil, US and France.

“Street art is the first truly international artistic movement,” he says. “It’s as if you had impressionism all over the world... at the same time and not 30 years later as was the case for many movements.”

Every artist brings their own culture to bear but thanks to the internet it can be conveyed in real time.

“When someone’s paints a wall in Atlanta or Ouagadougou everyone sees the result the same day," Ben Cheikh says. "That’s what’s so strong about it.”

Tunisian graffer and street artist El Seed has reinvented Arabic script, mixing classic typography and modern curves. Alison Hird

Of course there are cultural differences. The typographies of Roman, Arabic and Chinese script are different for a start. But that can lead to some interesting transformations, like in the work of Tunisian El Seed (the calligraffeur) whose calligraphy covers one of the building’s outside walls. His arabesques also adorn the minaret in his birthplace of Gabs in Tunisia.

“Even if Arabic calligraphy is very standardised, he’s reinvented a new typography just like the first street artists at end of the 70s did using Latin letters inside speech bubbles,” Ben Cheikh explains.

The new Arabic script “puts across a very contemporary image of the Arab world and Arab identity. That’s what’s so interesting.”

El Seed has become something of a star in the Arab world, even opening a spraypaint shop in Jeddah.

While Saudi Arabia may not spring to mind as a haven for street artists, it has a growing scene, especially in the south.

Maryam was one of two Saudi women over from Jeddah who came, hijab and all, to do murals in the tower block.

“Maryam and her sister graff all year in Jeddah,” says Ben Cheikh. “It shows that even with all the restrictions, you can paint and try to live your passion.”

Maryam, one of two Saudi female street artists from Riyadh, got cheeky on the kitchen walls she worked on Alison Hird

El Seed has done graffiti workshops in Qatar and Doha as well as Jeddah but the capital Riyadh may be a tougher nut to crack.

“It’s stricter there,” he says. “I can’t imagine someone graffing in Riyadh.”

In other parts of the world street art is not only tolerated but actively encouraged.

Ethos, a street artist from Sao Paolo in Brazil, says he’s regularly asked to work and not just in the favelas.

“We can paint on the streets kind of free, people don’t care if we’re painting illegal," he explans. "In our city, in Sao Paolo, the city is really ugly and dirty so there is a kind of visual solution and the people really enjoy when you’re painting.”

Visitors can go and enjoy Ethos and all the other artists’ work through until 31 October or do a virtual visit on the website.

The Tour Paris 13 project then goes entirely digital for a fortnight when visitors can click on their favourite works to “save” them online. A clever but not so cool way of generating some online revenue.

If you’re visiting in person, be prepared to queue. For safety reasons only 49 people are allowed in at any one time.