JR talks about the pains of being an anonymous artist
The sunglasses can get annoying, and you can't really reveal a work's hidden depths, the artist explains, but. . .
Anyone with early career jitters should really take a bit of advice from the French artist, activist and Phaidon author, JR. He had a couple of false starts before he truly found his métier.
As the artist - who is currently the subject of a major show, JR: Chronicles, at the Brooklyn Museum – tells the New York Times in a new interview, he tried to become a DJ and graffiti writer before he came up with his now-familiar practice of photographing marginalised figures in society and pasting up their portraits in prominent places.
“I learned the climbing, I learned all the other stuff, except being a good writer,” he says of his earlier graffiti ambitions.
The shift, from writing his own tag on a building, to pasting up someone else’s face, might seem fairly significant, yet he has retained certain street art tactics, even if he doesn’t regard himself as a street artist.
“For me it’s really clear,” he says. “I was writing my names on walls to say ‘I exist,’ then I started pasting pictures of people with their names to say they exist.”
JR disguises his identity, wearing his signature hat and dark glasses, partly to assist in that shift of emphasis, but also to put a bit of distance between him and the cops.
“I’ve been arrested in a lot of countries,” he says. “The day that art is welcomed the same way everywhere, I guess I wouldn’t need this,” he says, referring to his hat and spectacles. “You know, it’s kind of annoying to wear sunglasses all day.”
He also came to understand, as time went on, that anonymity has it draw backs, artistically speaking too. “For years I would be like that, completely covered,” he tells the paper. “But I realised by not talking about the work, people would not understand the complexity of it, the layers. It implicates people, and so I wanted people to understand the subject’s intention.”
Besides, he has also worked in many places – such as the slums of Kenya, Brazil or Sierra Leone – where the threats to his work came not from the police, but from the lack of law and order.
“The first time I travelled, people told me I’m going to get killed,” he said. “I think being naïve is what has helped me the most.”
JR’s open-mindedness won out, in the end. "People say, well they might need food, not art, and I’m like, all right, let me go check that, I want to hear from them. So I would go to Kenya or to Sierra Leone and say ‘this is what I do, but you tell me if it makes sense here.’” The response truly vindicated all his work. "'Because we’re struggling we shouldn’t have access to art?'" he remembers being asked.
The world-changing nature of art is something that remains close to JR. Even though he doesn’t scale buildings to tag other people’s walls, he feels reassured to see a little artful disobedience around him, wherever he is in the world.
“I feel safe when I see graffiti because it shows there’s life,” he says. “When you go to countries and there’s not one single tag on the wall, you should be stressed.”
Care to de-stress via JR’s own lively public works? Then order a copy of our newly updated book, JR: Can Art Change the World? It is the most comprehensive monograph on the enigmatic French artist - now updated to include brand-new work. And if you want to turn younger readers on to the pleasures of JR's work, get them Wrinkles this Christmas.