It was a really boring day nothing to report of interest. I took Ligne 14 from Gare du Lyon express to Châtelet, and made my way over to Ligne 4 towards Porte d’Orleans to get to ISEP. Up three flights of stairs. Great, I said to myself, the train is just pulling in. I ascended on train, and installed myself next to a very Parisian woman wearing all black and listening to iPod. Suddenly the lights went out. It was almost pitch black.
“What?” I thought to myself, “is going on?” The lights flickered on and the conductor of the train assured us over the intercom that everything would be OK. Seemingly reassured, I stared out the window and happened to see the most amazing sight.
GRAFFITI. GRAFFITI.GRAFFITI. GRAFFITI.
GRAFFITI. GRAFFITI.GRAFFITI. GRAFFITI.
There was graffiti everywhere. In the truly underground part of Paris, “les caves,” there was this wonderfully chaotic creative space that many artists had taken advantage of. Most of the graffiti was in white and black paint, as if the artists were trying to counteract the overwhelming sensation of colors that the Métro employs to signal lights, designate route lines, and brand Métro trains. Almost the entire surface of the tunnels was filled with words and symbols. The words differed in height and width, and the way that they were placed implied an organized chaos. New graffiti was painted over old graffiti, suggesting that the tunnel walls undergo a continual rebirthing process. All in all, it was a grand sight.
The graffiti walls made me think of Jackson Pollack’s tableaux. In his work he employs paint splotches and splatters that go in many different directions at different velocities. Spontaneity is favored over rigid rules. In the Métro, there is a similar esprit. The direction of the words goes in every which way and without order.
I quickly looked over to gauge the reaction of other passengers to the graffiti wall. One stared despondently through the glass, not processing the visual feast that had appeared before her eyes. Another talked on her cell phone while glancing intermittently out the window. No reaction. To them, the graffiti was just another central part of the Métro that they had come to expect.
Not so for Americans, however. In a response to a New York Times article, American John Savage laments the spread of American graffiti on the New York subway to the Paris Métro. He especially descries the defacing of the Louvre Métro stop because of the “pristinely beautiful museum” that is attached. Most curious, however, is that an American lies claim to the Paris Métro stop, despite his cultural and spatial distance from the station. Thus, graffiti has a large international audience among who the art may not evoke the response.
Mr. Savage’s response also touches upon the idea of private and public space. Who are these vagabond artists, he argues, that have blighted our beloved Métro stations? Mr. Savage expects the station to be safeguarded and preserved to the same extent as the Louvre. In his mind, the station should be clean, proper and free from outside intrusions such as graffiti artists. The station should be a private space whose integrity should be respected. The graffiti artists would respond, I believe, “Why not graffiti?” They have looked to the Métro as a canvas for their art and have happily settled on employing it as a sounding board for their ideas and thoughts. Interestingly, the audience of the graffiti artists is much larger and diverse than that of a ballet or theater performance. Graffiti artists have the opportunity to directly and continuously engage with people from all walks of life. They take advantage of the fact that the Métro is a public space to reach a larger audience.
One specific example that demonstrates the power of graffiti artists is a political message that was left on one of the large posters on ligne 9. It reads:
+de 400 enfants tués à GAZA Quelles sanctions?
The simplicity of the message makes the graffiti more powerful and distressing. The fact that the message is written in cursive suggests that the artist is educated about the subject and is more worried than aggressive, as we have seen with recent political demonstrations in Paris. This example demonstrates the versatility and variety of different graffiti styles.
Finally, graffiti can be employed to poke fun and to combat the ennui of taking the Métro. I happened upon a “tastefully-graffitied” poster advertising a comedic play. The designer of the poster chose as his subject ten strategically-positioned nude women. The graffiti artist had drawn several large penises in various positions on the poster. The graffiti art seemed to suggest to the smartly-dressed, busy Parisians to stop awhile, take a break from their busy day, and laugh for a bit.
Note: I’ll take a picture of the poster tomorrow, if it is still there.