Thursday, January 22, 2009

Paris Métro Graffiti

For me, the fluidity of graffiti as an art form is very much highlighted by its ability to use almost medium as its canvas. The Paris métro system, like most other underground train systems around the world, has been ornately decorated by artists. It can be found everywhere: scrawled across the walls of the station, sprayed onto the stairs leading down to the trains, etched on the métro car doors, lining the tunnels between stops. I've noticed how the pieces vary significantly depending on their medium, ranging from small pieces carved beneath the métro door handles to the more elabolate multicolored "wildstyle" block letters representing the artists' name, a "tag", from sociopolitical commentaries to seemingly random scribbles.

The graffiti pieces on the walls of the métro stations and on the métro cars tend to be smaller, less elaborate, likely due to the RATP's recent crackdown on graffiti artists. The more complex and colorful pieces tend to be found covering posterboards or sometimes even lining the stairwell. It is often on these pieces that the artists' "tag" is clearly visible to observers, though the words within the graffiti piece itself may be more obscure and sometimes undecipherable to non-artists. Whenever legible, the piece often represents a political sentiment, most noticeable where the large "roller" graffiti pieces deface entire advertisements with anti-globalization sentiments. Commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has also been evident, from random scribbles and thoughts on the war, to the simple yet effective "PAIX" which covers the beginning of the tunnel linking République and Strasbourg St Denis on ligne 9. In contrast, where artists have succeeded in leaving their mark on the walls of the métro station without their pieces being washed off, the grafitti is usually more obscure or cryptic, often stylized representations of Parisian slang.

Remarkably, the style of the graffiti on the walls of the tunnels that connect the métro from station to station contrasts drastically from the works within the stations themselves. For one thing, the tunnel walls are often covered from top to bottom, from side to side, especially in the tunnels where there are two tracks running parallel to each other. This is interesting given the speed at which the trains rush through the tunnels, and the limited lighting lining its way. Perhaps as a resulte of the area over which the métro authorities have focused their anti-graffiti campaign, there is a pay-off between being able to create designs that are unlikely to be quickly washed off, and the visbility of the work, since as mentioned previously, it is extremely difficult to clearly view the works in the tunnels. Consequently, almost all the graffiti in the tunnels take on a much simpler style and color scheme in an effort to promote its visibility and legibility. With few exceptions, all the pieces consist of blocked letters created with white spray paint and very little further ornamentation or design. It seems as though the artists who utilize the walls in the tunnels are prioritizing the effectiveness and visibility of their pieces over aesthetics. In spite of the efforts, however, it is still rare for the pieces to be represented in a large enough scale and a clear enough manner for riders of the métro to be able to decipher and interpret the representations. Yet this has not hindered Parisian graffiti artists from continuing to decorate the métro tunnels, covering the walls in a consistent style. This questions the purpose and intentions of the artists. It alludes to the possibility that the fact that graffiti art is present in the métro suffices; the design and aesthetic of the work itself is almost irrelevant.

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