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Two Parisian museums dealing with the representation and integration of graffiti subculture: Musée de la Poste and Palais de Tokyo

Before and during the boom of American graffiti in Paris

The first two European graffiti artists who came to know the technique and style of this new American underground art form were the Dutch Pet&Spike and the German Neon&Milk along with the French Bando and Jon One who acquired their skills in the USA and they imported the ‘New York graffiti style’ in Paris where it flourished between 1982-1983 and in 1986-87 it will blow up with its Hip Hop culture.
The French reality is a good example to show how the American experience has been transported, integrated and reinterpreted in the European context. In France the 80s marked an unprecedented change due to different reasons. First of all, the importation of documents such as fanzines, magazines and videos, secondly the emergence in 1982 of the first French newspaper dedicating an article to New York graffiti - “American graffiti: Tag” by Pascaline Couvelier - and lastly the arrival in Paris of Bando graffiti artist in 1981.
In general, in the eighties French graffiti artists used to reproduce NY graffiti style but it is arguable that due to the move of this artistic product in time and place a real ‘European style’ came into life.In few words, the French artists soon realized that New York graffiti style were not appropriate for the Parisian architecture, so they adapted them to the Parisian environment generating high level of graffiti art that aimed to give more emphasis on rhythm and lines. Moreover, the first Japanese cartoons references were integrated into graffiti. The use of block letters and the space between the letters characterized the first graffiti generation in Paris proposing, in fact, something completely different from New York style. In Paris two different kinds of graffiti schools dictated their styles: the City K crew privileging the visibility and the BBC crew that preferred to break the letters into different parts. Usually both styles were present in places such as the river Seine banks, the bridge of Carousel, Stalingrad district and the long fences in front of the Contemporary art centre Beaubourg under construction. What is interesting is that the majority of writers came from posh and bourgeoisie district. The movement, in fact, took a while to spread in the suburbs of Paris, there it blew up with the Hip Hop culture and it became more popular and less bourgeois.
Somehow the French banlieue was pretty similar to the New York South Bronx environment with blocks of houses built, in particular, to concentrate disfavoured immigrant families. In fact, in the Parisian suburbs children from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Africa mainly populated the housing project of the suburbs of Paris, producing the same multi ethnic unification that occurred through Hip Hop. The French sociologist David Lepoutre found out three main characteristics of these young groups of the French cité similar to the American gangs, which has been introduced in the third chapter. Certainly, immigrant communities who lived in the cité were marginalized people who suffered from social exclusion, thus they constructed their own codes and life style in order to denounce uneasy life conditions of the suburbs and to show the dissatisfaction with the political order simultaneously.
Some people representative of the immigrant community of la banlieue declared:

We all came from the suburbs to tear up Paris. We’ve all been abandoned here in the cité, we’ve all been lied to since we were little kids and we’ve been ridiculed to our faces. There’s an old way of French thinking that hasn’t moved. We are always judged for the bad, be it in our jobs, our appearance, and our style of clothing. This is a racist country, here we see only Arabs and blacks in the suburbs and if you go to Paris, you see only the French. We’ve had enough, had enough. Graffiti is a way to express ourselves because young people aren’t often heard here…never never heard. I tag therefore I am.

Between 1984 and 1990 there was an explosion of graffiti in Paris to the point where the people did not understand what was going on. The phenomenon was interpreted as a threat for the security of the French civilized society. The French Professor at the University of Educational Sciences in Paris Nanterre La Défense, Alain Vulbeau, observed that graffiti tag became intolerable for the Parisian inhabitants who considered them more as vandalism than a form of art. Moreover, the 1999 riots that occurred in the Parisian suburbs along with the SNCFsurvey that enquired about the public opinion of tag and graffiti confirmed the feeling of insecurity often transmitted by graffiti. This agitated underground movement put into trouble the French government that throughout the 1980s and the 1990s had to cope with the so called ‘anti-social behaviour’ graffiti practice. Just to quote some figures, the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) spent around 36 millions of Francs per year to clean up public transportations. Furthermore, a further graffiti demonstration shocked the public opinion. In 1992 graffiti were made on the wall of Louvre - Rivoli underground station and on statues, the official copies of those exposed in the museum of Louvre which decorate the public space in the subway, causing a damage of 500,000 of Francs. Surely, this event is the most provoking assault that French graffiti based community have accomplished, the biggest trick for attacking the heart of Parisian elitist and institutionalized art world, that is to say the Louvre. At the same time it was a direct message against the RATP, with the sentence: “Qui sème le vent récolte la tempête” (those who sow the wind reap the whirlwind) meaning the capacity of entering and tagging one of the most beautiful station in Paris. This event increased the number of specialized graffiti police force and the prison term was added in the formal law that punished the act of graffiti. In 1994 the Article 322-1 of the French penal code that punishes graffiti came into force and today four articles (322-1 to 322-4) of the French penal code punish the act of painting or writing in the public space with no permission.

La destruction, la dégradation ou la détérioration d'un bien appartenant à autrui est punie de deux ans d'emprisonnement et de 200 000 F d'amende, sauf s'il n'en est résulté qu'un dommage léger. Le fait de tracer des inscriptions, des signes ou des dessins, sans autorisation préalable, sur les façades, les véhicules, les voies publiques ou le mobilier urbain est puni de 25 000 F d'amende lorsqu'il n'en est résulté qu'un dommage léger.
(The destruction, degradation or deterioration of property belonging to others is punishable with two years of jail term and 200,000 francs fine, unless it has resulted in minor damage. The fact of drawing inscriptions, signs or drawings without permission on facades, vehicles, highway or street furniture is punishable with a fine of 25 000 F if slightly damaged)

So far, the history of graffiti has been presented with an emphasis on the banlieue case because France is the European country having more in common with the Bronx situation where graffiti came into life. However, before the arrival of American graffiti in Paris another form of urban art movement already existed in France since the sixties. In this decade a unique phenomenon occurred: the artists wished to move the arts outside museums and galleries. Some examples are Land art and those artists who felt more and more influenced by consumer society, so that they reproduce new society’s values into their artworks through advertising’s farce and the representation of modern objects. In France some personalities such as Jacque de la Villégle, who has collaborated for the exhibition “In the bowels of the Palais” at the Palais de Tokyo, started to hang up in the street shreds of paper and due to this practice art historians refer to him as poster designer.In the middle of the sixties other artists such as Gérard Zloytykamien and Ernest Pignon-Ernest, who are included in the exhibition at the Post Office museum, and Buren will show this need of transferring the arts from galleries to the street.
The seventies were the years of conceptual art, as after effect during the eighties, in the visual arts, colourful figures are common themes which introduce the first references to popular culture like advertising, cinema, cartoons. From 1982 tons of young painters used stencil graffiti to represent cartoon’s name like Placid and Muzo, Blek le rat, Speedy Graphito, Cap’tain Caverne, etc. Besides, the explosion of Punk culture in the eighties, which largely used stencil art, helped to diffuse this technique that became popular among French street artists like Blek le rat and Miss Tic, who are further illustrated in the case study “Above and beyond street art”. In addition, other artists developed different forms of invading the street such as Jef Aérosol and Mesnager, who are also included at the Post Office museum exhibition, and collective group such as VLP, Les Ripoulin, Faucher, Nice art, surface active. The young artists of the eighties as well as their predecessors of the sixties lost credibility because their art was seen as a degradation of public buildings and in particular stencil art was seen as ephemeral, thus an insignificant form of art. Collective groups also dominated the urban art scene of the eighties: VLP (Vive la Peinture-Long live to painting) three students of Fine Art school in Paris who used to cover Les Halles’ fences in Paris with bright colours, and the art movement Figuration Libre which born from Pop art, video art and graffiti was usually represented in the street through the works of Robert Combas, Hervé di Rosa. Due to the existence of Figuration Libre street art movement and due to the similarity between American graffiti and this urban art form, the French institutionalized art world found that American graffiti was much more attractive than the French ones, issue that will be shown in the next chapter.

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Two Parisian museums dealing with the representation and integration of graffiti subculture: Musée de la Poste and Palais de Tokyo


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Informazioni tesi

  Autore: Sheila Pilli
  Tipo: Tesi di Master
Master in Euroculture Master of excellence , Erasmus Mundus programe
Anno: 2014
Docente/Relatore: Alexandre Kostka
Istituito da: Université de Strasbourg
  Lingua: Inglese
  Num. pagine: 101


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