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JR’s Post-Beat Streets

JR: A Post-Beat Revolutionary

Post-beat means after, against, and within the formation of Beat attitudes, for better and worse, and authors can still work to open up a future-oriented space for the renewal and transformation of this visionary tradition of “hipster vision,” if this “post” beatitude is to live on as poetic and social force for creative activism, conversion, power, and cultural-political transformation of the human into cyborg-angelic post-modern.
-Rob Wilson, Beat Attitudes

Hidden behind his signature sunglasses and fedora, JR, like his now-famous British counterpart Banksy, is a man of mystery. There are certain facts that everyone seems to agree on: He was born in France. He is 28 years old. He got his start as a graffiti writer, but has since morphed into a hybrid photographer/street artist. He refers to himself as a “poster artist.”
-Lea Lion, BrandX article

I can’t save the world. Nobody can. The world is fucked up. C’mon, you know: you have dictators ruling the world, population is growing by millions, there’s no more fish in the sea, the North Pole is melting, and as the last presenter said, we’re all becoming fat; except maybe French people. But can art change the world?
-JR, TED Talk

Over the last few years a street artist by the name of JR has captured the world’s attention with his challenging, empowering, and unifying projects. Out of the subterranean streets of Paris, JR has expanded his vision and traversed world boundaries, not in a search of personal enlightenment, but in an attempt to bring awareness and beauty to places that would find museums rather foreign.Outside of where he’s from, how old he is and how he got started, not much is known. Like many street artists, the person behind the art is not what matters, only the art and its effect on the community.

The lineage of post-beat artists and activists has seemingly led to JR, whose work is copious with post-beat action. There are traces of Kerouac’s angelic mobility of the road and rails, Burroughs’ cut-ups, Kerouac’s idea of the “fellaheen” people, the world-making power of the Beat Generation and establishing a revolution through communal insurgent art. JR has not just followed in the footsteps of the Beats, but has perpetuated certain lifebloods while transforming and inverting flawed areas and additionally employing ignored or oppressed ideas. Welcome to JR’s Post-Beat Streets.


The Subterranean Streets

Using the city as a canvas—I was going in the tunnels of Paris, on the rooftops with my friends. Each trip was an excursion, an adventure. It was like leaving your mark on society. To say I was here… I started my first trottoir-galerie, which means sidewalk gallery, and I framed it with color so you would not confuse it with advertising. The city is the best gallery I could imagine. I would never have to make a book, present it to the gallery and let them decide if my work was nice enough to show to people. I would show it directly to the public in the streets.

-JR, TED Talk

We [Beats] got the bottom-up vision of society. We saw wealth and power from the point of view of down-and-out people in the street. That’s what the Beat Generation was about—being down-and-out, and about having a sense of beatitude too… Don’t wait to be discovered. Discover yourself. Publish your own work and circulate your work.

-Allen Ginsberg, interviewed by Jonah Raskin (1986), as quoted in American Scream


Urbanism is the modern method for solving the ongoing problem of safeguarding class power by atomizing the workers who have been dangerously brought together by the conditions of urban production. The constant struggle that has had to be waged against anything that might lead to such coming together has found urbanism to be its most effective field of operation. The efforts of all the established powers since the French Revolution to increase the means of maintaining law and order in the streets have finally culminated in the suppression of the street itself. Describing what he terms “a one-way system,” Lewis Mumford points out that “with the present means of long-distance mass communication, sprawling isolation has proved an even more effective method of keeping a population under control” (The City in History). But the general trend toward isolation, which is the underlying essence of urbanism, must also include a controlled reintegration of the workers based on the planned needs of production and consumption. This reintegration into the system means bringing isolated individuals together as isolated individuals. Factories, cultural centers, tourist resorts and housing developments are specifically designed to foster this type of pseudo-community. The same collective isolation prevails even within the family cell, where the omnipresent receivers of spectacular messages fill the isolation with the ruling images — images that derive their full power precisely from that isolation.

-Guy Debord, The Society of Spectacle


“When I was doing graffiti when I was 14, 15 years old, I was tagging my name — leaving my mark — but I stopped pasting my pictures and started pasting other peoples’ photos and my whole world became about staying invisible and making others visible — and the street is the best medium for that.”

-JR as interviewed by Lea Lion

JR started as a teenage graffiti artist in the subterranean streets of Paris. Like the Beats he used the city streets as a medium for his art. As Kerouac would relay a scene from the beat, junkie, hipster streets of San Francisco, JR made the streets his canvas. By using the streets he was able to disrupt the banal, isolated clockwork existence of the city. No real statement could be made in the bourgeois galleries where only the wealthy could observe his work. The art was made available to all and placed where it could make a statement.

In 2004, JR went to a Paris ghetto, the down-and-out streets of Les Bosquets, to photograph his friends and paste the pictures around in the neighborhood. Then in 2005, in the midst of the Paris riots taking place in Les Bosquets, the media used JR’s images to represent the rioters. In response to this, he pasted the images all over Paris providing the name and address of the person in each photo.

I took people whose images were stolen and distorted by the media, and were now proudly taking over their own images. That’s when I realized the power of paper and glue.

-JR, TED Talk

From here on out, JR’s projects were aimed to make statements and affect change worldwide. His images were to become a means of empowerment.


Cut-Up The World

Cut the streets of the world. Cut and rearrange the word and image in films. There is no reason to accept a second-rate product when you can have the best. And the best is for all. “Poetry is for everyone.”

-William S. Burroughs, The Cut-Up Method of Brion Gysin

…who dreamt and made incarnate gaps/ in Time & Space/ through images juxtaposed,/ and trapped the archangel of the soul/ between 2 visual images…

-Allen Ginsberg, Howl

We decided to take portraits. Palestinians and Israelis doing the same jobs: Taxi drivers, lawyers, cooks and asked them to make faces as a sign of commitment. They all accepted to be posted next to the other… The experts said no way; the people will not accept, the army will shoot you, the Hamas will kidnap you. We said “Okay, lets try and push as far as we can…

-JR, TED Talk

In Israel/Palestine where JR cut photos of Israelis and Palestinians, he closes societal gaps between the people. When he asked either the Israeli or Palestinian who was who in the pictures, the heavy majority could not tell. Time, space, socio-religious conflicts, etcetera are challenged through two juxtaposed, visual images cut together; as if two words that seemingly do not fit, create a whole new meaning when cut together.

Beyond the literal cuts of paper and pasting on city walls, JR cuts the streets of the world. He has the best material available to him in each image’s layers of story beneath. Just as Burroughs used the words of Shakespeare and Rimbaud, JR uses collective stories of people in extraordinary lives and circumstances. He takes these existing real stories behind the face of a person and utilizes them to create a new insurgent art project. He creates from the world’s best stories, and the best is made available to all.


Inversions of the Beat: The Fellaheen and the Woman

Keroauc imagines he found the fellaheen in the disenfranchised, the poor, the primitive, and people of color, all of whom blended in his mind into a homogenous non-civilized mass of souls. Not only the poor and primitive souls of Mexico, but also African-Americans, Mexican Americans and the urban poor of America irrespective of race shared the name “fellaheen” in his philosophy. And as a Faustian soul himself, Kerouac envied them for their freedom from overintellectualizing.

-Bradley J. Stiles, Emerson’s Contemporaries and Kerouac’s Crowd: A Problem of Self-Location

At lilac evening I walked… in the colored Denver section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough life…. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor over-worked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions; that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley…. I was only myself Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.

-Jack Kerouac, On the Road

When you go into these developing societies, women are the pillar of their society. But the men are still the ones holding the street. So we decided to do a project where men pay tribute to women by pasting their photos.

-JR, TED Talk

The drug-lords were kind of worried about us filming in the place so I told them I’m not interested in filming the violence and the weapons, we see enough of that in the media, what I want to show is the incredible life and energy I’ve been seeing around me the last few days.

-JR, TED Talk

Kerouac’s use of the “fellaheen’ has an obvious dichotomy about it. On one hand it is an ignorant, romantic, and overly simplistic mass of non-white people; it’s inherently racist. However, he also has a reverence for and desire to be a “fellaheen” in their joy and freedom from intellectualizing. The would-be fellaheen is completely inverted as a theme by JR. Without some naïve construction, JR goes to these communities and empowers the people by making art out of their stories. These people are not the joyful “Other” despite their difficult living conditions. They endure poverous living conditions with heroic actions every day, specifically the women.

I heard a man say to another man who didn’t understand the project, “You’ve been here for a few hours trying to understand, discussing with your fellows. During that time, you haven’t thought about what you’re going to eat tomorrow. This is art.”

-JR, TED Talk

Kerouac and other Beats would use women to facilitate the Beat Generation overlooking their status as anything but a muse. It was common that the men would sleep with women, run off, and make false promises, etcetera. Women were almost completely left out as legitimate artists. However, JR focuses on women in developing countries in the Women are Heroes project. Women are the art.


Weaving the World Community

The people asked me to make a promise. They asked, “Please make our story travel with you.” So I did.

That’s Paris

That’s Rio

That’s London

New York

and Long Beach

Beatitude enacts a blessing of the interwoven world: tenements, trumpets, mists, memories, Harlem to Normandy and Kyushu, world intimations of nothingness, and otherness become near.

-Rob Wilson, Beat Attitudes


It is necessary, while in the darkness to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith. Pretend, for example, that you were born in Chicago, and have never had the remotest desire to visit Hong Kong, which is only a place on a map for you; pretend that some convulsion, sometimes called an accident, throws you into connection with a man or a woman who lives in Hong Kong; and that you fall in love. Hong Kong will immediately cease to be a name and become the center of your life. And you may never know how many people live in Hong Kong. But you will know that one man or woman lives there without whom you cannot live. And this is how our lives are changed, and this is how we are redeemed.

-James Baldwin, “Nothing Personal” (1983)

Beatitude would cast a spirit-riff and beatific light into the post-Kerouac archive of visionary empowerment, in effect, tracing some kind of futuristic Cheshire-cat-grin of the Beat attitude vision of community and generosity of spirit.

This world archive works on the multiple dimensions of “beatitude”—tracing an array of world sources, origins, lineages, halos, auras, effects—would show, extend, and supplement where such work was coming from, thus animating the work of poet and social activist alike, going forward into this renewed vision-projection of beatitude for our lackluster times.

-Rob Wilson, Beat Attitudes

The Beats shrunk the world with their writing and travels, often in search of some romantic enlightened vision. They had a passion for the world community. JR is bringing that community together and expanding it by introducing people’s stories to the world and interlinking the narratives through shared experience and humanness. He brings the world together by showing that things are not just how we perceive them through the media, which forces us to challenge our world-notions.

We just did the project and really left. So the media had to go and find the women and get an explanation from them. So you create a bridge between the media and the anonymous woman.

-JR, TED Talk

JR is a messenger for the world on our way to a global community. He is bringing people face to face through technology and art. When humans are brought together and able to realize that we all suffer the same condition at the hands of the rigid, mechanic, oppressive governments, the “Other” can evolve to brother.


Global Revolution

This is all very nice, because the ideas that Jack and the Beat Generation stood for are needed today more than ever. But I’m not so interested in nostalgia. I’m interested in the future.

-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, contemplating the yellowed and frayed 119-foot typewritten scroll of Kerouac’s manuscript for On the Road being displayed and venerated by post-Beats, at the San Francisco Public Library 2006

Today, it doesn’t matter today if it’s your photo or not. The importance is what you do with the images. The statement it makes where it’s pasted.

For example, I posted a photo of a minaret in Switzerland a few weeks after they voted in the law for banning minarets in the country.

I pasted this is Southern Italia, where the mafia sometimes buries the garbage under the ground.

-JR, TED Talk

Overcoming the world; overthrowing the government of the reality principle, which is the prince of darkness, the ruler of the darkness of this world. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world.

-Norman O. Brown, “Judgement,” Love’s Body (1966)

Living in the beatitude of sudden, blessed, unaccountable events and states of mind and being: loving others amid the hegemony of postmodern flux and postcolonial gloom, a post-Beat poetics is to be composed, measured and openly made up against the thrownness, risk, and cast-down utter abandonment of the post-beat present, as a way of questing for meaning and presence in the transfiguring event of the present.

-Rob Wilson, Beat Attitudes

Art can change our perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world. Art can create an energy.

-JR, TED Talk

The value of an individual life a credo taught us

to instill fear, and inaction, ‘you only live once’

a fog in our eyes, we are

endless as the sea, not separate, we die

a million times, we are born

a million times, each breath life and death :

get up, put on your shoes, get

started, someone will finish

Tribe

an organism, one flesh, breathing joy as the stars

breathe destiny down to us, get

going, join hands, see to business, thousands of sons

will see to it when you fall, you will grow

a thousand times in the bellies of your sisters

-Diane Di Prima, Revolutionary Letter #15

When we act together, the whole thing is more than the sum of its parts.

-JR, TED Talk

JR is now using the power of images, not just people’s stories. The subject of the image is fluid, but the statement it makes is concrete. He is using the World to fight the world. JR has taken the Beat ideas and adapted them to the present starting a global communal revolution in the face of the today’s colonial residue. With a prolific mobility, JR is traversing the world’s boundaries and breaking through preconceived notions of the way the world is. He is disrupting mechanic worlds and challenging class, media, and politics. The world tide is rising and filling the streets through JR’s art; Africa is France, the Middle East is London, Brasil is New York. The next project is attempting to create a world network of eyes and artists, to have omnipresent production in a global art project.

I wish for you to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and turning the world…INSIDE OUT. <insideoutproject.net>

-JR