Living in the 1st arrondissement, I’ve had a privileged experience of Paris so far. My house overlooks the Seine, backs onto Rue Rivoli, and is within walking distance of the Louvre, Saint Chapelle, and Notre Dame. Because of this, my daily commute and neighborhood exploration rarely features decaying buildings, graffiti, or social housing. This is one of the many reasons I was interested in going on a walking street art tour around Belleville, an area that covers parts of the 11th, 12th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements.
Belleville has a distinct history of revolution and has long been a multi-ethnic and working class neighborhood – evident immediately after I exited the metro. Before meeting the rest of the group, I accidentally walked through the Saturday morning marché en plein air, situated between Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, and Pakistani restaurants and featuring Antillean, Lebanese, and North African vendors. The combination of different smells, products, and languages was incredible – and so different to my “historic heart” of Paris! Belleville hosts an incredible number of different cultures, which is something that began in the 1920s with Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, and has since been inhabited by many North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans, and Chinese immigrants.
The first stop of the walking tour was a statue of Albert Camus. This unassuming sculpture turned out to be the perfect way to contextualize the area’s street art. Situated opposite the French Communist Party’s headquarters and made from metal and stone (earthy materials), it embodies the area’s working class population. Scrawled on the statue’s pedestal is the phrase “je t’aime, Clémentine,” which appears often throughout Belleville. This first stop was the perfect introduction to the area’s history and character and it also perfectly juxtaposed commissioned public art (of a famous French philosopher, no less) with new, illegal street art.
Since visiting museums with my parents as a young child, I’ve loved art and art history. However, I recognize that some of the fields’ many shortcomings are the cost of materials and visiting museums, as well as the education needed to analyze and produce art. Street art and graffiti, however, are perhaps the most accessible types of art out there, which is why they’re so prevalent in areas such as Belleville. Such art is accessible in terms of the materials needed, but it’s also accessible for anyone who wants to create it. Our guide mentioned male and female artists from France, USA, Turkey, and Portugal, as young as teenagers and as old as mid-sixties.
As we continued the tour, our guide emphasized the link between art and resistance. Street art is intrinsically subversive, due to its illegal and destructive nature, challenging the idea of public spaces and encouraging viewers to reconsider how they view their surroundings. Is creating art on an abandoned building morally wrong? Can street art be educational? Does street art help beautify an area? Can street art be more than graffiti tags? If the public likes the art, should the city leave it there?
I loved seeing pieces of art in unexpected places, then hearing about their context and background from our guide. Some were commentaries on consumerism, some on sexism or politics or culture. However, my favorite stories were those about Paris’s attitude towards street art. For an immensely beautiful, historic, and picturesque city, Paris loves to preserve street art and support artists. From prosecuting an artist and only charging one euro in damages to donating walls for more art to erasing tags but keeping larger murals intact, local government actively supports the city’s legacy of resistance and incredibly talented artists.