JR is a French street artist who’s largely illegal art projects have blurred the lines between art and vandalism, spectator and actor, and expression from activism. Unlike many other graffiti artists, JR specializes in photography and often flyposts his work in places where street art is banned, and sometimes can even land you in jail. In all of his work, he seeks to raise awareness about the problems facing certain groups, and each is a combination of daring and insightful that often leaves people, and lawmakers, in awe.
He first rose to prominence with Portraits of a Generation, which took pictures of inner city “thugs” and plastered all over his hometown of Paris, France. Posted in many places where the 2005 riots were at their most violent, Portraits of a Generation challenged many people’s preconceptions about who were involved in the riots, and for what reasons. Many of the posters were removed within a few days as they were illegally exhibited, but the project raised people’s awareness of Paris’ race problems, and their newest street artist.
The success of Portraits of a Generation only made JR more bold, and he decided to travel to Israel and Palestine for his next exhibit. Called Face2Face, the project sought to show both sides of the conflict as people with more similarities than differences. He traveled to both countries, taking closeup photographs of people who were asked to make faces of certain emotions. The pictures were then placed all over Palestine and Israel in the largest unauthorized street exhibit in history, with faces from Israelis and Palestinians placed right next to each other to emphasize their similarities.
But it was JR’s next project that has brought him the most amount of success, and let him travel to the most number of places in the world. JR turned his attention to women with this project, whom he says “play an essential role in society but who are the primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism.” To bring awareness to women’s roles in conflicts around the world, he decided to create a series of female gazes, flyposting pictures of women’s eyes so that they look out on the world around them, and called it Women are Heroes. He started the project in Rio de Janeiro in 2008, but has since done similar projects in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, India, and Cambodia.
Women are Heroes brought JR even more international attention and allowed him to branch out from activist artist to activist, using money and resources he’s acquired to not only continue to comment through his unique brand of street art, but to be actively involved in change. He won the 2011 TED Prize, which he used to establish the INSIDE OUT participatory art project. Through the fund, JR and his foundation “gives everyone the opportunity to share their portrait and make a statement for what they stand for. It is a global platform for people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art.” To date, more than 200,000 people from more than 112 countries & territories have participated.