Stencil Art — A Form of Graffiti?

Stencil Art — A Form of Graffiti?
Paris officially declared war on graffiti in 2000, when it formed a squad dedicated to the eradication of unwanted text and illustrations on public buildings. But what constitutes graffiti?   Most of us probably believe that we can recognize it when we see it–scrawled words and designs in black spray paint on the walls of our neighborhoods, city buses and metro cars. We increasingly find it on glass surfaces; the industrious taggeurs also use the glass cutter as an instrument of their trade. They work under cover of darkness to avoid detection, and with good reason–the penalty for defacing, degrading or destroying public property ranges from a fine of 3,750 euros to five years in prison and a fine of 75,000 euros!   If you visit the area around rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement, you will see another form of graffiti. It is stencil art, and it has been encouraged by a neighborhood association called Lezarts de la Bièvre since 2001.   Lezarts de la Bièvre is one of several organizations in Paris that hopes to see stretches of the underground portion of the Bièvre River uncovered as it winds its way through the 13th and 5th arrondissements toward the Seine. It sponsors an artists’ open house every summer in conjunction with the Festival de la Mouff’, and it extends an invitation to a street artist to “decorate” the area.   Thus, vaguely to frankly erotic representations of a woman accompanied by cryptic messages signed “Miss-Tic” appeared on walls around rue Mouffetard in 2001. The following year, images reminiscent of an illustration of the muscles of the human body enhanced the urban landscape. And this year, a “Shadow Man”, dressed in a trench coat and hat, surprises the unsuspecting pedestrian or motorist as he chases an umbrella caught by the wind, paddles a paper sailboat, or lies in repose in a hammock suspended by a red balloon.   Miss-Tic is a native of Paris’ 10th arrondissement. She has stenciled her femme fatale and her brand of poetry/philosophy around town since 1987, favoring quarters such as la Butte aux Cailles (13th), le canal de l’Ourcq (19th) and Belleville-Ménilmontant (20th). The only woman stencil artist in Paris, she has exhibited her works in dozens of galleries and cultural centers. Le Monde even called upon her for an interview (article published 17 September 2002). But her fame has not shielded her from the law–in 1998, she paid a fine for defacing property after the owner of a building filed a complaint against her.   Jérôme Mesnager, a traditional artist, is the creator of the enigmatic muscle man called Le Corps Blanc (The White Body). He is often discussed with stencil artists because his work has become inextricably linked with theirs. In particular, his art and that of Nemo (see below) are frequently found together. For Mesnager, his Corps Blanc represents light, strength and peace. He has painted this figure in New York, Cairo, Moscow, and even on the Great Wall of China. But he lives to create art on the streets of the neglected quarters of Menilmontant.   2003 marks the 20th year that Mesnager has enlivened the walls of Paris with his signature character; Editions Critères has published a book that pays tribute to his work.   Nemo, a native of the Belleville-Menilmontant quarter of Paris, is responsible for the appearance of the “Shadow Man”. His given name is Serge Fauri. He is a computer engineer, has a family, and leads a comfortable, middle-class life. But he has a passion for stencil art, which he began painting along the route that his son took to school in 1982. He first depicted his “bonhomme noir” in 1990. Like Mesnager, he has taken his art abroad – he spent two years in Bogota, Columbia, followed by a trip to Lisbon, Portugal in 1994-95. He left dozens of stencils in both places.   Nemo and Mesnager worked together on projects in 1996 and again in 2000, when they painted large stretches of bricked windows at Les Magasins Généraux at the Bassin de la Villette (19th arrondissement). They shared a studio in Montreuil for a time. One of their collaborative works can be seen at the corner of rue de l’Arbalète and rue Lagarde in the 5th arrondissement.   Technically, these artists are “criminals”. Which is a shame, since all they strive to do is lighten our days and give us some food for thought. But where does one draw the line? Should this kind of street art be considered graffiti and regulated as such, or should it be defined in some other way?   In the end, I suppose that there is no good answer to these questions. One man’s art is another man’s graffiti, and visa versa.   To see photos of the works of these three artists, visit the following URL:   —Monique Y. Wells is co-owner of Discover Paris!  – Personalized Itineraries for Independent Travelers as well as the author of Food for the Soul – A Texas Expatriate Nurtures her Culinary Roots in Paris and Paris Reflections  –  Walks Through African-American Paris (co-authored with BP writer/editor Christiann Anderson).
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