Conversation with JR
David Alan Harvey: The reason I am interested in you is because you’re a pop star, yet you do good things for people. You have brought art to the streets for everyone to see. You use your photographs to cover up the roofs of substandard housing in Nairobi. Your pictures keep the rain out. You use your art for social causes. We share an enthusiasm for supporting other artists.
So anybody in the arts, whether they are a painter, sculpture, filmmaker, etc., those people have always interested me since I was a kid. And I am always especially interested in, “when did the light come on?”.
Now I sort of know when the light came on for you. There were the riots in Paris, and I was in Arles when you pasted there in 2007. I didn’t know you at that time, and I guess not so many people did.
Since then you have obviously taken off, but when did the spark go off? Obviously you were spraying, you were a graffiti artist.
JR: Yeah, I was pasting even before the riots. I guess the moment when it became clear to myself and to the people that I wanted to be an artist was at the riots because everyone discovered my work through the media. So I did the cover of the New York Times in 2005, but there was not even my name, they didn’t even know who I was. So I am on the cover, walking in front of my pasting, but the caption was something like “a passerby walking in this really tense neighborhood in Paris”. They didn’t know who was doing that. So what happened after the riots is that during the riots all the media emailed me and said ‘look, no journalist can get in. We saw that you have your work in there, can you take photos for us?’ That was the first time that I actually got a job offer as a photographer, but at that moment I decided I would not accept it because I wanted to choose the subject of my photos.
DAH: You wanted to be completely pure with it.
JR: Exactly. That is what put me into the portrait scene.
DAH: Okay well let me back up even further than that. I know you want to be anonymous so you don’t have to be specific, but there must have been an age when you were a little kid, six years old, seven years old, ten years old, that you realized you needed to project your feelings somehow and it goes to graffiti art. What happened? When did the light go off?
JR: I mean I started graffiti really early, maybe twelve or thirteen, but I definitely had no idea that there was a job for being an artist. I really had no clue.
DAH: It was just something you had to do?
JR: Some of the kids were doing it in the neighborhood and it’s so great to have your name up there and then it became a challenge like who’s going to get up there and who’s going to get that one, and who’s going to have more balls. There was nothing like ‘Oh, look how beautiful these are or look at how they change people’…nothing like that. So, it is later on when I got evicted from my school in the suburbs that I had to go live with some cousins in Paris that I met some writers that were in a totally different game. They said ‘your letters are bullshit, we do letters like this’. It is like if you come from the countryside and you think you had it all right and then you get in the city and you meet the real dudes and you start right from the bottom, and those guys actually do crazy letters, and one of the crew I was affiliated with was a really legit one and the leader lived in my suburb, so that’s why they accepted me in Paris. But my writing was terrible.
DAH: Ah, so how old were you when you went to Paris?
JR: I was seventeen.
DAH: Oh so that is a tough time.
JR: Yeah, and so basically, the moment I was in Paris I realized that there was a whole game for it. There were guys who were really good at it, and that is when I was like, oh I am meeting the best dudes, but I am not that great at it, so why don’t I document those guys.
DAH: So you started by just taking pictures of the guys who were rioting?
JR: Yeah. And then printing the photos and re-pasting them in the street. But really small. Really tiny.
DAH: Was it after the pasting in Arles?
JR: No that was 2001. I pasted my first poster when I was seventeen.
DAH: Really? Because you are thirty now right?
JR: Yeah, I’m thirty now. So I started thirteen years ago basically. Now I am working on a secret project that no one knows about.
DAH: I guess we had better keep your “secret project” a secret (laughing)…Save it for the next interview!!
Well let me ask you this…when did you suddenly go from underground, in trouble, getting arrested, obviously the government’s against you, you’re a bad boy, now you’re obviously a good boy and I want to ask you about that too. Is that a problem being a good boy?
You’re a famous pop artist now, is that a contradiction to the original JR?
JR: No, what I love about it is that I can be a good boy in New York and sometimes a good boy in France, but then when I did that I was arrested for that.
DAH: But you are a “good boy” in France now aren’t you?
JR: Yeah but we never got into a position to do that. I tried, even with my name to get the authorization to paste in the building; they wouldn’t give it to me. And so the funny thing is that, even when I was in China, I can have an exhibition in a museum and at the same time have problems with the outside, because for some people this is art and for other’s it’s silly crime, so we are talking about simple posters being a piece of art in a place and….
DAH: And a crime in another place?
JR: Yeah. Most of the places I go I start from scratch again. If I was only in New York, or only in France, I would have that feeling that everything seems easier, but because all those places I travel to, I start back from scratch, from people who don’t know my work or from police, who think: I don’t care who you are.
DAH: What about in Kibera or Cuba?
JR: Kibera we had no authorization. Cuba we had to do it through the Art Biennale but we had to finance everything, the best thing is Berlin for example. You know, I just did a project there and for most of it we actually didn’t get authorization. So we rented a huge crane and we just parked it wherever we wanted to. We know how to pretend we are legit, so if police came and looked at us, we looked really professional.
DAH: Listen, you are out there with the social media, you’re out there, you’re a celebrity, you’re a pop artist in a way, but you still keep the little extra part of original JR in there too. Is this correct?
JR: I have that thing where I am always in the grey zone, basically. That’s where I feel the most comfortable. In a place where you don’t know if it’s legal or illegal. Even Times Square that looks like the most legal thing ever, we didn’t have a paper from the city. They couldn’t give us official authorization saying that they agreed on that since there were insurance problems if people fell, etc. No one would take that responsibility. So basically Times Square Arts said you can go ahead but that everything was on our head because no one in the city would give us a paper covering your ass for what we were going to do.
DAH: I am used to photographers doing big things, but you’re out there on some other planet. I don’t see how you do all that stuff one after another. You take on Times Square and I think “Okay, that’s enough for two years of work and that’s that”. But then the next thing I know you’re in Berlin. How are you doing all that stuff? You have a team obviously…
JR: Well my favorite part is to be out pasting with my team, so we always travel altogether.
DAH: But how do you do all that stuff? You must have a military precision operation thing here. You’re a super organized guy.
JR: It’s a little of both. For example, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I sleep well.
DAH: Yeah, I was going to ask you if you ever sleep.
JR: Yes, I need to sleep for hours.
DAH: Do you have a personal life?
JR: I have one, it’s just that I travel a lot. The way I keep a close circle that is trained is that I have the same team that I’ve had for years. Those are the same guys that I did a project with 10 years ago in the suburbs. They are the same guys that I work with. We don’t need to call each other every day. They know which truck we need to rent when I get in a place. I never feel like I am arriving with new people…I am always with my team. We are like a family.
DAH: That I understand. I have some small version of that, but yours is on a huge level. Do you have an advance team who is going and lining all this stuff up?
JR: Sometimes they go to places and check it out before me, but I need to go and validate the walls.
DAH: Are you going yourself and making the deals with the official people or biz people, or is there somebody else?
JR: No, there are some people who do that here in New York, other guys in Berlin, other guys when it’s in France. And also, when I did the project in Rio, I worked with some people from Providencia. Now when I came back to Providencia I knew people there and we all stay very close. So depending on the city, I don’t need to send guys since I already have somebody there that knows how I work. And of course all the volunteers sometimes come and help, which is great. I have some guys who construct stuff and those guys don’t joke. You tell them I want a truck with that thing and that thing and he never calls you back and when you come it’s ready. They are the kind of guys that just make shit happen. There is a lot of this in the team where everybody takes these things personally and it becomes their part. And so we work a lot like that very closely. It’s like if I put a frame, and inside that frame everyone does their part. We have pasting guys who are willing to take risks, and have other who say “call me when you have an exhibition or legal war”, and other guys who I worked with in the suburbs have been in jail so they take the risks, to do their thing knowing that if they get arrested, it is everyone on their own basically because we have no paper, nothing.
DAH: Now I would imagine that you would get financing from various city’s or from various patrons of things.
JR: No, Times Square I financed myself. Paris, same thing.
DAH: You can do that just with your….
JR: The sales of the artwork.
DAH: Really? You do all that with that?
JR: I don’t have time to write forms or grants and no one on the team knows how to do it. Who would maybe be good at it? We don’t know. Most of the stuff we do is on the grey zone.
DAH: How do you get those big prints made in Nairobi?
JR: For example all the vinyl prints on the roof, we actually printed in Nairobi.
DAH: You printed it IN Nairobi?
JR: Yeah, because that is the cheapest way to work. That’s where they do all the banners for West Africa advertising and stuff like that. And now we covered another 4,000 square meters on top of what we did before and we just did it with help of the community. That’s like what you saw in Brazil, just continuity. So every year we come back and cover more.
DAH: And you just pick your social projects…I mean everything you do has some social relevance to it. I mean it may be in protest to something, something that you care about.
JR: The thing is, I am sure most of the people think I have legal authorization from the state when I actually have nothing. It’s like working in the favela. Providencia is the only favela where you cannot do any art projects, especially at the time when I went. There are no NGOs here are no contacts in there. When I went in there, there was just no way I could do it. I just met one woman, and that woman presented me to Mauricio, he was the key to everything. He was the guy who basically explained to every person (because I didn’t speak Portuguese) why I came and what the project was, because those people could do it. They were so good at it, so why wouldn’t it just be their project?
DAH: So then you go out and get your team together and you bring it back?
JR: Yes, exactly.
DAH: Well you are an artist with a sense of social responsibility. You said art was a great place for you to discuss all these social issues in kind of a free form. But you are doing more than a lot of journalistic photographers are doing. You don’t consider yourself that kind of photographer. You are an artist, but still, the issues are exactly the same.
JR: Now, I only understood that this year actually since I started using Instagram, I didn’t have social media a year and a half ago. I realized that if I put up a single photo people would think that was cool, but if I put up a whole story then suddenly people are touched and want to respond to that.
DAH: This is something you are just now realizing?
JR: Yeah, I didn’t understand the power of that before.
DAH: You’ve turned down the job as a journalist twice?
JR: Yeah, but I am not trying to do journalism.
DAH: I know you’re not, but you are making social change, which is what a lot of journalists are trying to do. I mean a lot of documentary photographers. Including me…I go to Kibera and I see the conditions there, and I’m thinking ‘Ok, I will take pictures here and hopefully if I publish it in magazines through Magnum I will effect some social change. Actually you in fact are going in as an artist and putting covers over the roofs so they don’t leak anymore. So that is a real social change, a real powerful and direct effect. So this is something you are realizing more and more. Is this something you are thinking about more and more?
JR: I am thinking about that fact that from the beginning. I realized when I go into this neighborhood and I have no contact there, I realized quickly that I wanted to have a real interaction with the people and as I was always into pasting, I knew I would implicate them, need their help but the thing is, how can that make sense for them? And they are the ones that will decide if it makes sense.
DAH: When you are in Kibera, they are the ones deciding?
JR: Exactly, and Liberia was the same thing. In Liberia there were just two of us and just guys with machetes around asking what the fuck are you guys doing here. You explain to them you want to paste a photo of a woman, and they don’t get it, but they are so curious because you don’t come from an NGO. So they are like ok what do you want to do? And I say we want to paste and they say okay you pay me and you can paste. I say no, I’m not going to rent a space from you. It’s not advertising. I say look, I’m not going to paste it if you tell me not to paste it, but if you tell me to paste it and you don’t like it and you want to scratch it in front of me, that is fine with me. So they ask why then do you even want to do it? I say I do it because it’s art. Basically the guys are so curious they say go ahead and do it, we don’t care. So they look and then when you try to do it, and remember that broken bridge, it was so hard because the bridge was broken, that they help you ended up having child soldiers helping to paste a woman that they may have raped during the conflict. But this would only happen to through that whole thing of you as an artist and trying to come into someplace and trying something with no insurance that you can actually do it. So when I travel, there is always a risk that I am going to be stopped before I even start, and that is the risk that most other people who travel don’t want to have. They don’t want to go there for nothing. All of those places that I went to, I had always in mind that there was a great percentage of chance that it wasn’t going to happen. Even in the favela, because I don’t have a paper.
DAH: Yeah, well you are in another world when you are in Kibera or in the favela. Okay, one last question because I know you have to go, your long term goal… you are going at such an incredible pace, you are 30 years old and you have already established a good solid 10 years of credibility already as an artist, so describe yourself right now.
I mean I’ve seen different descriptions that you’ve given, but right this minute, right now, how do you see yourself in the future? Street artist? Photographer? Same thing or more?
JR: I don’t think I’m a street artist anymore or photographer. I think I use those tools everyday. I love the artist title because you can do anything. I don’t have a direct goal or direct mission, except that if I fail tomorrow I want to fail inside my field. I don’t want to sell out basically. So I put those codes in since the beginning and I always did every one of my projects inside those codes that I fixed to myself, and I just wish that in the future, if I stop or if I fail that will be the best thing for me to have stayed true.
DAH: That’s a great message for emerging photographers. That’s the best thing. If you screw up, at least you did it.
JR: And as an artist you have the same rules to actually enter into rich homes in Copacabana and into the slums in Kibera. You have them so to do the same thing with your life. This building I live in I don’t pay rent, and it is beautiful, but if tomorrow I am back into a really small apartment, basically, I wouldn’t see that as failure. As you go and live to the complete extreme, you’d better be ready for it. So, of course I love my NYC studio, but if tomorrow I don’t have it anymore, I know that’s not failure. I don’t care, as long as I can express myself. When I was doing it 10 years ago, I didn’t feel that it was failure to just work in my little room and print my little photos. So I’m fine to go back to that, it wouldn’t be a failure.
DAH: I always felt the same way. Ready to go back to the street anytime. Anything but sell out.
JR: Exactly. It’s like people are so afraid to lose things, and so by being afraid to lose everything, they will do whatever. For example they will print the same thing over and over because it sells. I don’t care. Inside Out was the example. Two years ago I decided to give my techniques away. This is how you print and this is how you glue it. I am going to print for you and I am even going to pay for you if you want…all these people were like ‘wait, but if you give your techniques away, what’s left? Keep your copyrights’. I said ‘no I am going to give everything away I don’t care’. This has helped me more than has taken me down. Of course I have spent a lot of money in it, but I love the interaction. I meet so many people. I wouldn’t change that for anything. So, I think that all this is just a step that I am taking in the blind, and then I just react to it. And that is my way of working everyday. I am not planning stuff three years ahead. I know what I am going to do just this year, and after that I don’t know.
DAH: Inspiration for all. Thanks for your time JR. Great stuff….
Photograph of JR in his studio in New York by David Alan Harvey.