French Artist JR: The Urban Artivist

From the streets of Cartagena to Shanghai, the French artist JR can very well be the greatest addition to the urban world of art. Pushing boundaries with his universal statements, his monumental portraits express the human side of social issues and tell the stories of everyday people. Creating large-scale public photography projects in cities around the world that address local political conflicts, JR has in recent years become one of the most visible contemporary artists on the international stage.

Who is Artist JR and where does he come from?

Born to a Tunisian mother and European father in the banlieues of Paris, the artist JR began his career as a teen graffiti artist who, by his own admission, was more concerned with leaving his mark on public space and society rather than with changing the world. His graffiti efforts frequently focused on perilous locations such as rooftops and subway trains, and he relished the adventure of visiting and painting in these locations. JR and his friends began documenting the act of graffiti painting after discovering a camera in the Paris Metro. He began affixing photocopies of these photographs to outdoor walls at the age of 17, thereby establishing illegal “sidewalk gallery exhibitions.” Over the course of his career, JR traveled throughout Europe in search of other artists whose mode of artistic expression included the use of outdoor walls.

Then he started thinking about the vertical boundaries, the walls, and the facades that define and structure cities. After observing and listening to the people he met and their messages, JR pasted their portraits on the walls of Paris’ streets, basements, and rooftops, where they could be seen by anyone.

Using art as his voice

The first major project JR embarked on was in 2004, following rioting in the banlieues. He photographed the faces of rioters and pasted large prints of their faces all over the city, which became his first major public art project. In this way. JR was able to humanize a largely immigrant population that the government had previously labeled as “scum.” This approach would become synonymous with JR.

Face2Face Project

Face2Face project - artist JR
Artist JR: Face2Face project, ISRAËL, PALESTINE 2007. Photo credit:

For his next project, Face2Face, he pasted portraits of Arabs and Jews on walls over Israel and the West Bank in 2007.

Women Are Heroes Project

In 2008, after the government-involved the murder of three young men in Rio de Janeiro’s disenfranchised Morro da Providencia favela sparked riots, he plastered enormous pictures of the eyes of the community’s women, including relatives of the deceased youths, on buildings looking down into the city for the project Women Are Heroes.

Women Are Heroes - Brazil's favelas, 2008 by JR
Artist JR: Women Are Heroes, Favela Morro da Providencia, Rio de Janeiro, 2008. Photo credit:

JR traveled to New York, Brazil, London, Brussels, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, Sudan, India, Cambodia, and the Philippines as part of the project. At the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, the film Women Are Heroes was screened and competed for the Camera d’Or, which was awarded the best film.

TED Prize in 2011

When artist JR was awarded the 2011 TED Prize, he used the $100,000 award money and decided to reverse his practice by creating the project Inside out, in which he invited people all over the world to send him photographs of themselves, which he would then print out at a large scale and send back to them so that they could display them publicly. Participants have included members of the Lakota tribe of NorthDakota as well as revolutionary Tunisian protesters. As a result of this initiative, his art has been shared with more than 1,200 organizations and 160,000 causes

Inside Out - JR project TED winner
JR: Inside Out Project. Photo credit:

Faces, Places

Artist JR’s recent film work is featured prominently in chronicles as well. Filmmaker Agnes Varda and he teamed up in 2017 to make “Faces, Places,” an Oscar-nominated short film that shows the artist process as it unfolds in rural France.

face, place Agnes Varda and JR
Faces, Places is a film by Agnes Varda and JR.

The Gun Chronicles: A Story of America

“The Gun Chronicles: A Story of America” JR’s most recent project is a video mural illuminating more than 200 different perspectives on gun control in the United States. Times magazine collaborated with artist JR last year to photograph and film 245 Americans “In an attempt to capture the breadth of the nation’s gun debate” for a mural that was reproduced on the magazine’s cover.

Gun chronicles - JR
JR: The Gun Chronicles: A Story of America. Photo credit:

The Louvre and the Secret of the Great Pyramid

In March 2019, JR recreated the Louvre pyramid as a 3D optical illusion for the second time. He used his well-known black and white stickers to give the impression that the pyramid continued underground in an excavated crater, which was not the case. As visitors walked across it, it was torn to shreds within the day’s time frame. Jr was pleased with how short it was, and he even stated that brevity was his intention.

Louvre - Installation JR
JR: The Louvre and the Secret of the Great Pyramid. Paris, 2016. Photo credit:

The Art Exhibition at The Pyramids

JR has created another optical illusion in which it has ripped open the top of one of the Great Pyramids of Giza in Cairo, Egypt, as part of his latest project. An exhibition of large-scale sculptures and installations by ten contemporary artists is on display in conjunction with the work. The exhibition “Forever Is Now” (on display until November 7), which is being billed the first of its king at the 4,500-year-old Unesco World Heritage Site, is being organized by Art d’Egypte, a company whose mission is to promote Egyptian art through annual exhibitions at historic locations.

The Urban Artivist

JR self-identifies as an “urban activist” and he creates pervasive art that he installs on buildings in Paris area projects, on the walls of the Middle East, on Africa’s broken bridges and in Brazil’s favelas. Community members participate in the artistic process during the pasting phase. In Brazil, for instance, children were transformed into artists for a week. In Tecate, Mexico, about an hour south of San Diego, a towering image of endearing toddler peers curiously over a fence separating Mexico and the United States. No scene separates the actors from the spectators in these artistic acts, covering an entire hillside of buildings in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas with images for is arresting Women Are Heroes installation.

JR has established himself as a pivotal figure in contemporary art over the last two decades. His work is particularly effective because it places a strong emphasis on the human experience. Following each interconnected project, which responds to the ideas and context that came before it, a new one is initiated. It is through his image that perception is altered, as he bridges the gap between how stories are portrayed and how they are lived. Even after his work has been removed from view, their messages continue to resonate with sonorous, global significance.

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