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Patina of Paris

/ 07:25 AM September 22, 2013

The first thing that may strike a visitor in Paris is what appears to be the city’s untidiness or seemingly neglected state. There’s the usual uncollected litter and lots of soft canine “land mines” in this nation crazy about  dogs.

But what’s more striking is how the city seems to tolerate graffiti. It crawls on  every lamppost, garbage bin, phone booth, bench and even the top walls of buildings, which makes you imagine the street artist as some kind of Spiderman climbing walls or hopping from roof to roof just to make his tag visible to the most number of people.

And graffiti here is not just tagging or those hastily scribbled words in hard-to-read spraypaint calligraphy. It was the French artists Blek Le Rat and Banksy who pioneered the use of stencils as medium for street art back in the early ‘80s. This paved the way for other forms of easy-to-post-and-spread guerrilla art like stickering and photocopied mini-posters.

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The street artist would “bomb” every wall or street furniture with his decals or mini-posters, partly covering those of others until an interesting texture and abstract play of colors that is not without its own layers of meaning (often made more interesting by how torn pieces of previous posts reveal parts of what’s underneath).

The  favorite target of graffiti artists seems to be delivery trucks. Graffiti artists love the idea of how they could transform the truck into  mobile art like free mobile advertising for their art.

It’s hard to find a truck that is not already filled with graffiti. Owners seem to have given up the idea of repainting their trucks to cover the graffiti. The vandals are just too many  and, besides, they often actually make the truck look good.

Belleville is one place in Paris that is heavily bombed with street art. There’s one street here that is a long stretch of colorful graffiti. It has become a tourist site. In fact, graffiti has become part of the unique character of this place and residents take pride in it.

Graffiti, of course, doesn’t really last. Most of the painted surfaces fade and the posters peel off. But some fragments are left on the wall preserved by new layers of posters. They would be revealed again the moment the poster covering them is torn or peeled off.

All these have become part of the building’s patina that Parisian residents have become accustomed to preserve. They have seen how previous markings—perhaps, some obscenity against the Nazis hastily scrawled on a wall or fragments of a poster calling workers to strike in May 1968—become important reminders of events witnessed in silence by those walls.

There is thus a general tendency not to paint the walls in order to preserve the traces of the past. At the Extra Old Café, the walls and wooden furniture look tortured and naturally distressed, with some of its pre-war paintings already peeling off.

A broken bell-shaped lamp of a chandelier is left to hang unreplaced (perhaps, a replacement is no longer available). And as customary in old Parisian cafes, old bottles are reused to serve water that come straight from the faucet (Parisians take pride that their tap water or “eau de Paris” has remained clean and perfectly drinkable).

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Paris is lucky to have been spared by bombings (real bombs and not stickers this time) during the Second World War so most of its historic buildings and apartments have been preserved. The Metro or subway system has for a long time made it unnecessary to commute by private car so the streets remain narrow sparing the buildings and the old sidewalks along them. Much of the old stone pavements are still there.

The old city reflects a mix of architectural styles, ranging from Rococo to Neoclassical to Art Nouveau. They all remind locals and visitors alike of the former grandeur of France.

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TAGS: graffiti, Paris, Tourism
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