I came across the Underground Paris street art walking tour when I was digging through websites about the Paris literary scene. When I first conceived my trip to Europe, it was largely as a kind of self-imposed writing retreat.
The idea of the tour intrigued me, as I know absolutely nothing about street art whatsoever. So this past Saturday morning I met up with the tour guides at a cafe in the Belleville neighbourhood in the northeast of Paris for three hours of education on the subject.
The tour began gently, introducing us to the various different kinds of street art, some of the common courtesies between artists, and the kinds of legal consequences that can arise if the artists are caught.
As the tour progressed, the passion the guides had for their subject rose to the surface, and we got quite the impassioned discussion about street art’s place in society.
The tour introduced me to some new ideas. I found the impermanent nature of the art quite interesting. Particularly in an environment like Rue Denoyez, where street art is legal and encouraged, artists understand and embrace the fact that their art will last only a day or a week before another artist comes along and paints over it. And therefore the street art tour is ever-changing, as pieces come and go.
We also discussed the way that street art can be used to change the atmosphere of a place for the better. The guides took us to a park where once there had been a problem with junkies and drug dealers hanging around. It wasn’t a safe place for kids. So the local council brought in a street artist to pain a large, brightly-coloured mural. It was happy and friendly and was clearly made for children. And the drug dealers and junkies moved away.
Further up the hill in the park, the street art became a communal project, with local classrooms contributing mosaics to be added to the wall. The community used street art to take ownership of their space and build a sense of belonging. I was really touched by that idea.
The guides also spoke quite a lot about the idea of street art as a conversation with the viewer. That the artist is spending their time and money, and risking prison as well as life and limb, to put their messages out there.
All in all, a very interesting way to spend the morning. And a nice introduction to the Belleville neighbourhood, which was an area I had wanted to explore anyway. If you’re interested in seeing the real workaday Paris, away from all the tourist traps, Belleville is a good place to visit.
They’re clearly not used to tours passing through there, and we got heckled by a couple of crazies along the way, but the guides handled them very well.
You can find more information about the tours at the Underground Paris website. The tour costs 20€ (or 15€ if you book online).