JR faces Atlanta

The world's most talked about street artist commemorates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

About a dozen people have gathered at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Hilliard Street in Old Fourth Ward to watch today's most talked about street artist put up a mural. JR, as the Parisian artist is known, climbs the frame of a three-story scaffold, maneuvering around its bars and through each landing's hatch like it's a jungle gym. JR's preferred medium is wheatpaste, essentially gluing a paper image to a wall. His team of assistants follows one by one, quickly filling in the levels below him. The 30-foot-by-40-foot black-and-white photograph is unfurled in long strips, slowly revealing a trio of young men carrying signs, one of which says, "NO MORE HUNGER."

The image is a reproduction of a Steven Blum photograph from the Poor People's Campaign of 1968, a civil rights demonstration envisioned by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and realized shortly after King's death. A few hours later and a couple of blocks down the road at Edgewood Avenue and Hilliard Street, JR and his team begin swift work on a second mural. This one's a dramatic still from the 1963 March on Washington taken by Flip Schulke. The opportunity to commemorate this month's 50th anniversary of the march and MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech in the neighborhood where the civil rights hero grew up is what piqued JR's interest in Atlanta, and ultimately helped Living Walls get him here.

JR's an in-demand guy these days. Known for his black-and-white portraits that cover entire buildings or the rooftops of whole villages, JR has spent most of the last decade in impoverished, war-torn, and otherwise vulnerable communities around the world, from Brazil to Kenya to Israel and Palestine. His massive photos put faces on some of the world's most discussed, yet often faceless issues: poverty, drugs, violence, war, racism, terrorism.

In 2011, JR was awarded the prestigious TED prize and used the $100,000 grant to launch his global participatory art project "Inside Out." For it, JR acts as assistant, printing the photos taken by locals who are also responsible for putting the images up. This spring, Times Square was blanketed with portraits of New Yorkers for Inside Out. In April, a group trekked all the way to the North Pole with an Inside Out banner to raise awareness of global warming issues.

JR's work in Atlanta is part of his "Unframed" series. It also uses photographs not taken by the artist — they're often archival or fine art prints — that focus on themes relevant to the communities in which they're installed. His third and final mural here shows a lone boy carrying an "I AM A MAN" sign during 1995's Million Man March, taken by Elaine Tomlin. It went up at the end of the day across the street from the Sweet Auburn Curb Market. Living Walls hosted JR in Atlanta just weeks before the organization's fourth annual conference. Between murals, I interviewed JR about working directly with community members, the tensions that can arise from public art work, and whether any dialogue is good dialogue — all things Living Walls has had to contemplate publicly as it's grown from a band of loosely organized street artists to a policy-following, legislation-submitting street art nonprofit.

How'd you end up doing this project in Atlanta?

Living Walls contacted us and told us about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington being in August and that we could use some image from the time and get some walls. And we were like, OK, we'd love to work on that subject, and we don't know if we could make the date work with the end of August for the conference but we'd love to come in Atlanta. So they sent us walls and there was a lot of back and forth it was a very long process to find the walls with the right images.

How did you get the images? There are three.

The images are taken from archives. We tried to get some from, you know, the archive of the family of Martin Luther King, but apparently they're pretty tight on this, which I found pretty sad when, you know, that it's a message that you want to spread and actually make sure people hear and just get inspired. And when I heard that the speech is copyrighted, for me it doesn't make sense. It's the complete opposite — a complete antique way of working. So that is why it's actually the people we're pasting and not him because it reveals kind of the access we could have on the image and in my point of view, the wrong philosophy behind copyright.

How much do you know about this neighborhood and this part of Atlanta?

It's the first time. Everything's new to me.

So what do you think of Atlanta and the buildings and the streets that you've seen? I know you've only been here a few hours.

It's too early to say, but you know I love walking in neighborhoods that are human-size and this is definitely one. Working on buildings that are two, three floors high, I prefer that. So when we're looking at walls, I was not looking for really big walls. I'm looking for walls that are on a corner in the neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and where people would actually interact with it.

Would you call what you do political? Or activism at all?

No. I would call it art. But art can raise political questions, social questions. No, definitely art.

Even though it seems like a big motivation is social change?

You're right. For me the work in the whole way it's financed, the way it's made, the way it's created, the way it functions it's only 100 percent in an art context. But then the places and the people and the way it's done — of course it can touch those social questions and that's what I like about it is that the art lets me go deeper in those social questions and that's for me what's exciting. It's about raising questions and not necessarily giving the answers.

Inside Out's first project took place in Tunisia in 2011 shortly after the country's revolution that resulted in the ousting of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The photographs were taken and installed by locals (JR was there to help) and stirred up a lot of emotion. Teams would work through the night pasting the murals only to have them torn down by angry crowds the following morning.

In interviews, you often talk about how the work is for the community but also about the idea of pushing limits. So, when you are coming to do something for a community and you want it to benefit the community, how do you balance the amount of tension you're going to bring? I'm thinking specifically of Tunisia where it was people from their own communities putting up work of other people from those communities but it really created a lot of tension.

What was interesting there in that specific project, it was the people who decided to make it happen there. So that's one thing. I was there as a witness, but it was really their project. So they're the ones who decided to do the project and place it in their community. Then what happened there was for me interesting because it shows the power of image. It shows in one place an image can mean just art and questions and in others it can mean heavy discussions and tension for sure. For me both are fine, both are interesting. You know my art is not to provoke, as direct provocation. It's to actually provoke discussions, provoke reflections. That's what it is.

Do you think any dialogue is good dialogue?

Yeah, definitely. Definitely. I wouldn't just want people to walk like they're walking in front of advertising. There's nothing written on it so they have to make the next step to actually try to understand what it is: Are those photos? Who is on it? That's what happened in Tunisia, it's just that in a moment that was really particular in the history, which was, you know, revolution.

What discussion do you hope these murals of the march bring to people in Atlanta? Do you have an expectation?

You know, every mural that I bring up I never have too much expectation 'cause that's what I like. First it's about the experience of doing it in the community, the pasting, you know, paper, glue, all that stuff, all that process. And then it's about what it means for the people in that neighborhood. And that is something that I can't answer right now. I can't wait to get to hear more from the people when the murals will be up. But that's one of the main concerns, to make sure that it makes sense, at least from what I heard, for me, in this neighborhood, and then see what it actually feels for the people.