JR is a semi-anonymous street artist from France who combines photography, street art, and social action in his large-scale pieces in public places. His works are primarily put up in urban centers and he claims to “own the biggest art gallery in the world”– the streets. He always hides his identity, wearing dark sunglasses and a fedora at public events.
JR was born to Tunisian and European parents in the banlieue of Paris. His works began as graffiti tagging under the moniker Face 3. While on the Paris metro at the age of 17, he found an abandoned camera. He and his friends took it and began to take photographs of their acts of graffiti painting.
Later, JR traveled around Europe and met artists who used outdoor walls to exhibit their works. Upon his return to France, he began to play with this medium, and his illegally pasted works grew to entire façades. He dubbed himself, with his practice of both photography and graffiti, a “photograffeur”– a French portmanteau of these two terms.
JR’s first major project came with the 2004 riots in the banlieues of Paris. He captured the faces of the rioters and pasted large prints of them around the city. He claims this is a way to give a voice to the marginalized or voiceless populations. As the banlieue is largely inhabited by immigrants that the French government of the time referred to officially as “scum”, JR humanized the population and brought it to the attention of the Parisian public.
This style of work has become JR’s trademark. In 2007, he pasted portraits of Arabic and Jewish inhabitants of Israel and the West Bank on opposing sides of the border that marks the disputed territorial boundaries. This project, called Face2Face, was restaged in other cities globally. In 2008, following riots in Brazilian favelas, JR pasted giant pictures of the eyes of the women of the community looking down on Rio de Janeiro for his project Women Are Heroes.
In 2011, JR won the TED prize and used the winnings to begin his Inside Out project. This project invites anyone from around the world to send him a photograph of themselves that he would then print out at a large scale and send back for them to publicly paste up. His works include site specific interventions, trompe l’oeil works, as well as his portrait works. JR has had many retrospectives and solo exhibitions at galleries around the world, such as the 2021 shows at the Perrotin Gallery in Tokyo and the Saatchi Gallery in London.
Alongside his installations, JR has directed two full-length documentaries, one with legendary French documentarian Agnès Varda. These tackle similar topics to his street works, such as humanizing populations and practicing “urban activism”. Although his work began in France, many of his recent pieces have taken place in the United States, including his 2017 US-Mexico border art.
He is known as hugely ambitious, socially-minded, and interested in relational aesthetics. Particularly focused on local political conflicts, JR’s works take the global stage. Perhaps most
importantly, his large-scale pieces in public bring people who may not go to museums or galleries face-to-face with art, social questions, and underlying politicality.