BN Paris

By Irene Fogarty

Ever since I went to Basquiat’s exhibition here at the Tokyo Palais, I’ve been thinking a lot about street art, artists and their lives. Before the likes of Banksy, Shepard Fairey or Aérosol, Basquiat was one of the first grafitti artists to take his messages to the walls of downtown Manhattan. Unfortunately, the exhibition will be over by the time you read this but I propose something more current with real, living artists that goes on right here in Paris that you won’t find in most tourist guides.

With its long history of political and social uprising, it’s not hard to believe that even today in Paris you can find alternative political and cultural activity in various squats. Considering the prices of renting apartments compared to the low wages, it doesn’t surprise me to find many beautiful Haussmann buildings full of squatters. Bon courage! These abandoned buildings (often government owned) have been occupied and re-appropriated by groups of artists, performers, activists, musicians or just people that need a roof over their head.

More encouraging is the fact that today a lot of these buildings are re-opening as some have managed to become legitimate and are supported by local municipalities. This is the case for 59 Rue De Rivoli. Formerly called “electron libre chez robert” and situated right in the heart of Paris, it was once the 4th most visited tourist attraction of Paris. In 1999, three artists known as the KGB (Kalex, Gaspard and Bruno) occupied this building left abandoned by the bank Crédit Lyonnais. However it was closed to the public over five years ago due to health and safety precautions. Re-opening in September 2009, this time legally charged by Paris City Hall, it’s now the new “aftersquat” attracting thousands of people.

With its eccentrically decorated faà§ade, (colorful blown-up dolphins dangle from the high windows) it’s impossible to miss this multi-floor palace where living artists work every day. A big spiral staircase rises up to all six floors. Writings on steps and wall drawings recall underground clichés, but the atmosphere is unexpectedly neat, tidy and friendly. It just all seems to work. Even more comforting is the fact that all the residents – sculptors, painters, installation artists and photographers all work and live here. Which means you could witness a phase of their masterpiece that could be famous in the years to come. Finally, street artists have a place to live and a place to show their artworks, outside of the immobile and static system led by galleries. I wonder how Monsieur Basquiat would feel about all this?

59, Rue de Rivoli
Metro station: Chà¢telet
Open : Tuesday – Sunday from 1pm to 8pm and Saturday from 11am to 8pm.
Admission: Free!

Originally published February 2011
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