CHARGING UP I was born in Paris but grew up in the suburbs. When I was doing graffiti as a kid, there were no limits. I could climb anywhere, I could go everywhere, like on rooftops, and see the city from new angles. That inspired me. I've always been curious and hyperactive, so when I was a kid, graffiti was an outlet for this. When I transferred that to photography and pasting images in the street, and started travelling and meeting new people, that gave me more energy. I was discovering new places, seeing how people saw reflections of themselves in my work and how my work reflected them. I was figuring out how people did that and creating that bridge. Since I pasted my first portraits of people, I have been thinking of how people re-appropriate my artwork. It's their photo, their location, their message - I'm just the enabler. As an artist, I think that's a really strong position to be in. I've been a witness to a spark that I lit, but the fire has been started by the people.
LETTING GO I like risk and I like people, and you can't start a project like Inside Out if you want to control everything (JR's team in New York prints black and white self-portraits for free and sends them to the subjects). Of course, when you think about it, I give all my techniques away. I show them how to take a photo, how to make the glue, how to paste it. I even pay to have it printed, if they don't know how. But even with this crazy model, where people ask me what I have left, I remain the most inspired person because people inspire me. And I've only travelled because of my artwork. One thing you realise when travelling is that the limits are not where you think they will be. You go to a place thinking: "Oh that's the context. I won't be able to work here", but you try and realise you can. It's like: "Oh I grew up in France and I had that image of that country and this country," and then when you go there, people completely change the ideas you had about the place.
THE RIGHT TO FAIL As an artist you have the right to fail, but you don't have this option as a brand, as an organisation, as a political group. They can't fail because people will be disappointed. As an artist, you can go anywhere. People welcome you because they don't see you as a politician, as an organisation, as a brand - they see you an artist, so they have more questions for you than you have for them. Even if I come back with nothing, it'll still be a success because I tried. You learn so much from failure. The way I've experienced it, I wouldn't even call it failure. It's just changed the way I work. As an artist, I don't have rules. When you're an artist, you don't know where you're going to be next month and I like that.
BATTLING THE BRANDS Inside Out can appear anywhere. It can be really strong in some places such as Tunisia, where only portraits of the leader were allowed. In other places, people just want their portrait at home. In Hong Kong, the images were like a door to a hidden world (JR was behind the 16 black and white portraits of Hongkongers pasted on the roof of a Connaught Road walkway last month). It's a huge city of brands and advertising; it's intense. So how do you place yourself in the middle of a city with such big towers and buildings? You may feel really small, but when you put out your images, suddenly you start seeing there are people behind those doors, behind those huge towers. I'm trying to make people become their own advertisements, but the one rule of this project is that it can only advertise an idea, not a brand or organisation. A lot of brands were trying to finance the project, but I said there was no space for them. When you see advertising in the street, you know it's trying to sell you something. But when you see art in the street, it should pass an idea. If you change that, you lose the essence of art. I've been to a couple of countries where there was no advertising, and I thought that was something special. When there's no advertising, you start thinking of so much other stuff. You don't stop and read most advertising - it's just done subconsciously. I'm not against branding - I love to buy shoes - but I won't create my own clothing line, for example, because when people look at my art, they know it's just the artist talking to them. That's what I've told each brand I've met. That's why we are enemies on the street. Who's going to take the first spot? Who's going to paste there first? Who's going to go bigger than the other? They are the only ones I'm competing against.
WRINKLES AND ALL The last place I worked was North Korea. It's kind of scary, and art had no place there. When I work in a country where there will be a debate and an exchange if I'm arrested, I feel reassured. When I work in a country where there will be no exchange, I get scared. I took my Wrinkles of the City project to Shanghai in 2010. I do this in cities that have undergone change, where they've destroyed the last bits of history to construct the future. I photograph old people and paste them on the last remaining old wrinkles of a city, because the people are witnesses to the past. This forms a meaningful relationship between location and the image. You photograph an older person in the city and they don't really care because the place doesn't mean anything to their generation.
Selected works by JR are on show at Galerie Perrotin, 17/F, 50 Connaught Road, Central, until November 10.