‘Né Dans La Rue’ Fondation Cartier graffiti exhibition, Paris

“This exhibition traces the origins of the graffiti movement while offering a panorama of the diversity of contemporary writing”. A Cartier-backed history of graffiti? With the right people involved? Really?

Casting my ill-conceived preconceptions about fashion houses trying to connect with youth culture aside, once I’d seen the photos from this exhibition begin to appear online, I knew I wanted to go and see it for myself. The days of wanting to go and see graffiti in gallery spaces have long gone for me, but the opportunity to go and see some genuine artifacts from the pioneering days of New York’s graf scene was too good to resist. A quick Friday night hop on the Eurostar (courtesy of my good lady) gave us a full Saturday morning to spend checking the exhibition out.

Approaching the exhibition space from Raspail Metro station, it’s pretty clear you’re in the right area: the front of the building is surrounded in wooden hoardings covered in graffiti. Whilst that’s all well and good, it was the ‘graffiti taxonomy’ (see Evan Roth’s site for some great background shots) on the glass facade that stood out. Individual letters from a wide range of different writers in Paris, showcasing the diversity of tag styles in the same geographic region. It reminded me a little of Rammellzee and Phase Two’s explorations into letterforms, but without the scary costumes and complicated technospeak.

Once you’ve paid your €6.50 and go into the grounds, you’re confronted with a massive chrome dub (courtesy of Amaze) and a walk around the back of the glass showroom reveals a hut with Seen throw-ups, a Shepard Fairey wall and a couple of other bits. All good, so far…

Upon entering the exhibition hall, a friendly-but-firm voice told me ‘no photographs please’. I think my speechless expression said enough: you can’t claim to be presenting graffiti in its truest form without allowing complete freedom to let people document it themselves. Luckily, it wasn’t very difficult to take a few low-key pictures as we walked around – the staff were busy monitoring a class of schoolchildren, so it was pretty easy to get a few point-n-shoot shots. But this was one severe black mark to the organisers, especially considering I’d held out from buying the exhibition catalogue in the UK (Magma sell it for a fiver less) so that I could buy it from the ‘official’ vendor.

The ground floor has a selection of large freestanding walls, with art from a variety of different writers and artists on there. A couple of things stood out (such as the Jon One sculpture-framed piece and the Delta wall), but it was clear the downstairs section was where the real treats were being kept. In the first room, there was a cool handstyle animation on loop (by Evan Roth and Katsu), facing a wall with two nice Part One pieces on. Seen’s recreated ‘Hand Of Doom’ piece filled another wall, but the true gold came in the form of two exhibition cases with original sketches and blackbook pieces in them. Dondi and Tracy 168’s sketches looked as good in the flesh as they did in the books. Seen’s original sketch and photos of the ‘Hand Of Doom’ wholecar was pretty exciting to see, having looked at that piece again and again in ‘Subway Art’ over the past 20 years. Henry Chalfant’s contribution was great to see: a wall of photographic prints, featuring both well-known subway panels and a couple I hadn’t seen before. There was also a large presentation case with a transit worker’s uniform (as worn by Seen when painting trains) and a door with lots of classic NYC writers’ tags scrawled on.

Walking past a cool/weird Blade piece (a list of writers who’d died, bordered by mirrored walls and tags), the next room had a large projection of ‘Style Wars’/’Wild Style’-era footage, surrounded by some vintage canvas works by Futura, Quik and Lee. The highlights of this room were the Lady Pink/Lee denim jacket and the ‘Aboveground’ gallery poster, following on from the MTA’s anti-graffiti campaign. Walking out of this room takes you down a tag-battered catacomb and back into the main room. Exhibition over? Not quite.

As I pushed my way past over-zealous kids on the stairway, I went up onto the first floor bookshop, where I was quite literally blown away. I had to stop in my tracks to take in the comprehensive selection of graffiti books. They had easily over 100 different books there, ranging from just-released tomes through to various exhibition catalogues and classic publications. I’d only intended to purchase the official guide to the exhibition (which I still did), but also ended up with the Blade monograph, a signed copy of the ‘Seen City’ catalogue from his 2007 show – and the recently-released ‘All City Writers’ book. I also found ‘Stations Of The Elevated’ on DVD, which was an unexpected surprise. Posters were reasonably priced at €6 and everything was properly browsable before purchase. The best collection of graffiti literature I’ve seen in one place, for certain. With our arms weighed down with books, we left and went to see what Colette was saying, en-route back to Gare du Nord.

This is by no means the comprehensive history of graffiti that it promises, and some of the modern pieces are a little questionable in terms of relevance, but it was fully worth visiting. We thought we’d snuck in to see it before the planned closing date (which was originally set to be November 29th 2009), but they’ve just extended the duration until January 10th 2010, so plan a weekend to Paris before it finishes and have a look for yourself.

Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. 261, Boulevard Raspail, Paris 75014
More information: http://fondation.cartier.com

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