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  • Words and Photos by Sarah Sansom

JR at The Bowery Wall, An Anonymous Interview

Last Sunday morning, I woke to a message from an artist showing red paint splashed over the brand new Bowery Wall. 'What an idiot', I replied (or words to that effect). 'No', they said, 'it's genius, now it's far more powerful'.

I then realized that the red formed an '11' as a tribute to the 11 jewish people killed in Pittsburgh the day before, and was splashed over the gun-right supporters in the mural. Not just random tagging, this piece has now become a memorial.

The original wheat paste mural completed recently by French artist and photographer JR, depicts 245 people interviewed in 3 US cities about gun violence in America. The piece works in parallel with a Time Magazine feature and temporary Pace Gallery video installation.

I spoke with the anonymous artist later to learn more about the idea behind the unofficial addition:

The Bowery Wall on Tuesday, October 30. Photo: Sarah Sansom

Sold Magazine: Thank you for answering a few questions for us. We love the memorial you've made on Houston Street, it is very powerful. What was your initial reaction to the ‘Guns in America’ mural?

I thought it was JR's best work for a long time in some ways, but a let down in others. Content and message-wise, it was a well crafted, balanced message about gun ownership. Compare the Bowery piece with the impact of JR's baby looking over the Mexican border wall or the ingenuity of wheat-pasting over the pyramid at the Louvre, though, and you might see that JR doesn't often get it right. I love and admire his work with poor people in Brazil, and The Inside Out Project tells personal stories across the world - but it is not street art.

JR became famous after his TED talk and has a team, financial backing and celebrity/art world endorsements. He is really more an gallery artist now who puts things on the street to keep momentum going and keep some credibility. I wouldn't consider him primarily a street artist. I went to PACE gallery to see the animated video version of the Bowery Wall and also saw the TIME cover. Out of the three versions, the Bowery is the weakest.

The mural going up 10.26.18: JR, Martha Cooper, curator Jessica Goldman Srebnick and one of the mural's subjects

I love the video because the idea and skill to make it quite literally brings it to life. It is much better than an inanimate paper version. The TIME cover works well due to the format and the time a viewer has to study the details. Unless you are walking by and have time to stop and look, the Bowery version just comes across as a giant school photo.

Contrast JR's with the Logan Hicks piece, which was as complex but way more impressive and impactful. There is a lengthy text and QR code explanation taking up a quarter of the mural. No piece of art that has ever been on that wall has needed an explanation. The video version in PACE is way stronger without it. When one reads that it is a collaboration with TIME magazine, it also feels like it becomes partly an advertising billboard.

I heard through the grapevine that JR will be changing the image every two weeks and, by using a print from his studio a few blocks away, any graffiti could easily be papered over.

The temporary video installation at Pace Gallery, NYC (now closed)

SOLD: We were all sickened by the Pittsburgh, PA shooting when 11 Jewish people were killed and 6 injured. What gave you the idea to add to the mural?

There are more than 30 people murdered by being shot every single day in the US. It is unfortunate that only a tiny number of those are even reported. We all wonder what could motivate anyone to walk into a primary school, nightclub or place of worship with the intention of killing as many humans as possible.

We all want to participate in the grief of such an event by talking with friends, attending a vigil, donating, or leaving a token of condolence at a tribute. The irony is that these shooters bring more people together than they divide.

I had seen JR's piece that day and, as it unfortunately went up the day before the tragedy, it was fresh in my mind. It was a perfect location to express my own frustration at yet another massacre.

The mural in place on Saturday, October 26

SOLD: What was the message you wanted to send?

I knew that the best way to create a statement was to keep it as simple as possible: mentioning Trump or the NRA would have been divisive and distracting. Memorials are not political. Ever.

I wanted to convey the message to the pro-gun lobby that 11 people had died and let them have to justify why it was nothing to do with them. Like 9/11, numbers are powerful because they are just math: unemotional and logical but also the strongest icons we have. I cannot think of another thing I could have planned that would have been so effective.

The most biased thing I wanted was to throw blood red across the guns in the mural. We all remember the iconic image of the flower put in the rifle barrel in the 60’s. The red splash was a broader bloodshed reference.

Photo taken by the artist during the night of Saturday, October 27

SOLD: Can you tell us more about how you did it, and did you have help?

There were two people involved: I was the idea person and brought in another artist to do the actual painting. I mocked up a reference showing the 11 and how to throw paint over the pro-gun side to hit as many gun images as possible.

The important thing was to make the 11 look like numbers, so that is why they have the tabs on the top. Timing was important in terms of not getting caught on that busy intersection. It was easier to use a roller and pole to get the height. By 1.30am the paint, wide roller and pole was in hand and ready to go.

Process photos supplied by the artist

The key was speed, and although I had planned to have the roller tray and paint in a bag for quick removal, it was left behind. The 11 was added more in the middle of the piece because the artist decided it looked better in that lighter-toned location.

People walking by acted as though nothing was happening, (very New York style) as the paint was thrown over the rifles. The artist hid the pole nearby and went home: Mission accomplished.

Early the next morning, I did my best Pulp Fiction Wolfman act removing the evidence, (early pictures show them still in place, but no flowers) recovered the hidden pole and the act was complete.

'One of the best things about placement is the image of a gun rights supporter whose arm is outstretched with blood on his hands, right next to an old Jewish man. Visuals created by chance are to me the essence of street art: A human idea, made even better by unplanned happenstance.'

- The anonymous artist, October 24th

Above: Photos supplied by the artist

SOLD: In doing this you broke the sacred rule of street art: not going over another artists work. Did you have any qualms about that?

There was little craft involved in converting the TIME poster/PACE video into a wheat-paste. It is basically a 2-week billboard promoting a magazine story by a publicity-hungry artist who describes himself as a "photograffeur".

In the same way that Shepherd Fairey had a pop up for which you had to download an app to enter, JR, Fairey and Brainwash are not street artists. They are creative brands. The piece could easily be repaired because it was easily made, so that didn't bother me. That historic site attracts a lot of tags if the NYC graffiti community feels it is commercial. Remember how much it was tagged after it was discovered that the LAKWENA piece was a marketing promo, or when sexual abuser David Chloe's piece went up?

If JR hadn't jetted off to Paris after doing the requisite photo op, maybe he would have added the 11 himself. He (or Goldman Global Arts, the Jewish curators who run the wall) didn't respond for two days. What does that tell you about people who are supposedly passionate about the gun debate?

Reading JR's and Goldman Global Art's posts about the 11, they sound pretty hollow and probably followed a debate about leaving or removing the paint.

Photo taken Sunday, October 28 supplied by the artist.

SOLD: Did you also leave the bouquet of flowers, and if so, what was the intent of them?

Yes, I put a bunch of 11 red roses at the memorial, with more petals strewn on the ground. The 11 was always meant to be a memorial, not vandalism, and nothing says that like flowers, candles and notes. It was an underlining of why this was done and would hopefully give a location where New Yorkers could pay their respects. It didn't turn into a big memorial although other bunches were added. Surprisingly and sadly, some were stolen that first day.

SOLD: I’m sure you’ve been monitoring the reaction. What have you observed, and how to you feel about it?

Many people believed that the red paint was part of the original. I see that as a compliment. If you read the comments online, the most common word used is "powerful". It is not an 'ego thing' because this was an anonymous, illegal act, but I do think that the JR poster was very much elevated in terms of visual impact and a stronger message by what we did.

A memorial was created to the 11 people who were murdered in a place of worship. The poster gained much more publicity and so created more debate on the gun issue, which was the whole purpose of the TIME/JR collaboration. TIME, JR and Goldman Arts all posted the addition we did and were appreciative of it. Finally, we didn't get arrested for hitting the spot. There is nothing to feel bad about and much to be proud of.

TIME covered the addition and asked two people depicted their thoughts on it. I disagree with their points of view; the anti-gun person stated, "It really saddens me that someone mistook this project for their own personal or political reasons and not understanding that this project was meant to have a civil conversation and find some commonalities." which respectfully is strange because, unlike the participant, the person who painted the 11 didn't identify themselves.

The pro-gun participant said that they expected the piece to be vandalized, it is at street level right in the face of a fiercely anti-gun city. She goes on to refer to the NRA, as if this piece attacks them, which it certainly does not. Again, it just says "11". How you react to it reflects your politics, not mine. Finally, There has been no criticism of the piece from either those in Pittsburgh or the Jewish community. I take that as a sign that what we did was appropriate and appreciated.

Photos taken Sunday, October 28 supplied by the artist

The New York street artist community certainly appreciated what we did, with many positive messages including a 70's Jewish graffiti writer and modern street artists. I saw that Al Diaz created a special Wet Paint tribute, which was very touching. I didn't see any other graffiti/street art references to this tragedy in NYC, so our piece spoke on behalf of all of us.

A friend was forwarded a veiled threat text they received for posting pictures of the piece (which stupidly showed their phone number) but thankfully, there has been no real trolling.

The text and QR Code leads you to the TIME article, where you hear each of the subjects' stories.

SOLD: What are the artistic implications of your action?

Everyone has been feting the transformative nature of the Banksy shredding piece: it was one of the most famous pieces of performance art since the R. Mutt signature was added to a urinal in 1917, ushering in Modern Art.

I would not claim to be on the same level as Banksy, but there are very few instances where a piece of art has been transformed into a memorial with text. Banksy's intention was to render the render the balloon girl piece worthless by shredding it, but the universe intervened, jammed the shredder. Instead of a pile of strips, the work became an iconic image and more valuable.

There is no commercial market in memorials. Nobody wants a photo of Judy Garland's gravestone, but her ruby red slippers are worth millions. Art has financial value, memorials have emotional value. If you want to truly transform and destroy the commercial value of a piece of art, turn it into a memorial.

In these times, protest art is finding its way into galleries and museums, from the 2017 Whitney Biennial to the current Michele Pred ‘Vote Feminist’ exhibition at Nancy Hoffman gallery. Traditionally, protest art dated quickly and was not seen as a valued part of the art world.

The JR/TIME piece, and the changes we made to it, are very much part of the current 'trend' and are more accepted as valid, rather than vandalism.

SOLD: Have you had any direct response from the artist or curator?

A friend contacted JR, Goldman and TIME but none were interested in dialogue. Ultimately they had a real quandary: They could return the piece to how it was, which would have been said that their billboard was more important than the 11 lives lost. They could leave it, which condones future "vandalism" of the next work that goes up.

It took over 24 hours to come up with a simultaneous posts by JR, TIME and Goldman Global Arts which tells us they probably spent a while discussing a response. That they have an opinion of the motives of what they call "art" and a "conversation" but are not one bit interested in reaching out to the artist, or responding to messages speaks loudly about their sincerity


JR, Jessica Goldman Srebnick and TIME's Instagram posts on October 29 and 30

Honestly, I think that they are very happy that their project was given a PR boost, with more press/more likes. Isn't promoting discussion what it’s all about?

SOLD: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

We did not do this out of personal dislike for JR, Trump or the NRA. We wanted to show that we hurt and were driven by serendipity to make a very public statement: art can be a perfect response to hate. Every graffiti artist believes the adage "The pen is mightier than the sword”.

This was a message from our community to Pittsburgh and beyond.


See JR's Bowery Mural at 78 E Houston Street, NYC until approximately November 16.

Learn more about JR's photography projects here.

Read Time Magazine's Guns in America feature here.

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