Paris art museum embraces street artists in new exhibition, but do they belong there?

Some merge almost too well – a freshly made portrait by Tunisian artist DaBro looks perfectly at home in a cluster of solemn 19th-century street scenes until you realise it features breakdancers.

Works by street artists on show as part of Petit Palais’ We Are Here exhibition. Photo: Getty Images
Others are more jarring, such as the pixelated alien by the French artist Invader sitting above a Monet sunset.

It is, say some of the artists, a logical step.

A mural by Chilean artist Inti features in We Are Here. Photo: Getty Images

“Street art always has the spirit of invasion. We always want to take over spaces that are not open to us,” says Inti, a Chilean artist who provided a huge mural.

But the exhibition has also made him question himself, he says. “To enter into a closed space like this is to enter into an institution – it’s a bit counter to what we try to do outside.”

He was concerned, too, that street art has become too commercialised, undermining its rebellious spirit.

A painting by American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who started out in street art before moving into galleries, sold for US$110 million in 2017; a shredded artwork by Britain’s guerilla street artist Banksy went for US$25 million in 2021.

Untitled, by Jean-Michel Basquiat, sold for US$110 million in 2017. Photo: EPA / Sotherby’s

Hush, a street artist from the north of England, agrees that art movements die when they become too accepted by the establishment.

But its ethos still challenges the elitist atmosphere of galleries, he says.

“As a working-class guy, you don’t always feel accepted in art museums. With street art, everyone feels allowed to come in,” he says.

“And you can still be disruptive, you can still have fun. The good thing with being from this scene is you don’t feel like you have to say yes. It means we’re still in control.”

British Artist Hush at the opening of We Are Here. Photo: Getty Images

One of the first items to strike visitors is a giant aerosol can emerging out of the ground with cartoon wings, courtesy of London-based artist D*Face.

“It represents the fact that we’ve been buried underground and often overlooked and now we’re coming up to be seen,” he says.

The timing is right, he adds, with France plunged into political turmoil this week by a far-right landslide in European elections.

“Urban art is really the first global art movement. You go anywhere in the world and there is a street art community,” says D*Face.

“It’s all about inclusivity, whereas politics right now is trying to divide us.”

Here to Spray, by D*Face, features in We Are Here. Photo: Getty Images

Also present is Shepard Fairey, aka Obey, renowned for his “Hope” posters for Barack Obama’s United States presidential election campaign.

His Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood shows French figurehead Marianne with a blood-red tear running down her cheek, made in response to terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015.

“The thing I love about street art is that it brings people together, it’s got a generous spirit,” he says. “Anything that makes people think about their common humanity rather than selfish protectionism is very valuable for this moment.”

But can street art maintain that political relevance if it becomes too accepted by the elite?

“We’ve been saying street art is dead since its inception and it has kept evolving,” Hush says. “But it has come full circle.

“Street art was against the people who could say yes or no.

“And now they say yes to us.”


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