Graffiti: From ghetto to gallery in France

Street art on display at the Pavillon de l'Eau in Paris.
Street art on display at the Pavillon de l'Eau in Paris. RFI

In the 40 years since graffiti first started appearing on the railways and streets of less salubrious suburbs in Paris and Marseille, street art has become a sought-after commodity at art auctions in France.


This weekend street artist – Doudou Style -- was awarded the biennial Prix du Graffiti in Paris.

The winner was selected from among eighty or so graffiti artists whose work were exhibited at the Pavillon de l’Eau Gallery in the upscale 16th district of Paris.

"The idea to have a Prix du Graffiti came about in 2013. I found it unbelieveable that there were always the same people at auctions, yet lots of (graffiti) artists' work went unseen," Cedric Naimi the founder of the Prix du Graffiti told RFI.

All the art works went under the hammer on Monday at Drouot auction house that attracted some seasoned contemporary art collectors.

Hip-hop heroes

Graffiti first started appearing on the railways and streets in suburbs around Marseilles and Paris during the 1980s. Young men, mainly from immigrant backgrounds, who were influenced by the United States' hip-hop scene, took to tagging.

Like their African-American and Hispanic counterparts in the US, they tagged to mark their territory. Sometimes it was gang related, sometimes not.

It wasn’t long before graffiti pioneers clashed with police, who considered them vandals. The places they tagged were often government-owned property, be it railway infrastructure or public housing.

This is still the case today. A commute to work in most urban areas of France without seeing graffiti and street art is unimaginable.

Graffiti to street art

Graffiti continues to consist mainly of tagging. In the late 1990s and early 2000s some graffiti artists began forming collectives. For them graffiti became about creating pieces of art to be enjoyed by the public as oppose to tagging.

Galerie Itinerrance in the 13th district of Paris is the most prominent example of a shift away from graffiti to street art. It's a collective of over one hundred street artists.

In addition to their gallery space, in 2004 the Galerie Itinerrance collective received permission from the then mayor of the 13th district to paint frescos on public buildings. They negotiated a contract whereby the collective touches up existing murals and paint new ones.

Under the hammer

Last month the British graffiti artist Banksy shocked the world when a member of his entourage activated a shredder hidden inside the frame of a piece of his work as it was being auctioned in London. That piece of work went on to be sold for over €1m.

Graffiti and street art is becoming a sought-after commodity in Paris as well.

"It's a good thing that street artists can make money from their passion," said the Paris-based street artist Darco.

Since its debut in 2013, the Prix du Graffiti has gained respect from most street artists.

This year the theme is water. Graffiti artists were invited to paint frescos with water as the main theme.

The Prix du Graffiti and the associated exhibition is also about business. The fact that the art works were auctioned on Monday shows that money is one of the motivating factors for artists and the organizers.

“We like to promote emerging street artists. It’s a big deal for their work to be accepted by Drouot. It represents their debut into the art world,” said Naimi.

The fresco that won the Prix du Graffiti was bought for a modest 3000 Euro.

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