Spring 2014

Monday 05/12/2014


Re-Visions: Three Visits to a Mural by JR and Jose Parla

Wrinkles of the City, Havana: Leda Antonia Machado (2013), JR and Jose Parla

First Journal Entry, February ’14


In the cold, I walk towards Chelsea with hopes of seeing an artwork that I had come across earlier this year, and which left an impression on me—the kind that is hard to explain, the kind that grabs you abruptly.  On the corner of 24th Street and 10th Avenue rises a mesmerizing mural that portrays an elderly woman. Pasted on the side of a building at the entrance of the street, it is based on a large black-and-white photograph. The woman’s pose and the placement of the mural work together to present an image of a guardian looking down protectively.

She is framed by lines scribbled in white chalk. Presumably drawn arbitrarily, these straight and circular lines push the image of the woman forward, and add a mystical aura to her presence. I cannot take my attention off her eyes and posture, her tired but strong expression. The way she holds her hands behind her back triggers a childhood memory of walks with my grandfather in the Turkish countryside, during which he made that same gesture—one that is characteristic of people of rural culture. The photographed woman’s hair is bundled up in a floral scarf, and jewelry accompanies her loose clothing. The way she placed her feet at the moment the photograph was taken has been slightly obscured by the leaves of a tree growing right underneath the mural, so I shift my position in order to see the elegance of her stance.

I leave with an exceptional curiosity to find out who this woman is.

Second Journal Entry, March ’14


Research after my initial encounter with the mural led me to confirm that it was a collaborative work by the French street artist JR and the Cuban-American artist José Parla. I had suspected that the work was at least partly JR’s when I first came across it: his signature photographic imagery has become renowned in the past couple of years. This mural is part of a series called Wrinkles of the City, Havanna.

After winning the 2011 TED Prize, an award given annually to an individual with a bold vision for sparking global change, JR started the project Inside/Out, with the hopes of creating a global participatory art project concerned with identity. His large-scale, black and white portrait photographs of common people were pasted all over the cities of 108 countries, adding to his acclaim. By magnifying ordinary individuals, JR turns them into significant subjects. Last year, one of JR’s destinations was New York City, and I went to Times Square in order to be a part Inside/Out. The crowd was enormous, and after waiting in line for three hours, I stepped into a small van, where a photo-booth was set to take my picture. I must admit my slight disappointment at first, although it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the artist himself was not going to be able to take thousands of photos on a daily basis. In any case, I was wrong to think he was completely absent. When I was about to leave the van, with a large-scale print of my face in my hand, and move towards the assistants who were pasting the photos on the dirty pavement of the city, I came across JR. He was present not so much as an artist but rather as a curator, instructing and directing his assistants, like Sol Lewitt during an installation. Watching many other faces being pasted alongside mine, I realized that this project lacked the intimacy of such earlier works as Wrinkles of the City. The photographs for Inside/Out were almost identical—the frame, the background, and the sitter’s position were fixed by a machine—and it was up to the subjects to choose an expression that made them stand out, which many did not do, or did in a false way that did not really reflect who they are.

Produced between the TED Prize and the widely commercialized Inside/Out project, Wrinkles of the City, Havana is a series of piercing photographic portraits of 25 senior citizens who lived through the Cuban Revolution—ordinary individuals who did not play a crucial role in the revolution but were in the heart of the chaos. He interviewed and spent a significant amount of time with every subject, and the photographs reflect their specific characteristics. He believed that the elderly were the soul of the city, the wrinkles and the scars on their faces disclosing a rich history.

The white chalk scribble that fuses with the photographs in the series Wrinkles of the City, Havana, has a world of its own. Parla, who is interested in various urban sub-cultures, has been exhibiting internationally since 2000. His calligraphic texts and abstract, colored patterns are incorporated into paintings, murals or diaries. For his collaboration with JR, Parla expressed individual Cubans’ adaptation to rapidly changing socio-economic conditions through working with the distressed surfaces of outdoor walls. His art marks the passing of time by its emphasis on decaying architecture.

Looking back at the mural that has captivated me so strongly, I can now see the expression of the woman under a different light—the veil that has concealed her story slowly lifts. I look up to her with a deep understanding of her tired posture, her sentimental look, and the wrinkles on her face.

Third Journal Entry, April ’14


Once I learned that the work is a mural, and not graffiti, I became preoccupied with the question of what distinguishes one from the other. I have always been fond of street art, and in particular of graffiti. I can think of several possible reasons why, one being that it is free from the constraints galleries or museums, hence creatively free. Another is that, in many cases, it is too big to fit inside four walls. Then there is a third possibility, which is concerned with my psychological reaction when encountering works of street art: I often assume they are illegally done, and enjoy imagining the circumstances. It is not a secret that human beings have always been lured by things that are against the rules. While looking at graffiti, I can empathize with the excitement that the artist might have felt while doing his/her work (the race against time, constantly looking over your shoulder to see if the cops have noticed you), and I taste the same rush flooding through my body. Returning my thoughts to the work of JR, I try to figure out whether learning that it is a legitimized form of graffiti has reduced its effect on me.

It wasn’t until recently that JR has started to work with official support. Previously a graffiti artist, he was not concerned with social change but only wanted to leave a mark on streets that are walked by hundreds daily. Later on, with his interest shifting towards social concerns, he caught the attention of the Paris City Hall, and thus earned opportunities for approved public projects. Looking back at his earlier, illegal pieces, I realize that his style has not changed much, but it is much more widely visible than before. The broader, international audience adds to his work’s impact.

In a warmer season than that of my first journal entry, I once again find myself in front of the mural in Chelsea. The sun causes me to squint a little, blurring the minor details. This way, I am able to see the harmony that is captured by the artists’ different techniques more clearly. I look back to the elderly woman who is surrounded by mystical white-chalk powers. The black paint of the wall she is pasted on has started to peel at its margins—just like the wrinkles deepening around the corners of the subject’s strained smile.