Goethe once wisely said that “we only see what we know”, and I can confirm that this is indeed correct. One Sunday afternoon, I embarked on a blind date: a Street Art Tour with the “Feminists of Paris”. I received the precise address via Instagram shortly before we were due to meet: our tour would begin in the pretty neighbourhood of Butte-aux-Cailles, like a mini-Montmartre but without all the tourists. I’ve been here so many times before, strolling through the narrow lanes and sleepy streets, but have never seen how many works of art are waiting to be discovered on walls, manhole covers and power boxes. In the 19th century, the little hilltop community close to the Place d’Italie defied Baron Haussmann’s plans to level out the area and thus preserved both its village-like charm and its stubborn spirit. “Nowadays, Butte-aux-Cailles is a hotspot for street art, a form of modern anarchy and communication”, explains Julie, our guide and the co-founder of the city tour agency with a difference. Alongside the works of art in the Louvre or Pompidou Centre or the red-light establishments in Pigalle, the “Feminists of Paris” also view street art with feminist eyes.
In front of the restaurant Chez Gladines, we become acquainted with the work of Miss Tic. She is the pioneer of female street art in Paris and has been making her mark here, especially in this neighbourhood, since the mid-1980s. This is her stomping ground. Her depictions of curvy, sexy women certainly broadcast subversive messages: they are even labelled “Alerte à la bombe” (Bomb Alert). The times in which she risked fines or even jail time for property damage are long gone. Miss Tic’s works have long established themselves on gallery walls, and she also works with museums. Nowadays, the owners of the buildings on which she sprays her stencilled designs feel honoured rather than vandalised.
“She’s even sparked a countermovement by male street artists”, says Julie. But the work of Mass Toc, who often sprays fat and less attractive women next to Miss Tic’s classic sex bombs to question her beauty ideal, has already disappeared again. When it comes to this art, the law of the street is in control. Unpopular work is sprayed over, scratched off or covered in nasty comments. Nothing is permanent. In one street, an artist has tied a line high above the ground and hung stilettos from it, reminiscent of how the gangs of Brazil mark their territory in the favelas. “If you look closely, you’ll see that street art in particular tackles very topical social issues and above all questions of masculinity and femininity”, states Julie.
Female street artists have recently stuck new names on many street signs: names of women who were murdered by their partners. Others have created 100-dollar bills from the “United States of Matriarchy” to demand that the pay gap between men and women be closed. And Alys Cheshire’s creation depicts an armed Snow White with the caption: “Fuck being a princess. Give me the key to Wonderland”. Our tour ends with more work by Miss Tic and linguistic discrimination: the artist asks “Le Masculin l’emporte mais où?” (The masculine form takes priority – but where?) and Julie tells us that it wasn’t until the 19th century that French grammar began to suppress women and only use masculine forms to label occupations. Even nowadays, I stumble over the fact that a female minister is often addressed as “Madame le Ministre”. I also find out that Old French used the term “philosophesses” to refer to female philosophers. Ever since this walking tour, I’ve viewed Paris from a whole new perspective. I keep discovering naked plaster-cast breasts by Intra Larue or hearts by HeartCraft all over the city! The walls of buildings in Paris can speak and are well worth a close listen.
© Silke Bender