Cemetery

On the outskirts of the city proper, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise is apparently the most visited cemetery in Paris. Amongst its crowded terraces of new and old graves lie the remains of many notable people. At the office visitors can help themselves to a free map of ‘sépultures parmi les plus demandées’ (some of the most asked-for graves).

Even though there are many examples of pavement graffiti in the gritty streets of the surrounding 20th arrondisement I did not find any in the cemetery itself. Nevertheless there is still much to interest the pavement and/or graffiti aficionado here, not least of which was a heavy duty manhole cover whose cast-iron pattern resembled the cobblestone pathway in which it was set.

Père-Lachaise Cemetery

Jim Morrison’s grave was not hard to find, with its gathering of sightseers paying homage behind a metal crowd barrier and a guard keeping a watchful eye on their behaviour. A nearby tree was covered in graffiti, some of it scraped into the trunk and roots, some of it written on the bark in felt-tipped pen.

Jim Morrison’s grave: the barrier, the guard, the tourists, the tree (the grave itself is out of sight in this picture)

On the other hand, the grave of artist Modigliani was more difficult to find, set back several rows from the intersection of two avenues in a Jewish part of the cemetery. Amedeo Modigliani’s art is characterised by beautiful figures with elongated faces and bodies. He was the archetypal bohemian, his dissolute way of life leading to an early death in 1920 at the age of 35.

At this site there was graffiti written on the gravestone itself, but just small inscriptions, most of them blurred by the weather and indecipherable – a tiny Modigliani-style face scratched into the stone, remnants of red writing, something in blue felt-tipped pen, another in white-out. I find it interesting that Modigliani still apparently engages young people – is it his art or his lifestyle?

The grave of Amedeo Modigliani and his lover Jeanne Hébuterne

Arcades

The arcades of Paris (les passages couverts) were a shopping sensation in the 19th century and they are still famous, not least because Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished work The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk) used a study of the arcades as a way of revealing insights into the realities of urban living.

There were some 150 of these arcades built between 1800 and 1850. In their day they offered a treasure-trove to shoppers in Paris away from the weather and the dirty, unpaved streets. Now there are fewer than 20 left, most of them in run-down condition but still offering a variety of shopping and eating experiences. The pavements – or floors – of the arcades carry the story of their decline (or sometimes their revival, as in the case of the almost-glamorous Galerie Vivienne).

In a stretch of the Passage des Panoramas that I photographed parts of the original paving had been replaced by asphalt, but there were some sections of flagstone and a few shops had remnants of the original coloured tiling – a different pattern for each shop, sometimes with the name of the original business spelt out in tiles. Others had rectangles of synthetic carpet outside their premises.

Manhole covers (3)

Manhole cover in Avenue Bosquet

I have a certain fondness for manhole covers. They are reminders that the pavement is not only a floor but a roof – the roof of a busy world of tunnels, tubes, chambers and canals; of light, electricity, water and workers. Manhole covers are shutters on the skylights in this roof.

Readers of this blog will know that earlier this year I was lucky enough to do a tour of the underground Tank Stream in Sydney, and to photograph several manhole covers from below. But now I have gone one better – I have toured the sewers of Paris, or at least a small section of them. Parisians are justifiably proud of their sewer network, their ‘city beneath the city’, designed and built in the mid-1800s. So proud that they have a museum – Le Musée des Égouts –  where, descending beneath the street of Quai d’Orsay, you can walk through tunnels with drinkable and non-drinkable water flowing through pipes beside you, and a river of sewage running along canals beneath you. In the photograph below on the left you can see the tunnel lights reflected in this river.

Bruneseau Gallery of the Paris Sewer Museum

I tried to find a manhole cover that I could photograph from below but the best I could do was the iron stairway leading up to one. I could not stretch my arm far enough beyond the museum barrier to photograph the cover itself.

Afterwards, when I returned to the fresh air of the street, I walked along Avenue Bosquet and, assuming that I paced the distance out correctly, found the manhole cover I had nearly photographed in the chamber below.

Steps beneath manhole in Avenue Bosquet

The beating heart of a city

A short visit to Geneva reminded me that however high its standard of living, however conservative its ruling majority, however picturesque its heritage sites, and however manicured its parks, a city – being a place of people – inevitably has its scruffy side.  Nor does graffiti occur only in the scruffy parts. Graffiti (including pavement graffiti) can undermine the intended mood of any place.

The International Monument to the Reformation is located in one of those manicured parks in the grounds of the University of Geneva. Unveiled in 1909, its statues and inscriptions honour the people and events of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, in which Switzerland had a central role. The central group of statues depicts Calvinism’s main proponents, William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox. And there, on the decorative paving at the foot of the wall I found two desperately heartfelt pieces of graffiti painted by Raf, who loves Romane F-K more than anyone.

Foetus

Rue Ste Croix de la Bretonnerie

Sometimes it’s a case of ‘you had to be there’. In several streets where I have walked, mainly in the 1st to 4th arrondissements, there are these large paintings on the pavement of a foetus, sometimes in the womb. They are not stencils but the uniformity of the different renditions and their size suggests that the act of painting them involved a performance calibrated to the artist’s body measurements. I could speculate about what event, cause or band they were advertising, but really I don’t know. I suppose the meaning of this graffiti was understandable at the time when it was done.

The foetus in Rue des Halles is an example of ‘layering’, where one piece of pavement graffiti is laid over another – in this case the ‘official graffiti’ of a pedestrian crossing. The photograph also shows a pair of police on roller blades.

Rue des Halles

Act Up

Rue de la Verrerie

In Paris the pavement is used as a noticeboard, just as it is in other cities. I have seen a number of stencils announcing – or advertising – one thing or another. But SIDA ÇA PLOMBE L’AMBIANCE , usually coupled with a pink ACT UP PARIS stencil, seems to be the most prevalent, although most examples are looking a little the worse for wear.

Roughly translated as AIDS: it weighs down the atmosphere (but I stand to be corrected on this), it is the slogan that Act Up-Paris used at the LGBT Pride March on 26 June this year in an effort to mobilize the LGBT community’s acknowledgment of HIV-AIDS and of people living with the disease.

Rue Vieille du Temple

Tags in Paris

Rue des Deux Ponts

I did not know whether there would be much pavement graffiti in Paris, but I should not have worried. Despite the incessant street cleaning, there are tags to be found in many places, mostly done in white-out. Like the French language itself, they tend to be rather long-winded.

Esplanade des Invalides

Pont de la Tournelle

Maria in white

The intersection of two backstreets in Newtown is a smeary mess of white paint, but walk around it and you will find the right angle to decipher the name ‘Maria’. Close by, ‘Jen’ has written her name more neatly. What inspired Maria and Jen to leave their autographs here? Probably a tin of white paint found discarded nearby. There is no sign of the paint can now, but  the offending ‘paintbrushes’ are still on display – branches nicked from a shrub in someone’s garden, defiantly attached to a light pole on the corner.

Urban versions

Graffiti Tunnel, Waterloo

On the last day of the Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference in London, a group of delegates went on a field trip to study ‘urban subversions’. They watched parkour practitioners on the South Bank, skateboard tyros in the Undercroft, and graffiti artists in the Leake Street Tunnel at Waterloo. In the tunnel they were obliged by me to take note of what was on the ground as well as on the walls.

Thanks to organisers Oli and Brad, this was all very interesting, but I’m afraid my eye was drawn away to rather ordinary chalk marks that had almost certainly been left by hash house harriers. I’ve mentioned this urban version of cross country running before. Recreational runners may not be exactly subversive but they do extend the range of uses of streets and public spaces. And as they pound through the city in the early hours of the morning they leave pale traces of their passing in the form of chalk arrows and symbols.

Chalk arrow on Waterloo Bridge

Chalk mark at the Undercroft skateboarding area on South Bank

Exhibition Road experiment

Exhibition Road in London is a mess. In a busy cultural precinct, it runs past the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Imperial College, and links South Kensington Station with the Royal Albert Hall and Kensington Gardens. But right now, from one end to the other, there are barricades, wire fences, earth moving equipment, temporary traffic lights and improvised pedestrian crossings.

It’s all part of a big experiment, with Exhibition Road planned to become the first shared-space street in London. Apparently the local residents are not happy with the scheme, presumably because they are less interested in accessibility for cultural tourists and more interested in parking spaces and easy access to and from the area for their very flash motor cars.

According to information posters hung from the wire barriers, the street will have “a kerb free single surface” and “visual and tactile lines distinguishing pedestrian areas from those used by vehicles”. Just this week workers have begun to pave some areas of the street with artificial cobblestones, forming geometric patterns in a range of designer greys. Road users will have to learn to read these patterns. When the work is all finished the paving will have become the instructions for its own use.

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