May 18, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

The one photo subject who shocked legendary street artist JR

3 min read

Kevin Walsh, a maximum-security prison inmate with a swastika tattoo covering the middle of his left cheek, caused the street artist known as JR to stop in his tracks. Considering that the 38-year-old’s work often features unusual faces, that’s saying something.

The encounter took place in Southern California’s Tehachapi Supermax Prison. As chronicled in the new documentary, “Paper & Glue,” JR was there to create a large-scale artwork comprised of prisoners’ faces and with their voices adding biographical sketches.

“At first I tried not to look at him,” JR told The Post of his subject, who pretty much steals the doc. “The look of his eye and his personality, those things do not go with the tattoo” — which Walsh says he got in order to fall in with a protective prison gang. “But he did not realize the impact his face tattoo has on people who are outside of the prison world.”

Artist JR in front of his untitled artwork at the Angelika Theater in downtown Manhattan.
Stephen Yang

Part artist, part provocateur and part social scientist, JR is known for pasting up his large-scale photography at locales ranging from the Louvre to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. He once mounted an illegal photo exhibit in the disputed areas between Israel and Palestine.

"Paper and Glue" documentary

New Yorkers can now see a more intimate display of his work — specifically, a dramatic series of mountain ranges, along the stairwell inside the at Angelika Film Center on Houston Street, where the documentary is now playing.

“Paper & Glue” shows him creating an installation — depicting the giant face of a baby from the southern side, mounted on a scaffold that faces America – on the Mexican border. JR organized an outdoor opening for the work that featured a mariachi band with members performing together on either side of the border. Mexicans passed tacos to Americans through the fence.

“I hope my art makes people realize the power of community and that art can change perceptions,” said JR. “Change perceptions and you change the world.”

As a teenager, JR pretty much stumbled upon photography and, in effect, his art career. Raised in a housing project on the outskirts of Paris, he was riding the Metro one day and saw an unattended bag. He filched the camera from inside.

“It was not a fancy camera and you couldn’t even change the lens,” said JR, whose first gallery show, in 2005, was set up by Banksy after the fellow street artist spotted his images on Instagram. “I was doing graffiti at the time. I took pictures of it and of the other graffiti artists. I made small [photo] copies of the images and began pasting them up on walls. Then everything kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Kevin Walsh
Walsh, who said he got the tattoo as an attempt to fit in with and be protected by a gang while in prison, plans to have the swastika removed when he is is out of jail.

These days, JR lives on the Lower East Side. Paying homage to his adopted city, a few years ago, he took to the streets with a semi-truck that housed a mobile studio. In it he photographed more than 1,000 subjects who were as varied as the city itself. They ranged from police officers to street peddlers to the glitzier likes of Robert De Niro, director Darren Aronofsky and actor Vincent Cassel. JR meticulously cut out their images and created a collage that was digitized, printed into a two-story mural and displayed on a wall of the Brooklyn Museum.

He made it a profitable undertaking by selling collages of the original images at Perrotin gallery on the Lower East Side. More recently, following a photo session with Egyptian pyramids, he took the more modern route: “I did an NFT of every single pixel. I did 4,591, which is the age of the pyramids. They sold for $250 each and now people are selling them for as much as $8,000.”

Told that his original sales must have totaled more than $1 million, JR smiled and replied, “Crazy, right?”

So what’s next for the peripatetic image maker? A reunion with the tattooed Kevin Walsh.

“He’s getting out of jail next week,” JR said, adding that he will meet him with a film crew. “We’re going to have lunch and I will take him to get his tattoo removed. I’m glad we wear masks these days. Otherwise I think he would be embarrassed.”

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