'A lot of this work is a form of protest'

Israelis in Paris give gritty, alternative art tours of the City of Love

Painting the town red, these street walkers don’t shy away from the under belly of the Parisian urban art scene

  • Shiry Avny explains on a tour how street artists apply their work on many different surfaces. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)
    Shiry Avny explains on a tour how street artists apply their work on many different surfaces. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)
  • Arternative guide Rotem Gerstel showing a park with street art during one of her tours. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)
    Arternative guide Rotem Gerstel showing a park with street art during one of her tours. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)
  • Shiry Avny in front of a stencil she spray painted during her street art demonstration near the end of her tour. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)
    Shiry Avny in front of a stencil she spray painted during her street art demonstration near the end of her tour. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)
  • Arternative guide Rotem Gerstel spotlighting a piece of street art. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)
    Arternative guide Rotem Gerstel spotlighting a piece of street art. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

PARIS — The first time Shiry Avny visited Paris, she was an Israeli graphic design student traveling through Europe in the summer of 2004. To help fund her trip, she performed as a living statue on Parisian streets near the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, a landmark popular with tourists in the Montmartre quarter.

Wearing a white cotton dress and her face covered in white makeup to look like a fairy, she would stand motionless for extended periods, not uttering a word. This illusion of complete stillness, save an occasional wink or nod, earned her tips from passersby, mostly foreign tourists.

Today, 15 years later, Avny is still making money on the streets of Paris from tourists: She takes groups on walking tours of the city’s vibrant street art and graffiti scene.

Avny is hardly the only Israeli offering fellow Sabras something in Hebrew off the beaten track in Paris. What sets her apart is that she herself is a street artist and during her tour she not only tells, but shows how to do wall art in a public place.

Once considered a subversive eyesore, street art and graffiti are today widely accepted as part of a city’s visual identity and cultural expression. Practitioners now enjoy respect for their work, seen as a global art movement. On average, she says she conducts two or three tours a month, more in the spring and summer, less in the fall and winter.

“There are many street artists in Paris,” says Avny, 39, in her art studio overlooking the Canal de l’Ourcq in the 19th arrondissement. “Some are from Paris, others from elsewhere in France, and many from around the world.

“I have the feeling local authorities want Paris to become a capital of street art so it can bring back some of the artistic prestige the city has lost over the years. Paris is no longer the big star of contemporary art and it seems to think by encouraging street art, it will add to the city’s creative cachet,” says Avny.

Shiry Avny in her art studio overlooking the Canal de l’Ourcq. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

On a recent morning, about 10 Israeli visitors to Paris assembled at 10 a.m. at a small bohemian café called La Cagnotte on Rue de Belleville in the 20th arrondissement. Greeting her compatriots in Hebrew, Avny led the group outside down a narrow street to the tour’s first stop, far removed from the city’s celebrated tourist attractions.

Standing in front of a gray wall bedecked in a panoply of paint, some of it covering previous work, she explains the distinction between street art and graffiti, which are often lumped together. The former consists of realistic imagery or abstract visuals, applied with all manner of mediums, while the latter is comprised of lettering and text, usually done with aerosol spray paint.

At first glance, the wall looks like visual chaos, a hodgepodge of monochromatic and brightly-colored content. On closer scrutiny, distinct images become apparent. One is a white figure by Jérôme Mesnager, a pioneer in the Parisian urban art movement, whose now ubiquitous ghost-like “L’homme en blanc” (“Man in White”) started appearing on city walls 35 years ago.

Avny tells the group about the nature of Paris street art and graffiti.

“A lot of work is a form of protest,” says Avny, who moved to Paris in 2005 to be with her future husband. “There’s a lot of political and social commentary art. In general, artists have something to say — those who express their inner world and others who talk about ecology, social issues and human rights. Paris also has a heritage of political posters from the May 1968 student uprising. You see a lot of artists adapting that style to today.”

Shiry Avny giving details about a large mural during her street art tour. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

Today Avny gives more tours in English than Hebrew, especially since becoming affiliated with online hospitality service Airbnb, which spotlights her walks in its Experiences feature.

Dressed in a bright blue coat and black pants, Avny uses a red binder to show photos as part of her explanations. Leading the group along the sidewalk, she often stops to show a particular work, some at eye-level, others much higher. Taken together, it’s like an open-air art exhibition, showcasing a wide range of content and styles, including street signs and storefront security shutters that artists have targeted.

A Jewish bar-restaurant with graffiti painted on the shutters. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

Avny clearly relates to the subject matter, speaking about it fondly. She cites various artists by name — Invader, Pez, Fred Le Chevalier, Wild Drawing, Kouka and the aforementioned Jérôme Mesnager — as if there were a star system at work. During the two-hour tour, she points out her own work, whose main motif is an African mother carrying a child.

“For me, she’s a female warrior and I wanted to paint her because I carried my sons like this,” explains Avny, whose sons are now 9 and 12. “My Senegalese mother-in-law taught me. She gave me the same textile she used to carry her son. It was very emotional for me when I began painting her in 2015. It was a statement to spotlight a woman because we live in a male-dominated world. In both advertising and street art, you don’t see many African women.”

On the last part of the tour, she takes the group on the narrow, cobbled Rue Denoyez, whose walls are blanketed in street art and graffiti. Halfway down the block, at a place officially designated for street artists’ use, she stops to take from her backpack a stencil, masking tape and a can of spray paint. After taping the stencil to the wall, she spray-paints over it, then removes it to show a graphic silhouette of the African urban dancer Maimouna Coulibaly.

Shiry Avny spraypaints a stencil during her street art demonstration near the end of her tour. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

The group tour, which costs 25 euros per person, has different itineraries in the Belleville quarter. Sometimes, Avny takes people to the 11th arrondissement’s Oberkampf district, also rich in urban art. In the past, she gave tours to groups as large as 25 people, but today she limits it to half that size to ensure a better experience for participants.

“I took the tour to see something different about Paris,” says Haggit Inbar-Littas, 68, originally from Jerusalem, who now lives in London. “Street art and graffiti are part of the modern expression of artists and also throw light on a city’s political atmosphere. I liked that Shiry covered the history of the neighborhood and spotlighted artists I’d never heard about.”

Following the tour, Avny smiles when asked if there’s a difference in being a guide for Israelis compared to people from other countries.

“Israelis ask you everything about your life,” she says. “Right away, they ask you personal questions. Why are you here? What are you doing in Paris? Where do you come from? How old are you? Do you have kids? It’s a bit like meeting family, in part because of the Hebrew, my mother tongue.”

At the same time, Israelis tend to be more engaging.

“Israelis have things to say, they’re more opinionated,” adds Avny, who visits Israel once a year. “For example, people from Germany just stand and listen, without saying much during the tour. Israelis participate more which is really nice. Like earlier today, when the Israelis danced with the locals. That kind of spontaneity would never happen with other groups.”

Avny was referring to what happened during the tour when the group came across a street musician performing on an alleyway. Almost as if on cue, several of the Israeli women joined a local woman who was dancing with great exuberance to the music.

Israeli women on the tour dancing with a local woman and street musician. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

In addition to her tours and personal painting, Avny also does graphic design work for the Reform Jewish community in Paris. In 2013, after not finding a secular Hebrew-French language primer to use with her children, she self-published “Alef Bet, On Y Va,” a Hebrew-French illustrated dictionary for which she did all the visual and written content.

Avny began conducting tours in 2015 after responding to a Facebook ad from an Israeli company, Arternative. They sought someone to give street art and graffiti tours in Hebrew in Paris, as they were then already doing in London. Avny got the job and while researching the subject, she interviewed many street artists whose work would be on the tour. In the process, she became inspired to do street art herself. In 2017, she left Arternative to give tours independently.

The morning after Avny’s tour, 17 Israeli tourists of varying ages converged on the Café aux Ours on the Rue des Pyrénées in the 20th arrondissement for a tour organized by Arternative.

Guide Rotem Gerstel speaks to a tour group in the park. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

After welcoming everyone, tour guide Rotem Gerstel led the group to the nearby Rue du Retrait, home to many large colorful murals on the sides of apartment buildings. The clear skies and bright sunshine made for ideal conditions to take in the art on view. At several points, Gerstel gave background on the street art phenomenon in Paris, sometimes using her iPad to show the work of historical artists who’ve influenced contemporary street artists.

Gerstel, 30, joined Arternative last February. Before moving to Paris with her husband in 2016, she completed a four-year program at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy in the Ceramics and Glass department. Gerstel, who does sculpture installations in sound, is one of two Arternative guides giving tours in Hebrew in Paris.

“Although street art is not my niche and isn’t my medium, I must say after joining and building this tour with my colleagues at Arternative, I’ve learned a lot and gained a lot of respect for this world,” says the Haifa-born Gerstel, who grew up in Zichron Yaakov. “I really discovered something very romantic in the street art scene. It’s still people doing it without seeking recognition from the gallery world or museums. Most just want to make a statement in the streets, which I find romantic and timeless.”

Arternative guide Rotem Gerstel explaining a piece of wall art. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

Established in 2012 by two Israeli women in London, Danielle Heiblum and Talia Lederman, Arternative first gave street art tours there. A few years later, it expanded to Paris and today offers Hebrew tours also in Berlin, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Rome.

The Arternative tour is similar in length to Avny’s and covers much of the same ground with some notable differences such as the walk on the mural-rich Rue du Retrait.

Gerstel echoes Avny in describing the challenges of doing tours for Israelis.

“With their questions, Israelis often blur the border between the public and personal,” says Gerstel, whose husband is a video artist. “They can be quite direct in what they ask you. Many find it interesting I’ve chosen to live in Paris and they’re not shy in their questions to me. Sometimes it feels invasive although it can also warm my heart because I live in Paris without my family. When the questions become too much, I try to draw the line in a nice way.”

Arternative guide Rotem Gerstel spotlighting a piece of street art. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

In the summer, Gerstel gives between three and four tours a week, much fewer in the winter. The cost is 24 euros per person.

Despite the spate of anti-Semitic attacks in Paris in recent years, she hasn’t experienced any negativity while giving tours.

“None, quite the opposite,” she insists. “There are often positive reactions from people who discover we’re from Israel. Some recognize we’re speaking Hebrew and they’ll say, ‘Shalom, how are you’ or ‘Shabbat Shalom,’ which is of course warmly received by those on the tour.”

Maya Vagen, the CEO of an architectural firm just outside Tel Aviv, was on the Arternative tour with her husband Shaul. Like many, they enjoy the growing trend in experiential travel which includes urban walking tours covering various themes from food to art to history that appeal to both tourists and local residents.

Arternative tour participants Shaul and Maya Vagen, from central Israel, during a tour. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

“We were looking for a something with added value for our vacation in Paris,” says Vagen, 42. “After reading about Arternative on Facebook, I registered for the tour and I’m glad I did. Rotem [the guide] showed a lot of knowledge, was sweet and seemed to love giving the tour. For me, to really explore a city, it should include a tour with a professional guide. And for us, if it’s in Hebrew, even better.”

During their trip, Vagen and her husband also took a French pastry tour in Hebrew with Paris Chez Sharon, run by two Israeli women who are experts on the subject.

As interest in street art and graffiti continues to grow globally, and more artists are leaving their mark on the walls of Paris, often with tacit acceptance by City Hall, the walking tours in Hebrew will likely become a greater attraction for Israeli tourists, especially those seeking to experience art in a different way outdoors. Still, it will be a long time, if ever, before the Louvre has to worry the Mona Lisa is no longer drawing in the hordes.

Close-up of a wall mural on the Rue du Retrait shown on an Arternative tour. (Robert Sarner/ Times of Israel)

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