Oscar the Grouch goes to Paris

Paris is full of incongruous juxtapositions. A moment after leaving the square around the ancient Fontaine des Innocents, we were confronted with the image of Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street near the Banana Café (also decorated with some unbananalike palm trees). Oscar! What are you doing here?

Good location, nice restaurant, excellent view. Great to see you, you’re looking good.

It took more than 1,100 pieces of ceramic tile to make Oscar, who surveys the corner of Rue de la Ferronerie and Rue Sainte-Opportune from his perch 3 or 4 metres up the wall. How did he climb so high?

This anonymous piece of ceramic street art falls into a tradition of work started in Paris in 1998 by the artist known as Invader. The 110-tile figure shown below—probably made by Invader—that I photographed in December 2007 is typical of early ceramic street art in terms of geometric simplicity and relatively small number of tiles.

Images like these evoke early video games. Indeed, it was the pixelated look of Space Invaders that inspired Invader. Space Invaders debuted in 1978 as an arcade game and several years became available on Atari computers (anyone remember Atari?).

The large pixels in the early games gave the figures a characteristically chunky look readily captured by ceramic tiles. In time, ceramic street art grew more refined through the use of larger numbers of smaller tiles.

The early Invader-type ceramics usually had about 120 tiles. Even though the image above has over 1,050 tiles it has the unmistakable Space Invaders look. Regrettably, spray painted overlay has reduced the impact of the furtive glance of the eyes. Nonetheless it remains an arresting piece of street art.

One of my favourite pieces of ceramic street art is the “Paris” image, which I photographed in December 2008 at Place Suzanne Valadon. As with Space Invaders–type figures and Oscar the Grouch, the “Paris” image also draws upon an element of popular culture.

This simple construction beautifully mimics the game of Tetris. For me, and doubtless many others, it brings back fond memories of many hours playing that game.

Space Invaders was an action video game; Tetris a puzzle video game. Designed and programmed by Alexey Pajitnov during his spare time as a programmer at the Moscow Academy of Sciences, the game first appeared in June 1984. Although Tetris dramatically illustrated the power of computer programs to revolutionize puzzle games, its early years were slow. Everything changed in 1989 with the release of the hand-held Nintendo Game Boy with a Tetris cartridge, a combination that went on to sell 35 million. Today, there are more than 100 million Tetris games on mobile communications devices.

Available today in a wide array of formats and degrees of difficulty, all Tetris games are variations of a simple objective: slot the falling pieces into the holes in the matrix to complete a line, which then disappears to make room for more lines. In its simplest version, the falling pieces may be shifted left or right to fill the gaps in the line.

The artist who created the piece in Place Suzanne Valadon has got it right. The letters of the word Paris are composed of square white pixels, with four pixels missing. There are four falling white pixels. The first two single pixels must go to the right or the left to complete the P and the I. Then the final pair can be shifted to the left and fall to fill in the gaps in the A and the R together.

This final image, which I photographed in 2007, evokes another familiar sight – the digitally obscured face so often seen in magazines, on television, or on Google Street View captures, either to protect the guilty or to maintain the privacy of the innocent. Who is this faceless man – a perpetrator or a bystander?

Ceramic street art is hardly more than a decade old and yet we can see its movement from pioneering to polished. The Paris piece in Place Suzanne Valadon has been so carefully executed and artfully placed that it looks as if it belongs there.

Ceramic street art is not put up in the street tile-by-tile, which would take far too long. The work is assembled elsewhere, as the artist mounts individual tiles on a backing which is taken as a single piece that can be glued on a wall quickly. A comment on an earlier blog about paper street art suggested that the technique of creating the work in a studio first and then putting it up in the street detracts from the spontaneity usually associated with street art. It’s an interesting idea.

Will the need to stand out from similar pieces along with greater number of smaller tiles give a look that is too polished? Will we lose the sense of furtive hastiness that is part of so many pieces? Perhaps all we can ask is that there be room for variety.

And what of Invader the pioneer? He maintains a comprehensive website and his work can be found in the streets of about 30 cities. He has moved beyond street art and created works for sanctioned sites such as museums, galleries, and shops. You can even buy his branded form of shoes. He appears (with his face digitally obscured, of course) in Banksy’s movie Exit Through the Gift Shop and briefly (pp. 160-1, 176) in the book Sticker City. He is also included as one of the influential street artists described in Patrick Nguyen and Stuart Mackenzie’s Beyond the Street: With the 100 Most Important Players in Urban Art.

Text and photographs copyright Norman R. Ball

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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5 Responses to Oscar the Grouch goes to Paris

  1. Alison says:

    Ab fab. Did Banksy ever make it to Paris I wonder?

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  3. Alex says:

    I loved Exit Through The Gift Shop – we discussed it at one of our Film Group sessions earlier in the year, and I found it really interesting learning more about the street art scene. Particularly like the Space Invader tiles, since I played and enjoyed all those early video games. One of my great achievements in life is having completed Tetris and scoring the maximum 999,999 score 😉

  4. Adam says:

    I don’t think Banksy ever has attempted anything in Paris, probably because it is the city of Blek le Rat, his inspiration. As Banksy said, “Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek Le Rat has done it as well. Only twenty years earlier…”

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