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Street Artist JR Sets His Sights on San Francisco’s Massive Gap Between Rich and Poor

The French-born artist has crafted an epic new mural featuring 1,206 locals to be unveiled on May 23 at SFMOMA.

Street Artist JR and Cinematographer Roberto de Angelis at work in San Francisco Camille Pajot

In the Winter of 2018, the French-born street artist JR decamped from New York for San Francisco, where he converted a trailer truck into a mobile studio and, parking it in 22 locations around the city, photographed anyone—and everyone—who showed up. Known for such monumental public art projects as making the Louvre Pyramid “disappear” beneath a lifesize photograph of the museum, he was drawn to the City by the Bay for its incongruent status as a lucrative tech hub with a widespread homeless population. “It’s strange that a city that has so much wealth in a country like the United States could have so much poverty,” he says.

JR’s goal was to create a mural in the spirit of Mexican painter Diego Rivera— who found inspiration there in the 1930s and ’40s—capturing the breadth of San Franciscans and the city’s unique sense of freedom. “There were people walking naked in the street!” JR exclaims. Encouraging his subjects to present themselves authentically, he photographed many bent over laptops but shot others on roller skates or in wheelchairs, holding surfboards or children, dancing or praying. “You see all the extremes,” he says. “In the same day, the same hour, you see someone living on the street and then a multibillionaire—and they totally ignore each other. You’ve got to see the face of the other.”

"The Chronicles of San Francisco" mural by street artist JR

“The Chronicles of San Francisco” mural by street artist JR.  Courtesy of JR.

JR’s team also conducted interviews with every subject, from a woman who spent the bulk of her pregnancy living in a tent to billionaire Marc Benioff. In the latter’s portrait, the chairman and co-CEO of tech giant Salesforce wields a sign proclaiming, “Equal pay for equal work.” It was Benioff who connected JR to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the completed black-and-white mural, titled The Chronicles of San Francisco, will be unveiled on May 23.

All 1,206 San Franciscans who had their portraits made are in the final piece, an egalitarian decision that JR sees as intrinsic to his practice. “I don’t want to edit anyone out,” he says. “It’s not a casting. It’s not that you look better than this guy. Everyone who comes in is in. It’s not a group photo—it’s a group of photos.”

Composing the mural as he went, JR printed the photographs and cut out the figures the day after each shoot, then collaged them in the truck. Later, he assembled the piece digitally. The final installation and accompanying book will feature apps that allow viewers to tap on any subject in the mural to hear that person’s audio interview.

“It’s really a piece where the actual project for me starts when the mural is installed,” JR says. “I hope people meet each other in front of it and actually connect.” Only in that way, he says, “you realize this guy’s not too far from me.”

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