Why you should care
Because art’s hiding everywhere in Paris.
One thing you learn quickly in Paris: History is everywhere, right in your face, on every building and street. The plaques bearing street names explain who the eponymous person was — surgeon, astronomer, author, war hero — and then there are the plaques on various buildings, each explaining who lived there and when, who was shot there, who wrote his most famous book while staying at the tawdry hotel that once stood on this spot. Ici vécu un homme très celebre.
And then you start seeing other plaques, hand-drawn ones pasted on buildings above or below eye level. The kind of thing that’s easy to walk by without noticing until you start scanning every street for them, hoping to spot one. “Here lived a man who watched 43,680 hours of television in his life.” “Here lived a cat who spent its life looking out the window at people reading this sign.” You could interpret these plaques any number of ways — as a celebration of everyday lives in Paris, as a condemnation of the mundane achievements we find ourselves making in the course of our lives — but they’re most striking for their silliness. “Here was written the most beautiful cover letter,” one reads, and tell me you’ve never finished a cover letter and felt like a goddamn hero. That’s the genius of street artist NoonieNoonieNoonie.
Noonie tries to blend in, making something that catches your eye only when you’re not looking for it.
Noonie uses cheap materials not only out of necessity but also out of a philosophical conviction that people who own buildings plastered with street art should be able to remove it. On one memorable occasion, the artist posted a sign reading “Please stop throwing cigarette butts at my feet” on a tree surrounded by trash, then watched as an elderly lady approached, read the sign and, suddenly furious, ripped it from its glued perch and threw it in a trash can. Noonie picks walls or structures that may require renovation, so as not to do too much damage, and avoids the street-art pissing contest of trying to post art in the toughest-to-reach places, which shows off an artist’s daring — and sometimes makes things tougher to steal or remove.
Noonie wants to remain as anonymous as possible — the name is a nonsense word, made up in childhood, though depending on how it’s pronounced it can sound like a schoolyard taunt or the word “no one” repeated over and over — which is a rarity among Paris street artists. A lot of the pieces adorning the city streets are recurring — graffiti artists are a different breed from street artists, but both tend to find something they like and stick with it, leaving a calling card or favorite phrase on walls in every neighborhood. (Side note: Could the person writing “All men die, not every man truly lives” in French on half the walls in Montmartre please stop? Thanks.) Many turn their trademark image into what’s essentially a logo and plaster it everywhere. But others, like Noonie, try to blend in with the landscape, making something that catches your eye only when you’re not looking for it.
Noonie’s work doesn’t just begin and end with the Ici vécu plaques. There was the dream box — a wooden box filled with slips of paper, each inscribed with an unfulfilled dream, that invited passers-by to take one and, in exchange, scribble down an unfulfilled dream of their own. Eventually the box got knocked over — that’s the way with street art. There was a plaque with a drawing of Astro Boy and the caption “Sorry! I don’t save assholes!” And then there are purely silly drawings: A tree staring horrified at a bench and thinking “Papa?” Oh, and any bar owners reading this: Noonie’s dream project is to decorate a bar bathroom.
“I have ideas all the time,” Noonie says, mentioning that inspiration often comes when the artist is annoyed by something or someone. The key is finding the time to make the plaques and to put them up, which is illegal and has to be done in the dead of night — perhaps, for instance, after one has been dancing at the club, with some art stowed in a bag to post when the streets are empty.
“Four in the morning,” Noonie says, “that’s the time to do it. The city is all mine.”