Street Art’s Purposeful Canvas — JR’s “Women Are Heroes”

Emily Rothkopf

Street art is made to be seen.  It is inclusive and anti-elitist, in contrast to the sometimes exclusive and highbrow gallery art.  It does not require a membership to be viewed and is not served with cocktails.  It is not (originally) intended to be curated or sold at exorbitant prices.  It does not discriminate and in fact is typically located in the most diverse, urban areas of the world.  And though it is somewhat temporary in its original form, it is unrestricted in its distribution in the digital world.  It is made to be captured through photography and shared via traditional channels to reach even further depths.  Artist JR and his works exemplify all that is to be lauded about street art.  His works bring remote areas, people and stories, to the masses, through a seemingly selfless and visionary method.

In JR’s “Women Are Heroes” project, he brings light to embattled women in the slums of the world in his ongoing theme of peace and humanitarianism.  Using the street art form, he is able to pay tribute to the countless women who are dealing with the effects of war, poverty, violence, and oppression, on an appropriately avant-garde scale (Hypebeast 2010).  The collection employs black-and-white portrait photography that captures the spirit of his subjects, as expressed in pre-shoot interviews and research.  Instead of displaying his photographs in a traditional gallery or print media format, he places his work in his subjects surrounding environments to honor them in one of the most inspiring and heart-warming ways possible.  He also uniquely situates his work on large, complex surfaces that exemplify the challenges these women face and the grandness in which they should be recognized.

“Women Are Heroes” in Kibera Slum – Kenya, 2009; source:

In his train passage piece in Kenya, he splits three portraits on vinyl (weather conditions were too harsh for standard paper) between a sheet of corrugated iron below train tracks and the side of a train that regularly passes directly above.  “For a few magical seconds each day” the images line up and the women who were once marginalized by society are seen as “large and mysterious stars” (Murphy 2012).  The perfectly aligned image then lives on via another layer of photography to be shared worldwide, in traditional formats.  In his piece in Brazil, JR displays a portrait evenly across the span of an entire staircase in the oldest favela, or slum, in Rio de Janeiro.  As locals tread up and down these stairs daily, they are reminded to honor these heroic women.  These pieces exemplify an essential element of street art – its cleverness (Semple 2004).  JR has the imaginative mind to see an untraditional, meaningful canvas and the technical ability to make it work.

While some street art is rooted in a graffiti-esque, anti-authoritarian mentality, JR’s latest works exemplify the purposefulness of the art.  True street artists are not using the medium simply because they can, but rather consider the city their necessary environment (Irvine 2011).  JR’s portraits of women would not be as impactful showcased in a pristine, high-class gallery, though subsequent iterations may be shared there.  His work is initally about his subjects and for their respective communities.  Hiding the art away in an exclusive gallery that cannot reach or serve this target audience, nor can be easily photographed and shared with the world at large, would defeat his purpose.  And in turn, he is a successful artist rewarded by the elite for this altruistic, perfectly executed approach.  “Could art change the world?” JR asks; his street art method attempts to do so starting at the root and “turning the world inside out” (TED 2011).


 “Women Are Heroes” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2008; source:

Works Cited

Irvine, Martin. “Street Art and the Digital City.” Theorizing the Web Conference. University of Maryland. 9 Apr. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

JR. “My Wish: Use Art to Turn the World Inside Out.” TED, 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

“JR “Women Are Heroes” Exhibition.” Hypebeast. Hypebeast, 19 Apr. 2010. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Murphy, Heather. “An Artist Who Turns Marginalized Women Into the Stars of Their Communities.” Slate Magazine. Slate Magazine, June 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.

Semple, Kirk. “Lawbreakers, Armed With Paint and Paste.” New York Times. New York Times, 9 July 2004. Web. 14 Mar. 2014.