Paris is a city known for its art. No matter which guide book you choose to buy you’ll be advised to visit the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo or the Giverny gardens. But there is another type of art that runs rich through the veins of the city. A subversive culture of its own that rejects the frames and form of the prestigious galleries. Graffiti.
If you come into Paris on the Eurostar, you’ll see it creeping along the walls and across the houses that line the train tracks. Should you take the RER, you’ll observe names sprayed in bubble letters onto the outside of carriage doors. You won’t even escape its dark edges and bright colours by venturing underneath the city – the abandoned sections of the catacombs have been used by graffiti artists for decades.
But for just how long has it been happening? Many of us connect city graffiti’s roots to the 1980s when this urban expression became most mainstream. However, one of the oldest ‘tags’ in Paris was not created by an ’80s teen with a can of paint and his arse hanging out of his jeans. The very old Parisian street art I’m going to tell you about dates back to 1764 and you’ll find it at one of the city’s most exclusive addresses.
Place des Vosges was built in 1605 by Henri IV and was originally called Place Royale. It was the earliest planned square in the city and these days boasts a fountain, a children’s play area and some of Paris’ highest-priced property. If you can find a café crème here for less than five euros, you’ve done well.
Outside number 11, one of the pillars is faintly scarred. Upon closer inspection you’ll find the name ‘Nicolas’ is etched in deep scratches onto the stone surface, along with the year the vandalism was committed.
The crime in question was committed by the controversial author, Nicolas-Edme Rétif, AKA Rétif de la Bretonne. Rétif was known for his night-time ramblings, when he would ponder themes for the 200 volumes of novels, essays and diaries he would write. During these midnight walks, he was often seen carving moments from his life onto the city-scape. Perhaps it was a way of marking his physical presence onto Paris, knowing that it would outlive him. Maybe he just enjoyed the thrill of writing on walls.
Either way, this mark on the Place des Vosges is a unique moment in Parisian history. A moment when the 40-year-old author, credited as being the first person to ever write the word ‘communist’, scratched his name onto a prestigious address.
You can see the engraving, and enjoy the beauty of Place des Vosges, by heading to St Paul or Bastille metro stations. It’s shown on the map below.