In Lyon, street art is used to comment on current affairs, galvanise activism and inspire change. Anna Richards reports.
The wealthy Lyonnais suburb of St-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or seems an unlikely spot for a giant collection of anarchist art. Sandwiched between the golden-stoned, blue shuttered houses that the residents themselves admit are ‘un peu bobo’ (somewhat bourgeois), is a large, black building that looks like a heavily graffitied scrapyard, crowned with an enormous metal skull. Painted on every available wall space are the names of places most commonly referenced in relation to disasters or atrocities in newspaper headlines. Conflicts, nuclear disasters, terror attacks. Angry capital letters spelling Gaza, Chernobyl, Bataclan.
La Demeure du Chaos (The Abode of Chaos) is the brainchild of artist Thierry Ehrmann, and though it may look like a dystopian film set, it’s designed to mirror the world. There are over 6,000 art installations: street art, sculptures made from industrial waste, and graffiti. Every available space and material has been used: it looks like the successful spoils of a giant mudlarking expedition. The result is overwhelming, fascinating, and chaotic. It’s like seeing headlines from the past few decades in fast motion. Charlie Hebdo. Strains of Covid-19. ≈, staring unblinking from a concrete b`lock, in seagull-feather shades of grey.
A colossal grinning skull overlooking villagers as they shop from delicatessens in one of the richest parts of the département may seem like a deliberately provocative move, but the location wasn’t chosen for the shock factor. When Ehrmann bought the site in 1990, the old farm and stables which once stood here were in a state of disrepair, and initially he lovingly restored the building to blend with the bourgeois suburbia.
9/11 is one of the most infamous dates in history. When two hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York on that fateful day in 2001, killing almost 3,000 people, Ehrmann took stock of his own peaceful little environment, and began to make dramatic changes.
He ripped up the ornamental garden and replaced it with a spiky mass of metal shards, an installation which he named ‘Ground Zero’. The swimming pool followed shortly after. Drained, demolished and replaced with a pond, the former pool became a haven for wildlife, and is now filled with carp, water lilies and flitting dragonflies, but in a twist characteristic of Ehrmann’s style, he dyed the water blood-red and erected an immense metallic skull in one corner. The skull is half-submerged, nasal cavities reflecting eerily in the bloody water. The world’s mirror.
In the weeks that followed the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, new works of art began to appear around Lyon. One of the most striking was on Place de la Paix in Lyon’s 1st arrondissement, an immense fresco showing Vladimir Putin decapitating a dove with his teeth, blood trickling down his chin. It was no coincidence that anonymous street artist ‘Big-ben’ chose a square named ‘peace’ as a canvas to express anti-war sentiments. Street art has long provided a platform for activism, amplifying the voices of artists with a statement to make.
Street Art Festivals: New and Old
Peinture Fraîche, Lyon’s largest street art festival, runs for four weeks annually. Currently in its fourth year, many of the artists who have contributed pieces to La Demeure du Chaos are showcasing their works this year and running demos. There’s a wall open for anyone to graffiti, labelled ‘freedom of expression’, plus workshops, flash tattoo parlours, and evening DJ sets. This year, it has been joined for the first time by a smaller, sister festival, Street Art Rillieux.
As the crow flies, Rillieux-la-Pape is a mere nine kilometres from the golden stones and cobbles of St-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, but it couldn’t look more different. The buildings are high-rise and concrete. The average monthly salary is half that earned in St-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or. Here, in an old housing complex marked for demolition, street artists in residence are brightening the drab greys of Rillieux-la-Pape with murals, some created independently and some in conjunction with the quartier’s residents.
Political messages are omnipresent, and the largest fresco on the side of a large block of flats is of a giant hourglass sprouting plants to show the passing of time and the ever-growing severity of climate change. Other images are full of hope and colour: birds, tigers, brightly-coloured sneakers on skateboards.
This overwhelming message of hope is key at La Demeure du Chaos, and among the steely greys, rust and industrial waste turned into art are flashes of bright pink. A rose-coloured plane, a matching meteor, a skull with Barbie-coloured teeth. A shipping container has been covered in messages of love from visitors, and looks like a visual representation of the opening scene of Love Actually. Ehrmann calls his pink installations ‘La Vie en Rose’.
As a public canvas for self-expression, it’s unsurprising that Lyon’s street art scene is growing ever more politically engaged. It’s designed to start conversations, and it works.
Need to know:
La Demeure du Chaos is open on the Journée de la Patrimoine and for specific events.
Peinture Fraîche runs annually for four weeks between October and November. This year it’s running from 12 October – 6 November.
This is the first year for Street Art Rillieux. It’s running from 18 October – 29 October.
Lead photo credit : Explore Lyon's political street art scene © Anna Richards
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