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As Boy Peers Curiously Over Border Wall, His Artist Asks: 'What Is He Thinking?'

Sep 8, 2017
Originally published on September 8, 2017 8:52 pm

One morning, when JR awoke, an image lingered from his dreams: The wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and above it a young kid peering curiously over.

A child just 1 year old, who has "no idea that's a wall that divides people — he has no idea of the political context," JR imagined. "What is he thinking?"

He had no answers to his question, but the question stayed with him — and eventually, the French street artist decided to give it form. This week, within days of the Trump administration's decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protecting 800,000 immigrants, JR erected a massive artwork towering dozens of feet above the existing wall.

The boy, hair swept to the side and focus drawn by an unseen object, peeks with evident interest from the Mexican side over the slats of the wall at Tecate, Calif., as if looking over the railing of his crib.

And as JR tells it, he didn't have to search long for the work's inspiration. While seeking residents willing to let him build on their land, he met a woman who was game for the project — and as they spoke, he noticed a little interloper eavesdropping on their conversation: her son.

"There was a little kid looking at us the whole time with two hands on the side of his crib looking at us," the artist who goes by the pseudonym JR tells NPR's Ari Shapiro, "and I was like, 'Damn he looks exactly like that kid I dreamed of.' "

With the mother's permission, he took the child's photograph, blew it up to gargantuan proportions and enlisted help to get the work built.

The project was something of a change of pace for the artist, who typically works in a different manner — placing images of his own creation onto walls, rather than building around them. For him, walls have often been a kind of canvas, rather than a means of dividing people. But with this work, one of his goals was clear from the start: "Basically, we had to build a bigger wall to make this [border] wall look ridiculous."

Then, his work in California happened to dovetail with events in Washington, D.C.

After Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday that Trump would implement a six-month wind-down of DACA, an Obama-era program that protected certain immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children, suddenly people began reaching out to JR on Instagram and elsewhere. And many of these new correspondents were people covered by DACA themselves, who fear for their status even as the wind-down is set to be litigated in court.

But that's not quite what touched him the most, he says: "Most of the people, if you read the comments, they were not talking politics or they didn't mention the name of the president. It was about people."

As a French national, he is only just "discovering this whole context," he says, and "by going there I get to learn and hear about it from the people and be able to engage in a discussion."

And he hopes that while the artwork is up for another month or so, discussion happens not just between people on either side of the wall, but actually through its slats — in other words, across the border itself.

Ultimately, he thinks of something he heard from the mother, who from her window now looks up to see the massive silhouette of her child every day.

"She said, you know, it's my son and I can recognize him, but I hope for the others, it represents any kid, any person — anyone that has dreams, and dreams that are not alienated by any political vision or any prejudice," JR says.

"I couldn't wish better for the start of a discussion."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There is a giant baby towering over part of the barrier wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. It's a cutout of a black-and-white image of a 1-year-old Mexican boy - his face and hands. He has thick, dark hair and looks as though he's about to smile. This enormous image is supported by wooden scaffolding. It's made to look as though the boy is holding onto the top of the wall and peering over it. He's on the Mexico side in Tecate, peering over at California.

The installation went up this week. It's by the French street artist who goes only by JR. He's known for pasting large portraits on walls and facades all over the world. We reached him in Los Angeles today to talk about his new project on the Mexico border.

JR: The wall is 21 feet high, and we've built the piece to be 64 feet high. So basically we had to build a bigger wall to make this wall look ridiculous.

SHAPIRO: Why did you want to make this wall look ridiculous? Was that the ultimate goal?

JR: No, actually, you know how it started? I dream about walls. I - that's, you know - I'm sure you maybe dream about radio stations and microphones.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JR: I have no idea. I dream about walls because that's what I paste all day. Now, not necessarily wall that divides people, but I dream about walls I can paste maybe because we hear about this wall constantly in the media recently because of some guy wanted to make it bigger. I don't know.

SHAPIRO: Some guy - the president of the United States, you mean.

JR: I woke up, and I was like, wow, I think I imagine a little kid looking over. And in my head, I remember the first thing I thought was, what is he thinking? What a kid that's 1-year-old is actually thinking because he's looking over the wall, but he have no idea that's a wall that divides people. He have no idea of the political context.

So anyway, that sight started. And I went there with some friends, and we started scouting. And we knocked at the first house that was living right by the wall on the Mexican side. And the woman come out, and you know, she followed me on Facebook, which is crazy. It's like, are you sure...

SHAPIRO: Really?

JR: 'Cause I'm doing wallpaper - you sure that's me? And she said, no, no, I follow you. And I was like, OK, look; I'm doing this art project, and I would, you know - we're looking for location. You can use my house. You can use, you know, the side of the - of my house, too. And I was like, thank you. It's actually, you know, too close from the wall. I need a bit more distance. But we'll come back if we do it in the region. We'll let you know. Then we left.

But when we were driving away, I remember there was a little kid looking at us the whole time in his little, you know, crib and with the two hands on the side of the crib looking at us. And I was like, damn, he looked exactly like that kid I dreamed of.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

JR: He could be perfect for the project. So we drove back there, asked the mom and said, look; I know we don't even have a rendering or anything of how the project would look, but can I photograph your kid? And when I have the idea ready, I will come back to you and show it to you. Let me know if you agree. And she said of course. And that's how it basically happened.

SHAPIRO: So this child actually is a 1-year-old child who lives right next to the wall.

JR: Oh, yeah. He actually looks over the wall every day.

SHAPIRO: This went up the same week that President Trump announced he is winding down the program called DACA that protects undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. You've obviously been planning this piece for much longer than that. What do you make of the timing?

JR: You know, for me as an artist, I raise questions. I don't give answers. So I came there to learn more. And to, you know, create a public discussion and to talk with the locals and - on both sides. And yeah, when that came up, we were actually pasting. And we were like, wow. And then suddenly a lot of people started writing me on Instagram and say, hey, you know, I'm a DACA; this means so much for me.

But what I was the most touch of is that most of the people - if you read the comments, they were not talking politics, or they didn't mention the name of the president. It was about people. The mother of the kid told me, I hope this piece will make people realize that we are not animals. We are not criminals. We are not all, like, rapists.

SHAPIRO: I was going to ask you, what did this mother say when she saw her child peering over the wall that she lives right next to?

JR: The mother of the kid told me - she said, look; you know, it's my son. I can recognize him. But I hope for the others, you know, it represents any kid, any person, anyone that have dreams and dreams that are not alienated by any political vision or any prejudice. And you know, I couldn't wish better for the start of a discussion.

SHAPIRO: JR, I know this image has given a lot of delight to people during a week when we could all use it, so thank you for that. And thank you for talking with us.

JR: Thank you so much.

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