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

The work built by French artist JR peers over the U.S.-Mexico border at Tecate, Calif., earlier this week.
Guillermo Arias AFP/Getty Images
The work built by French artist JR peers over the U.S.-Mexico border at Tecate, Calif., earlier this week.

As Boy Peers Curiously Over Border Wall, His Artist Asks: 'What Is He Thinking?'
As Boy Peers Curiously Over Border Wall, His Artist Asks: 'What Is He Thinking?'
As Boy Peers Curiously Over Border Wall, His Artist Asks: 'What Is He Thinking?' GUEST: Pedro Alonzo, curator for the artist JR

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. The fence on the San Diego border between the U.S. and Mexico seems large and imposing, except when there is a giant photograph of an infant peering over it. The insulin -- this is the creation of JR, known for posting photos on public buildings in the tradition of graffiti artist. In this photo, the cut out of a baby boy stands 65 feet tall and is met to prompt a discussion on immigration. Joining me is Pedro, the curator of the border art. Welcome to the program. Thank you for having me. Can you give us a better description of the auto. What do you see? What JR intended was to have a large image behind the wall that would be visible from the United States and that is what he accomplished. When you stand on the U.S. side, which is a dirt road and the desert, behind the wall, which is 25 feet tall, you have this gigantic image of a child. The child, it looks like he is holding onto the fence. And. He into the USI. Exactly. Holding on the fence and looking into that U.S. side. It is a playful image. It is not meant to alarm anyone. The goal is to get people to talk and to think about immigration. JR is French. Why did he create the image? What got him taking of building something along the U.S.-Mexico border. He grew up in the suburbs of Paris. It is a very multicultural and multiethnic community. When he moved to New York, he started to spend time in the of and and Park of Ellis Island and he was thinking about the tragedy of the people who left at that time, primarily were leaving Europe to move to the United States and what would cause someone to take what they could and tribal across the Atlantic? You know, those hardships and also the root. What was causing people to leave? He began to think about, where is Ellis Island today? Where are the Ellis Island today? He went to Italy to see the North Africans who are arriving in Europe. These things were in his mind. He called me one day and he said, I want to do something on that U.S.-Mexico border. Can you help me out? What do you think. I thought it was a brilliant idea. He sent me some renderings. I was excited. I was born in Tijuana and I grew up in Tijuana. In 2010, he had been there with me. We decided to move forward. We went to look and discovered the ideal spot. This did not come about as a response to President Trump's to phase out the DACA program but the fact that both happened about the same time has boosted interest in this are, hazarded? Absolutely. We were sitting in a restaurant in Chula Vista. There was a TV with CNN. That is when we first heard the news that Doctor was going to be phased out. We dared each other in shock and we realized that this would have an impact but the situation with Doctor -- DACA made it more relevant. We had not been working on this that long but we started in May. There was no way for us to know. How did he find the boy in the photograph ? [ laughter ] That is funny. JR is intuitive. He told me what he wanted to do. I was in touch with him and his studio -- studio manager. We were talking about the Vantage point that was critical. The first thing we needed to do was to find a spot. I originally thought, you know, the area around Tijuana but then I remember how restrictive those areas are on the U.S. side. It is hard for anyone to approach the wall. It is very restricted. Also, there is layers of wall. Also, the fence is not as imposing. The fence is low. We were looking for something else. I suggested to cut to. That is where we first went. On that U.S. side, we found the wall that he was looking for. But then, we had to cross to the Mexican side to see what it looked like on the other side to see if this could be erected. While we were scoping out the site on the Mexican side, we went to a home where we thought that the structure could go next to the home come in between the fence and home. We began to talk to a woman there who -- the woman who lived there. Her daughter came out with her son. She was a fan of JR. She knew who he was which was kind of a surprise. We were not expecting it. We chatted with them and we drove off. As we were driving away, JR said, that kid, let's go back and photograph him. I think that is who the subject should be of the shot. We went back. We were jumping around, trying to get the kid to smile and to look the right way, standing in his crib while JR shot the images. There are people in the USA and all over the world who are concerned about immigration and consider it a major problem. Do you think this art installation trivializes the concerns ? I do not think it does at all. I think quite frankly what we are fed by the media is statistics. And also rhetoric. You know, what we forget about is the people that are most impacted by the policies that are enacted by people who have very little experience or spend little time on a border. I am a citizen of both countries. I spent most of my life on the border. Creating an image of those who are most important aspect impacted by the policies is critical. It reminds us of the humanity behind these issues. I think that is really the strength of JR's work. He humanizes these complex issues and that is critical for that discussion but how do you think that will be up along the border? A month. Will go anywhere else ? We do not have plans to go anywhere else. It is up for a month and we are excited that there has been such a wonderful response. I think the issue of immigration and the response to this piece is not trivializing at all. On the contrary, it shows how relevant immigration is to a large number of people. I have been's speaking with Pedro. Thank you so much your time. My pleasure.

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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