Paris Underground

A GoNOMAD Gallery of Photographs from an extraordinary book

By Caroline Archer with Alexander Parré

Photographs by Gilles Tondini

There are more than 177 miles of man-made tunnels and disused quarries under the streets of Paris. These subterranean spaces have become a focus for urban culture and creativity, resulting in a private treasure-house of art, music and writing.

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For over 300 years anonymous and illicit visitors have sought to memorialize and comment on events above ground. Hidden in the darkness, and working in uncomfortable conditions, they have created paintings, drawings, graffiti, and sculpture on the walls on the walls of the tunnels as well as ephemeral paper works that are concealed in the stone.

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Some visitors have been fugitives, many have simply sought a place to create undisturbed. Their subject matter is varied and often subversive, it ranges from current events and politics to the poetic and downright strange; but whatever the subject, the underground art records history with originality, creativity and style.

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New material is continually being added, it is rare anything is removed, and after 300 years a riot of imagery and objects have accumulated, making a startling and unique environment.

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The illicit visitors who produce art in the Paris quarries are known as Cataphiles, they are young (about seventy percent of them are under twenty-five years old) predominantly male (an estimated fifteen percent are women) and many, but by no means all, are students.

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Most serious artists seek to work in locations away from the main galleries to avoid being disturbed by passers-by, but close enough to a point of entry to ease the logistics of transporting materials, equipment and provisions through the quarries. They also need proximity to a supply of water for mixing paints and washing tools, and if it is anticipated that a piece of work might take hours, days or even weeks to complete, a location where there is adequate standing room is of prime importance. Some artists stay underground for the duration of the work; others perform in short sessions of three or four hours, returning frequently to the quarries until their work is concluded.

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Cataphiles have been illicitly producing art in the underground since the early 1980s and their paintings are found over a large area of the quarry network. It is an environment that has encouraged many artists to look inwards rather than outwards to produce introspective, contemplative and decidedly personal impressions of subjects that are always extraordinary and frequently bizarre: monsters and beasts, phantoms and ghouls are favorites; futuristic topics recur; and politics, religion and sex inevitably find wall space.

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The dimensions of the kata-art ranges from small mosaics that are no more than ten centimeters in diameter, to large ceramics of two meters high, or huge paintings that are in excess of twenty meters wide. How long a piece can take to make depends not only upon the size of the work, but also the techniques of the artist and the mediums in which they are working. Some pieces take as little as sixty seconds to complete, whilst paintings that use many colors may take hours because it is necessary to wait until one color is dry before continuing.

pu p134 135The first problem facing any Kata artist is one of access, once that has been conquered the illegality of the situation has to be confronted: kata-artists are all too aware of the possibility of being caught in the quarries equipped with the tools of their trade; there has been more than one person who has spent the night in police cells. Then there are the difficult conditions presented by the quarries themselves: the presence of moisture; the absence of light; the confined spaces; and the possibility of work being destroyed either by natural conditions or the recklessness of unsympathetic visitors.

pu p142Moisture is the biggest handicap for the painters, as wet walls are not the ideal basis on which to paint and the humidity ultimately causes the degradation of the works. However, the ever-present water is useful for mixing paints and eliminates the need for importing it into the quarries, but the total absence of natural light makes it difficult to mix the right colors and most of the painting is done by candlelight. Logistics remain the biggest problem, especially for those productions that require a lot of tools and materials, plus provisions and camping equipment for those jobs that take more than one day.

Most of the kata-artists are amateurs; only a few are professional. Nearly all started producing whilst in their early twenties. Some artists perform only once in the underground, others are prolific and are continually working. Whilst most of the artists also practice their craft elsewhere, there are a few who reserve their creativity especially for the quarries.

pu p143At the beginning of the 19th century the quarry floor was transformed into mushroom beds…The mushroom growers whitewashed the walls to provide themselves with a new writing surface on which to indicate the various stages in the cultivation and harvesting of their extraordinary crop.
(128-129)For the kata-sculptors the greatest benefit of working in the quarries is the availability of raw material; there is no better place to find stone than in a stone quarry. The other big advantage is location: ‘you can’t disturb anybody in the quarries, and God knows that sculpting is noisy!’

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One thought on “Paris Underground

  1. Theoretically, if one wanted to visit these locations….how would one acquire a guide? I understand these areas are generally off limits. Thank you. S H.

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