Byline: Robert Murphy
PARIS — Zeus is not your run-of-the-mill graffiti artist. As proof, just ask any of the thousands of people here who stumble across his work daily.
“It’s great, very artistic,” comments one passerby. “It’s art with a capital A,” raves another.
Such praise for graffiti is rare. In fact, it’s downright puzzling. But then, so is Zeus, who over the last year has left his enigmatic mark on hundreds of spots across Paris.
“I paint shadows,” says Zeus, who, under his real name, is a theater actor here.
But his explanation shades the full story, so to speak. Zeus is also looking for a thrill. He roams Paris on his scooter in the dead of night scavenging for likely targets.
When he finds a victim — a shadow cast by a tree, traffic light or one of the city’s many outdoor sculptures — he pulls on a camouflage stocking to hide his identity. Then, with startling speed, he uses a brush to trace the shadow’s outline in stark white paint. Within 10 minutes, he’s finished and ready to vanish into the night.
“I started doing graffiti when I was about 13,” says the 22-year-old artist, who chose his nom de plume after a train designated “Zeus” nearly crushed him as he painted in the Paris metro. “But I got bored. Tracing shadows is more gratifying. There’s a certain mystery to it.”
Once Zeus has outlined a shadow, a kind of optical illusion occurs whereby within the white border, the dark shadow becomes an even deeper black.
“It’s like doing the white outlines the police trace around dead bodies,” he says while tracing the silhouette of a traffic light near the Louvre. “It’s become an obsession. Now when I see a shadow, I think about how and when I can paint it.”
In recent weeks, Zeus’s graffiti has taken on a monumental face. He painted the sprawling shadow of the Caesar statue near the Rue du Cherche-Midi. His most recent target was a shadow cast by the Pont du Carrousel bridge that links the Louvre to the Left Bank’s Quai Voltaire. Now he’s considering taking on the Eiffel Tower.
“There’s a certain element of suspense that makes it exciting,” he says. Perhaps some of the excitement stems from the fact that graffiti is against the law in France. The city used to erase only the graffiti on public monuments, but the mayor’s office recently installed a special brigade to efface graffiti on residences.
“I’ve had a few run-ins with the cops,” concedes Zeus. “But that was when I was doing traditional graffiti. Now the reaction is more benign.”
As if to prove his point, on this night a police van slows down to see what the be-stockinged artist is doing. After a brief pause, it drives away. Zeus looks up, stunned.
“That’s the first time that’s happened.”