Ah, Paris. Or ‘Paree’ as the locals insist on pronouncing it. City of lights, city of love, and city of a small, secretive, highly organised band of artists and artisans who literally go out of their way to do things a little differently.
Most visitors to the French capital are too busy soaking up the ‘traditional’ sights and sounds – the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the Left Bank… – to pay too much attention to what’s going on beneath their feet. But if you’ve got the right connections, connoisseurs of the creative can be granted access to a brave new world being crafted in the tunnels beneath the city’s teaming streets.
At first glance, Pierre (not his real name) looks like a double cliché. Dressed entirely in black (tortured artist cliché) except for a red beret (stereotypical Frenchman cliché), he moves swiftly and furtively in the streetlights with his two companions. Pausing at a manhole cover, they look around, then quickly remove it and beckon us down the rusty ladder leading to seemingly endless darkness.
In the tunnel, the water is ankle-deep, soaking the shoes of the unprepared, but the walls are covered with artwork and murals that would make Banksy jealous. Pierre explains that he and his fellow members of the artists’ collective (UX for short) are all ‘cataphiles’ – individuals who love the nonconformist freedom inherent in roaming Paris’ underground tunnels and catacombs. It’s a passion that draws people from all walks of life. There are artists, of course, but also civil servants, engineers and lawyers.
Some come to create – to paint, to write – but many more come to listen or watch. String quartets give performances, impromptu jazz guitar and violin jam sessions are born (so Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli … so Parisian), and even underground film festivals are held in a cinema with seats crafted out of rock.
The UX has been active for 30 years, reinventing itself for each new generation. And this loosely connected band of misfits prove that even in the 21st century, when expressing individuality seems harder to do, it’s still possible to break the mould.