Prison Murals in Paris and Marseille by David Mesguich (User 79)
Belgian artist David Mesguich, also known as User 79, has a distinct sculptural style, creating geometric installations and displaying them in both public outdoor spaces around Belgium and France, as well as indoor gallery spaces. His work shuttles between street and fine art, and muddles the boundaries between these artistic spheres.
Though David has a full repertoire of sculptural work, his latest project takes an entirely different form. Mesguich’s latest work, the Baumettes murals, is the second of his prison mural projects. Mesguich told 12oz that he owes his interest in prisons and their inhabitants to his “chaotic childhood.” He encountered the world of French prisons, as a visitor, very early in his life.
He began his prison murals in Paris’ Fresnes prison in 2012, painting an 18 meter-long wall in the main yard of the prison with inmates throughout the summer. The Fresnes prison is the second largest prison in France, second to the Fleury-Mérogis prison, which also happens to be the largest prison in the entirety of Europe. In 2014, David made the acquaintance of a nurse at the Marseille Baumettes prison. With the help of this individual, he worked to facilitate a Marseille project similar to that of his Paris Fresnes prison murals.
The Baumettes prison in Marseille has been deemed one of the worst penitentiaries in France by the Council of Europe and is famously unsanitary and overpopulated. As one might imagine, it was extremely difficult for David to acquire authorization for the project. Allowing prisoners access to spray cans and a ladder was not a simple task and David was subject to two different vigorous police investigations in the months before the project could begin.
As a teenager, he had visited the Baumettes prison to visit his father, an experience of obvious profound impact, enduring in its intensity throughout his life. He told 12oz that he “never thought he would return,” years later, to undertake a project of this nature, but is thankful and humbled by the achievement. An element of particularly unique beauty of these murals is their hard juxtaposition. The vivid coloring of the mural under the high barbed wire fences enclosing the prisoners within provide the kind of aesthetic duality that make this project so enthralling.
“In my work, I am questioning mechanisms of control, focusing on everything that separates and divides.”
And true to this line of questioning, Mesguich’s prison murals manage to entangle the polar ends of the control spectrum, the controller and the controlled. Involving prisoners in the completion of the murals, the works provide a unique space for these prisoners to control something of their own, while, ironically, they are under the control of the state. The murals are both stunning in their intention and result.
“The mural is dedicated to my father and to the inmates who painted it with me: Noël, Marco, Momo, Jeoffrey and Michel.”
All photos courtesy of David Mesguich