Four years ago, a giant gorilla appeared on a wall opposite my kitchen window. It stayed there for at least a year before slowly disappearing behind the rising walls of a new construction. It’s still there now, perhaps one day to be uncovered by future urban archeologists.
I grew quite attached to that gorilla. But then it wasn’t just any gorilla, it was a Zoo Project creation.
I’d wondered who was behind the Zoo Project label. Could just one single prolific creator be behind these monumental pieces – the giant half-human, half-animal beasts, the absurd chains of masks, the robot office workers, the packs of sheep people – that were appearing on walls across the north and east of Paris?
Zoo Project was indeed just one person, and someone we have recently learned a lot more about, but in the saddest possible of circumstances. Bilal Berreni, the young man behind the tag, was recently reported dead in Detroit. Even more tragically, his death dates back to last July. It has taken the local authorities this long to connect his name to a body that had been found dead from a gunshot wound in the city last summer.
Bilal was only 23 when he died. He’d have been 19 when he painted the gorilla on my street as well as most of his other creations in Paris. Although I wasn’t closely following his activities, I did notice that the paintings had stopped appearing on the city’s walls. Later I read that he’d gone to “see a revolution” in Tunisia.
There he found a new mission, painting portraits of protesters who’d been killed and displaying the life-sized models in prominent places around Tunis. He then spent a month living in a refugee camp near the border with Libya, drawing portraits of the refugees in order to “bring back their dignity.”