All posts by Ella Lepkowski

Bullfighting Controversy Mounts

Story by Ella Lepkowski. Photos by Sam Guzman

Longtime Arles resident Dominique Arizmendi was sitting in the stands of an arena as bullfighters jabbed a bull in the neck several times until it couldn’t raise its head. When the matador finally killed it with his sword, the crowd cheered. But Arizmendi was disgusted. “I felt like I was on another planet,” she said.

When one considers the essence of French culture, the mind often paints a vivid picture, dominated by the iconic imagery of Paris: alleys with old architecture, freshly baked baguettes and croissants with cheese and chocolate on the side, and perhaps even fervent protesters filling the roads. In the southern region of France, however, a vibrant ambiance with distinct Mediterranean and Latin influences continues to thrive, particularly in the provincial city of Arles where the corrida, or bullfighting, season lasts from the second Sunday of March to the end of September.

Now Arles, a provincial city in the South of France, finds itself at a crossroads. With anti-corrida protests echoing through the streets and a growing majority in favor of banning the age-old tradition, Arles has become a battleground for conflicting opinions on the ethics and future of bullfighting. As the spotlight shines on this vibrant Mediterranean city, the clash between passionate advocates and fervent opponents reveals a deeply divided society grappling with the moral complexities surrounding this controversial spectacle.

A bull bleeds from the matador’s sword.

While the true history and origins of bullfighting is blurred as it has been influenced by many different cultures spanning a long period of time, historians can trace an idea of how modern bullfighting appeared in Spain. During the Moorish rule of Spain (8th to 15th century), bullfighting in its early form emerged as a combination of pre-existing traditions. Moors created contests involving bull-leaping and bull-dodging, which were eventually blended with local customs.

Controversies rose from the ethical concerns of bullfighting. Queen Isabella I, for example, opposed bullfighting, and the practice went underground in the 15th century. In 1567, Pope Pius V issued a complete ban on bullfighting, excommunicating Christian nobles who supported such spectacles. But by the 18th century, bullfighting was back and had transformed into a highly stylized and formalized spectacle in Spain. Key elements such as the three-stage structure (tercio), the use of specific tools (such as the cape and sword), and the involvement of bullfighters (toreros) began to take shape.

Bullfighting faced a challenge in 2012 when an animal rights organization sent a request for a ban to France’s Constitutional Council. The request, however, was shot down under the premise that the practice is not unconstitutional, and is traditional to the South of France. Defenders of bullfighting also point out the significant economic impact the sport has, as the practice greatly attracts tourists.

Although France’s Constitutional Council rejected the plea for bullfighting to be banned and despite the enduring presence of bullfighting as a cultural tradition, recent statistics reveal that a majority of French people leans toward the anti-corrida stance. According to survey data collected by IFOP (The Institut français d’opinion publique), a staggering 74% of French citizens are in favor of banning bullfighting. These findings and the anti-corrida protests each year in Arles highlight the strong opposition to bullfighting in France, reflecting a significant clash in societal attitude towards the ethics and morality surrounding this controversial spectacle.

“I can’t stand having animals tortured to death,” Arizmendi said.

According to Arizmendi, the primary ethical concerns associated with bullfighting are rooted in the inherent cruelty of the practice.

“It’s hard for me to understand how people can do this,” she said. “It’s not to eat. It’s not a slaughterhouse to get meat. It’s a show for fun, so I don’t understand how people can have fun watching an animal be tortured and put to death.”

To actively participate in the anti-corrida movement and advocate for its cause, Arizmendi and her group, named No Corrida, organize protests in the streets and gather signatures for petitions in hopes that these efforts will help change the law.

Arizmendi differentiates the course camarguaise, a traditional form of French bullfighting that still currently takes place in the Camargue region, from corrida. “People don’t hurt, torture, or kill the bull.” She explains that the corrida is Spanish bullfighting, whereas the course camarguaise is a French tradition that has existed for a long time.

The course camargaise begins with a dance performance in traditional clothing.

 Arizmendi also rebuts the worry that a corrida ban would have negative implications for the economy and tourism. The feria, the fair in which the bullfighting course camarguaise takes place, is what brings in the money.

“All the people who come for the feria do not go to the corrida,” she said, explaining that the majority of the bulls raised are destined for the slaughterhouse, not for the arena.

Arizmendi acknowledges the financial support provided to bull breeders and organizers through taxes, but says, “We don’t want that anymore because these are taxes from French people, and most French people don’t know it. The corrida absolutely does not have any economic consequence for the country, the cities, or the regions. On the contrary, it costs money. It does not create revenue.”

While opponents of bullfighting condemn the practice, claiming it to be cruel and inhumane, the outlook from the other side tells a completely different story. The bull holds a special place in their hearts.

“We love the bull more than anything,” said Charlie Laloe, a retired bullfighter. To them, the corrida represents something wholly unique. “They are not in cages like a meat breed.” 

For some, bullfighting symbolizes a fierce battle, while for others, it is an artistic expression, akin to a captivating dance. Thomas Joubert, a bullfighter and founder of ASSPA, an inclusive sports organization, says, “The first thing I take with me when I go to my practice…is my music. This part is what I like.”

However, Joubert acknowledges the solemnity of the final act, stating, “The moment we kill the bull, I think for most of the bullfighters, is the moment we don’t really like…even more when we spend time with the bull.”

Frédéric Poudevigne, the head veterinary inspector for the Ministry of Agriculture, also emphasizes the profound significance bullfighting has for the practitioners.

“A bullfighter, as soon as he gets a little bit of money, even if he kills (bulls) every day, will buy some cows and buy some mothers and have his own breed, which he will visit every day, and show to all his friends,” Poudevigne said. “If we stop the fight with the animal, we disappear.”

Yves Lebas, president of a bullfighting school in Arles called L’ecole Taurine D’Arles, claims that, in some ways, the anti-corrida movement has brought more violence than corrida itself. He said some activists reportedly sent envelopes with razor blades to the training school for bullfighting. 

In response to the animosity directed toward bullfighting, Joubert emphasizes the importance of mutual respect. “I have to respect your idea, you have to respect mine.” 

The Talking Walls of Arles

Story and photos by Ella Lepkowski

Although Arles is known as an inspiration for Vincent van Gogh, I discovered a more underground world of art while wandering its streets and alleyways. The walls are scattered with graffiti, vibrant colors, posters, stickers, and words of motivation. The walls serve as canvases not only for these underground artists but also for political activists who silently shout their opinions. 

While I am used to seeing street art throughout the metro and buildings of Washington DC where I live, I sense a difference between the intentions of the painters here and there. Here, the message is more raw. Whether it is an inspirational phrase, a personal philosophy, or a political belief, the messages that are scrawled on the walls here seem to carry very personal meaning, as if the creator wrote it in the spur of the moment, flowing directly from their minds to their paint, and onto the vibrant walls of Arles.

In contrast, of course, the street artists in Washington, D.C., create art that is often astounding and impressive, yet their activism and beliefs tend to seem more “organized,” crafted and displayed in a manner tailored for maximum audience consumption.

The graffito “helm” can be found all over the Roquette neighborhood.

In Arles, there is a greater sense of passion and fury scrawled onto the walls. These graffiti were not meticulously planned or polished. They are an immediate reflection of the artist’s inner turmoil, inspiration and pride.

Walking through Arles’s smaller alleyways and slightly barren roads, I found more and more of these personal statements. In the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, poetry and political messages are mainly saved for their designated spots, with waves of political talk momentarily filling public spaces when there is new unrest. In Arles, however, it seems like an ongoing conversation. If someone wants their unique voice heard, they make it obvious. This is moving for me as someone who typically only looks straight ahead when I am walking through the big city. 

Everything, where I am from, is impersonal, while here in this little town, it is the opposite. Among the vibrant messages, I find a sense of connection. I may not agree with every sentiment expressed, but there is something undeniably human about the act of putting one’s thoughts out into the world for all to see. 

Among the messages:

“Long live France”

“The whole city is mine”

“64 years is not okay”

“Death to fachos”

“Win your life”

In Arles, the local population has a different perspective from mine on this abundance of street art. June Ofstedal, an intermittent resident, observes, “There’s so much stuff on the walls, like posters, that it all just sort of blends together.” Those who are new to Arles, it seems, are some of the only ones who stop and observe what is written and painted on the walls, as it is so common to the residents.

Not only do individual beliefs and messages exist, but there is an obvious presence of community and conversation between the street artists, no doubt due to the small size of Arles in comparison to Washington DC. During my exploration, I stumbled upon a particularly intriguing tag: the word “helm,” written in cursive with an elongated cross extending from the last mark of the letter ‘m’. This distinctive tag is found at least thirty times throughout the Roquette neighborhood. In some locations, the tag is left untouched; however, many times, another street artist has drawn a dash over it in a contrasting color or stroke. Rather than completely erasing the original tag, the dash seems to serve as a form of protest against it, drawing attention to the clash of styles. 

The sheer repetition of the “helm” tag, appearing far more frequently than any other tag I encounter, adds an additional layer of intrigue to my exploration. I wandered around the Roquette for a couple hours, snapping photos of the tag wherever I found it. It is still unclear to me who the artist is, or what exactly it means, but I did find a couple messages next to “helm” that shed some light. 

One striking message consists of an arrow pointing towards the tag with the words in French, “This is a fascist tag.” It’s apparent that “helm” sparked controversy and garnered criticism within the local street art community. Furthermore, I observed a curious trend among those who attempted to cover up the “helm” tag in Arles. It was clear that they made a deliberate effort to conceal the cross at the bottom of the letter ‘m,’ using various methods to do so. Some opted to place an ‘x’ over the cross, while one chose to overlay it with a heart symbol. In some instances, a simple dot of paint was sprayed over the cross, effectively erasing it from view. The acts of covering the “helm” tag created a visual conversation that unfolded across the walls of Arles. It reveals one story within the inherent power struggle of street art.

Another message, written by the helm artist themselves, read, “It is not against you!” This message appeared on a wall already covered in “helm” tags, offering a glimpse into the artist’s intent, which is perhaps seeking to assure viewers that the tag was not meant as a personal attack. 

Upon further research into the symbolism associated with the “helm” tag and its accompanying heart symbol with a cross extending from its top and the singular eye, I discovered parallels to Christian imagery. The cross emerging from the top of the heart, resembling the Christian symbol of The Sacred Heart, adds a new layer of interpretation to the composition. The Sacred Heart is a religious emblem representing devotion towards Jesus Christ, and can be often seen in Christian art. 

Additionally, the eye could be a reference to The Eye of Providence, an eye that represents the all-seeing eye of God, seen on the Great Seal of the United States. This mystical symbol represents divine guidance, protection, and omniscience.

Recently, however, during my stroll through the crowds of the photography festival in Arles, I stumbled upon a previously unnoticed wall, absolutely covered with countless “helm” tags and hearts. To not much of my surprise, most of these tags had been forcefully slashed in a striking blue paint. It was by far the most fervent display of opposition I had encountered against these tags. 

Intrigued, I approached a woman standing nearby and struck up a conversation, and asked her if she knew the significance behind the tags. She said the blue slashes were a visual protest against fascist ideologies. As for the “helm” tag itself, she explained that it, along with the accompanying heart symbol, was seen by some as a representation of France as a Christian nation. The “helm” tag likely derived from someone’s name, lacking any overt political connotation, she said.

My exploration and findings in Arles serve as a reminder that street art, despite its bold and “in your face”  nature, often carries a broader intention and deeper meaning. It seeks to provoke thought, spark conversations, and challenge societal norms.

This is a personal reflection and does not necessarily express the opinion of The Arles Project or program sponsors ieiMedia or Arles à la carte.