An American Cartoonist in Paris

November 15th, 2006 | Posted in General

I haven’t had much time to digest all the foie gras I ate this weekend, let alone the trip to Paris itself, but it seems prudent to write my little blog entry about our short time in the City of Lights while it’s still fresh in my mind.

Our trip was necessarily short because I planned it all as a surprise for Anna, and a longer trip just wasn’t possible with all the things we have going with the kids and life in general and still keep it on the down low. The short duration was part of the reason I picked Paris, because we had been their just three years ago for our 15th anniversary, and a short trip seemed better in a place we’d already been in as opposed to a new one where we would never be able to see a fraction of the sights we’d want to take in. Also, Anna loved Paris last time, and we all know a happy Anna makes for a happy world.

Anna and I enjoying dessert in Paris

Personally, I also love Paris. I have no perspective since it’s the only place in Europe I’ve ever been, but it’s hard to imagine a place more drenched in history, art and ambience than that city. When you have been born and raised in the States, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that this country is brand, spanking new in the grand scheme of things. The oldest of buildings here are maybe 200 years old. There are toilets older than that in Paris (I know I used at least one that old), and it seems routine to walk past churches and structures that are 500 to 800 years old. The entire city radiates history. That is the most amazing aspect of it to me. Doubtless places like Rome, Florence and other prominent European cities have the same feel or boast even more ancient places and structures, but Paris seems like it spins in a time warp. It is hard to comprehend the stone stairs you climb to reach the upper overlooks of Notre Dame de Paris cathedral have been trodden by people since the late 1100’s. When we visited Sainte Chappelle cathedral, I learned it was originally built to house the Crown of Thorns, as in the one placed on Christ‘s head while he was crucified, and parts of the True Cross. That’s some pretty heavy history. I was a little disappointed I couldn’t buy a souvenir Crown of Thorns with “Paris” on it in light-up letters in the gift shop… they must have been out. Maybe next time.

Things are just a little different in Europe, to paraphrase John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction”. Take cars, for example. There are very few large passenger cars in Paris. Between traffic and the tiny, narrow roads, a Ford Expedition wouldn’t get 10 blocks in central Paris. Our GMC Yukon wouldn’t stand a chance. There are makes and models of cars in Paris (and presumably greater Europe) that we have no equivalent of here. Some are so small that three parked end to end would take up less room than one Suburban. There are other things that are different… like bidets. I’ll stop there.

The lovely Anna and a Paris “Smart” Car

As for our trip, short as it was we had a great time and saw things we missed in our first visit. The weather wasn’t bad, being in the high 50’s with occasional breaks in the clouds and no rain. We also got the opportunity to spend some time with MAD artist Rick Tulka and his wife Brenda, which was great fun. We had three fantastic dinners in Paris, which I will not get into as my lovely wife with be chronicling them in great detail on her restaurant review blog soon. I’ll detail a few of the highlights of the rest of our time here.

One place we wanted to visit was Montmartre, a tall hill on the north side of Paris famous for several things. First, it is dominated by the giant white-domed Basilica of the Sacr?¬© C??ñ”ur, built in the late 1800’s. Montmartre became a haven for artists at about the same time, becoming home to communes of impoverished artists and artist associations. Some very famous artists lived and worked in Montmartre, just a short list would include van Gogh, Matisse, Renior, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso. Downhill on the southwest side you will find the racier side of Paris nightlife, the “red-light district” with cabarets like Moulin Rouge.

Basilica of the Sacr?¬© C??ñ”ur

Today Montmartre is a tourist honeypot, with many small shops selling loads of souvenirs and aggressive street artists that accost you trying to draw your portrait. There is a small square called the Place du Tertre where the main focus of the street art happens, and it is filled with portrait artists, painters and, yes, caricaturists. Most locals consider the area the epitome of crass tourism and fit only for clueless tourists. That is likely true, but it is charming nonetheless and the view alone is worth the trip. The only higher point in the city is the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Naturally I was curious about the street artists, and it didn’t take long to meet up with some. We were jumped upon as soon as we exited the taxi and two artists quickly started sketching our “portraits”. The way the scam works is that they offer to draw you without any commitment to pay, and then ask an outrageous amount for the drawings after the fact. They count on your inability to refuse after they have worked on your picture, and barring that your reluctance to cause a scene when you try and walk away refusing to pay. I offered quite a bit less than they were asking but still payed far more than the artwork was worth… I’ve got a soft spot for street artists. We were then accosted by another salesman offering to sell us a cardboard tube, which I bought to make sure I got the drawings home in one piece, and also to serve as a deterrent for being approached by other artists. That worked like a charm. If you want to go to Montmartre and not get surrounded by artists with portable sketch boards like a cow swimming in a pirhanna-infested river, bring a cardboard tube with you and carry it in your hand. That will save you some aggravation.

Place du Tertre in Montmartre

After seeing the basilica and taking in the view we made our way around the corner to the Place de Tertre. Here is where the serious artists are set up… well, relatively serious. Actually there were some very good quick portrait artists there, as well as painters selling quick color studies and scribbly inked drawings of Sacr?¬© C??ñ”ur and other Paris landmarks with splashes of watercolor in them for too many euros. One thing is for certain, these artists set up in the square were much better than the ones roaming the side streets. Rick told me that this seemingly loose collection of artists is actually a very tightly controlled union ruled with an iron fist. Trying to just show up and start drawing is a good way to get your fingers broken. Doubtless to have a spot in the Place de Tertre itself you pay a lot of euros in rent and have to have seniority. Maybe you have to be approved by a street artist panel of judges or something. Clearly the artists on the side streets were either part of a different union or were trying to work their way up the ladder to the Place du Tertre.

A caricaturist’s sample board in Place du Tertre

One of the street caricaturists working

I looked for caricaturists, and found several. I saw one on the end that had some samples set up on an easel as part of his signage. Hmmm…. some of these drawings look familiar….




You guessed it. That’s my Busta Rhymes, Marilyn Monroe and Julia Roberts ripped off on his display. I’m pretty sure that Roberto Benigni is by an artist I know, but I can’t place it. At least this guy actually redrew them (and not too badly) as opposed to just slapping prints from the internet on his boards. The artist in question was camera shy (go figure) but I did snap a picture of him at work later.


His stuff isn’t bad at all… you’d think he’d just do his own samples. Maybe he’s just lazy. I’d have gotten in his face but I don’t know how to say “you thieving bastard, those are my drawings!” in French.

In fact, I can’t say much of anything in French. The first time we went to Paris I spent a month or two learning some important phrases in French, especially numbers and stuff like “I’d like to order…”, “how much is…?”, “do you know CPR?” and “my hair is on fire, may I have a glass of water?”. This time I had no time to do that, and I can tell you it made a difference. Many people speak English in Paris, but far from everybody. It’s incredibly awkward to try and communicate with someone when neither of you knows the other’s language. Frankly it made me uncomfortable, and I have resolved to learn passable French before we travel there again. It would make the entire experience a lot more comfortable.

Back to Place du Tertre. I did get my caricature drawn, but not by Monsieur Thief. I was drawn by an artist calling himself “Denis“. Somehow I think that is a “stage name”, as it seems a coincidence that he happens to draw in Montmartre (which means “Mountain of the Martyr”), which is so named because it was the site of the beheading in 250 AD of a christian martyr saint, Bishop of Paris and the patron saint of France… Saint Denis. His name is probably Bill, or Pierre. Then again maybe Denis is a very common French name and he happens to have it and works where it’s significant. At any rate, I liked some of the drawings on his board (at least I THINK they were his…), so I had him draw me.


“Denis” in action

He used a graphite stick that was about 1/4 inch thick and 1/2 inch wide… many of the street artists used a similar piece of graphite. He started out very sketchy and worked his way darker, leaving the sketchy lines to act as a kind of shading. The end result:

Are you lookin’ at me?

A little rough and sketchy looking for my tastes, but not too bad. It took him about 10 minutes. I thought I was smiling, but he drew me looking kind of impatient and pissed off. Maybe he was drawing my soul. Maybe I was still seething about the copyright infringer drawing about 30 feet to my right. Actually that didn’t upset me… I don’t like it and don’t condone it but it seems to just be something that is a part of having your work on the internet. I’ve long since stopped sweating it.

Anna and I spent a good part of the day at Montmartre. We had lunch in a delightful little cafe on a side street. Of course in Paris, you can’t throw a baguette in any direction without hitting a delightful little cafe. That’s one of the great things about Paris.

That evening we had dinner with Rick and Brenda at a restaurant that is featured in the film “Something’s Gotta Give” called Le Grand Colbert. It was great fun hanging out with them. Rick was lucky to get on board at MAD while Bill Gaines was still alive and active with the magazine, so he got to experience some of the MAD that is now just a part of pop culture history. He even got to go on the final MAD trip… a cruise. He played me a video once of a gag Dick De Bartolo and Nick Meglin played on Gaines during that trip. Gaines’ health wasn’t too good at that time, and he rarely left his cabin. So Dick and Nick arranged for one of the stewards to deliver towels to Bill’s cabin. Bill was in there in his underwear. The steward was followed by person after person making an excuse for coming in… they were lost, looking for the cat, etc. Soon the tiny cabin was filled with dozens of people talking and pretending in was all perfectly normal. Bill was laughing so hard he was crying. What a memory.

Myself and MADman Rick Tulka

Rick and Brenda showed us around the Latin Quarter after Anna and I had a brief visit to the Musee d’Orsay to see the great impressionists work. Walking around the streets of Paris is the best way to spend your time outside of the museums. We eventually made our way to the Luxembourg Gardens, which is a favorite place of real Parisians. They dropped us off at Sainte Chappelle.

Monday we got up and began the long and arduous journey back to Minnesota… and reality. Back to work on several jobs including a new MAD job… a parody of the HBO show “Entourage“. Anna’s back to carting the kids everywhere and trying to stay ahead of the chaos that is our household. Ah, well… no matter how hectic and stressful life gets for the two of us… we’ll always have Paris.


  1. cvanoni says:

    I can’t imagine how it feels to see your stuff ripped off no matter WHERE YOU GO, Tom!
    And I’m surprised that no one has mentioned that the “Love Story” sample caricature to your left looks more like you than your actual caricture!

    >>When you have been born and raised in the States, it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s hard to wrap your head
    >>around the fact that this country is brand, spanking new in the grand scheme of things.
    No kidding! I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Europe yet (there’s a famous Vanoni in the bloodline whose frescoes in Switzerland I’d love to see before they desintegrate) but I’ve learned to avoid describing anything in America as “old” when speaking to friends from Europe.

    Also – I’m assuming that you had some doing in guiding Tulka toward my blog and I’m very grateful.
    His story about Gaines on the cruise is hilarious.
    A while back I’d picked up a copy of DeBartolo’s ‘Good Days and Mad” at a used bookstore. I’m sure you’ve read it – and the stories he descriibes are right on par with that cruise and then some. How great would it have been to be a part of that wonderful era!!

    – Corbett

  2. zwallenfang says:

    That Benigni is a weak rendition of a Krueger painting. It’s not on his website anymore, but I found one result on altavista, with a link that takes you to an extinct URL. But the thumbail can be seen here:

    Also, I couldn’t help but notice the brilliantly placed, plain as day heading, “FACE 10 minutes”. Do you suppose they are still bombarded with the nauseating, “HOW LONG DOES THIS TAKE?!”, or in their case, “Combien de temps est-ce que c’est ?”

  3. SteveH says:

    Next time pick London, we have a guest room now, just for you and Anna, and then we can show you around castles, scenery and restuarants you will love! Glad you had a great time in Paris 😉

  4. Joe Bluhm says:

    Tom, I just realized that the caricature profile to the right of your Julia Roberts is a sketch I did of a coworker my first season at 6 Flags in Ohio! Haha!


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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