The ground was squelchy, leading the mind to wonder what sort of organic matter was decomposing underfoot. A topsoil of potato-chip bags and soda cans disturbed the silence that Invader and his accomplice, Mr. Blue, were trying to preserve. It was 1:src3 A.M. on a Wednesday in mid-July. They had parked their van nearby, and were picking their way down an overgrown service path that led to a sliver of land alongside the A4 highway, just past the eastern limit of Paris.
“Flatten yourself against the wall if a car comes,” Invader told me.
He wriggled past a phantasmagorical fern.
“You always get some crazy plants, with all the carbon dioxide from the cars,” he said.
Our destination was a forty-foot-high concrete pillar that supported a smaller road passing over the A4. Traffic raced by at eighty miles an hour. Invader rummaged in the underbrush, trying to find a pair of polypropylene supermarket totes, filled with supplies, that Mr. Blue had tossed out of the van on an earlier run past the site. Mr. Blue, meanwhile, was wrestling with a telescopic ladder. He extended it and propped it against the pillar while Invader, kneeling, laid out a series of panels made from fifteen-centimetre-square tiles. They were labelled A1, A2, A3, A4, B1, B2, B3, and B4.
“It’s like a bank robbery,” he had said a few minutes before. “I know exactly how everything needs to go.”
For twenty-seven years, Invader has been decorating the walls, bridges, monuments, tunnels, sidewalks, staircases, railings, gates, curbs, benches, bollards, posts, poles, pipes, columns, fountains, pools, docks, seawalls, roofs, chimneys, medians, bus stops, train stations, storefronts, bookshops, and bars of Paris and beyond with playful mosaics. They have depicted everything from winged insects to cartoon characters and slot-machine fruits. Invader calls his interventions “invasions,” and the mosaics themselves are known as “invaders.” He has executed more than four thousand in a hundred and seventy-two cities in thirty-two countries, grazing permanence in the traditionally ephemeral world of street art.
Invader couples the methods of graffiti artists with the materials of the Mesopotamians. He often works in twenty-five hues offered by Émaux de Briare, a French tile company. “Unfortunately, they don’t do a nice pink,” he told me. His works are so coveted that he has been forced to employ stronger and stronger glues to keep thieves from hacking them out of the urban environment. He also uses a protective process that involves baking the tiles in an oven and then plunging them into cold water. “The tonic shock makes it so they crumble like a cookie if someone tries to remove them,” he said.
At first, Invader made pieces and then found places to put them. But the colors would blend into the walls, or the eyes on an alien would glance away from an architectural feature that he wanted to emphasize, creating, he said, a “very, very stressful” situation. So now he creates custom pieces for specific places, plucked from a running list. (A Super Mario mosaic that he installed just above a New York sidewalk appears to bop between two street pipes.) He documents each one in a meticulous archive and in self-published maps and books. He likens his process to “urban acupuncture,” saying, “I need to find the neuralgic points of the cities I visit.” Watching a movie, he’s been known to hit the Pause button to isolate a tantalizing wall.
At any given moment, millions of people around the world are attending Invader’s expositions, knowingly or not. Around three hundred and fifty thousand participate in FlashInvaders, a mobile reality game in which players compete to find and then photograph, or “flash,” his mosaics. Some invaders are riffs on the four characters—crab, squid, octopus, and U.F.O.—of Space Invaders, the video game created by Tomohiro Nishikado in 1978. Others are inside jokes, requiring a moment to decode. On the Rue Duroc, passersby encounter a duckwalking Chuck Berry. In Versailles, the crablike aliens wear crowns. You can even find one of his pieces in an unexpected cranny of the Eiffel Tower.
The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has an Invader piece in her office, but much of his work qualifies under French law as vandalism, which can be punishable by prison time and fines of up to thirty thousand euros. This is the putative reason that Invader works pseudonymously, posing for the infrequent photograph in a Salvador Dalí mask or ski goggles. There is also a spiritual dimension to this decision. “He really is that Invader man—he believes that shit,” the artist Shepard Fairey told me. “He lives it one hundred per cent.” Once Invader has installed a piece, he comes back the next day and takes a picture, like a pyromaniac returning to a blaze.
Three decades into his projet sans fin, Invader is more monomaniacal than ever. His secret-agent side, characterized by intense organization, conspires with the punk fan in him that bristles at authority and rules. “He’s always planning things out really well, but if something goes wrong he doesn’t want to give up his spot,” Fairey said. Invader once told Libération that it was “the obsessive beauty of the gesture” that had kept him hooked. The paper allowed him to invade its pages in 2src11, replacing each “A” that appeared in a headline with a pixelated alien.
In the roadside brush, Invader, wearing a headlamp under a black cap, was applying cement to the back sides of the panels, squeezing it out in great slugs from a plastic sack that he had fashioned into a sort of piping bag. Mr. Blue worked at his side, adding daubs of a thinner adhesive. Invader climbed the ladder, which jiggled like a suspension bridge under his weight. Early in his career, he often placed works at eye level, but then he realized that being higher up improved their survival rate.
Perched on the eleventh rung, he took a level out of his pocket and held it against the pillar. Then he stuck a panel to the surface and pounded the tiles with a fist. Mr. Blue—an old friend, a computer programmer by day—handed him more segments. Was that a pincer taking shape?
Halfway through, Invader scrambled down.
He worried that the piece was slightly crooked, but he was relieved that, so far, he had placed the segments in the right order. Even though they were labelled, it was hard to manage at thirty feet up, especially when he was rushing to finish without being detected. He and Mr. Blue were both wearing fluorescent safety vests, as a subterfuge, and were covered in glue. (Fans eager to deduce Invader’s identity ought to look out for someone with very sticky hands.) They carried the B pieces to the ladder, and Invader climbed back up to finish the mosaic.
Suddenly, it wasn’t as dark as it had been. Just above Invader, on the overpass, one could make out three glowing points—police flashlights, shining in his face.
Earlier in the summer, after weeks of trying, I finally set a date to meet Invader. The night before, I had received a text from Julie, who manages his affairs and also happens to be his partner.
“Hi Lauren,” she wrote. “Would you agree to meet me at a café near Bastille, and then I can cover up your eyes and take you to the studio?” She continued, “If you can’t because you are claustrophobic, we’ll find another solution.”
The next afternoon, Julie, in a navy dress and metal tortoiseshell glasses, was waiting for me at the appointed spot. She smiled sheepishly as she presented me with a sleep mask, which would serve as my blindfold. “You can hold on to my arm,” she said, as I put it on. She led me through the streets, absorbing the stares of onlookers who must have suspected some sort of bachelorette-party stunt. I felt a little dizzy, so I peeked at my feet from time to time. It wouldn’t have been too difficult to orient myself, but I was willing to go along with the game, just as I am happy to respect Invader’s anonymity, even though his name can be ascertained without much effort.
After about five minutes, we entered a building, and Julie told me that I could remove the blindfold. We were in a gleaming atelier. A couple of assistants were working quietly to low jazz music.
“Space?” Julie called. (Every once in a while, she would slip and use his real first name, but I give them points for committing to the bit.)
A few seconds later, Invader came jogging down a staircase. I was surprised to see that his face was uncovered. He was dressed in faded black, from ball cap to jeans and band T-shirt. He and Julie have a school-age child (she knows that her dad is Invader but has been sworn to secrecy), and I could easily imagine him blending in at drop-off.
Invader was eager to show me some mosaics he was preparing for a solo show at the Over the Influence gallery, in Los Angeles. The tiles were arranged to create a sort of camouflage, allowing his creatures to hide not only in their urban environments but also within the frames. In addition, he was making a series of landscapes created entirely from Rubik’s Cubes, a three-dimensional pointillism that he calls Rubikcubism. Invader has made Rubikcubist versions of Old Master paintings and of Warhol’s icons. The Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappé commissioned a Rubik’s Cube portrait of Pelé, and then Mbappé’s mother ordered one of her son. At first, Invader spent hours scouring secondhand toy stores for materials; now the company supplies him directly. In a corner of the studio, boxes of key-chain-size Rubik’s Cubes were piled ten feet high. “We have twenty thousand of them,” he said, smiling. We walked over to a computer, where he showed me how he uses Photoshop to translate his designs into squares.
“The main point of my work is that I give physical materiality to the pixel,” he said.
In the nineties, Invader completed a master’s degree at the Sorbonne and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, France’s élite fine-art academy. After dabbling in painting, drawing, film, and various things with computers, he chose the mosaic as his medium. “I said to myself, ‘Everything you’re doing, there are other people who are already doing it,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘With mosaic, you can bring something new.’ ” The form requires him to abide by strict geometries, but he has found these constraints to be productive. A quote attributed to the Italian Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio became a touchstone: “Mosaic is painting for eternity.”
Ghirlandaio was making Bible scenes for the Pope; Invader was interested in digital culture for the masses. He had spent long hours playing Space Invaders as a kid, one of what Martin Amis called the “proletarian triffids” addicted to the “radar, rumble, and wow of friendly robots.” Invader was also thinking about “The Invaders,” the nineteen-sixties TV series, with its Technicolor graphics and indelible voice-over about alien beings from a dying planet. His work transposes these generationally primordial references from the screen to the street, merging geek aesthetics with urban heroics. “Invader’s first innovation was in not writing letters,” the gallerist and curator Magda Danysz told me. “He took the graffiti way of doing things, but suddenly he was putting up an image.”
Invader first laid siege to Paris, mounting a hundred and forty-seven pieces in 1998 alone. Some of these still exist, presiding over the Pont d’Iéna tunnel or blending into the stone of the fountain at Châtelet. (Invader says that the mosaic near the Fontaine des Innocents, at Les Halles, is the all-time most flashed creation on his app.) Others live on only in photographs—a scarlet alien surveying a student protest from the République monument, like a benevolent ancestor of CCTV. “When I put something in the Métro, more people see it than if it were in the Louvre,” Invader told me, paraphrasing Keith Haring. (Invader actually did sneak ten pieces into the museum at one point, saying that this made him the only living artist on display.) In 2src11, employees at Ubisoft’s Paris headquarters used sticky notes to form a Space Invader on a window, kicking off an informal citywide contest that came to be known as the Post-it War.
Laurent Le Bon, the president of the Centre Pompidou, associates Invader with the Parisian archetype of the promeneur. “I’m thinking of Georges Perec and other extremely important figures,” he said. “Invader shows us another city, and he tells us, ‘Look at her. Look how interesting she is.’ ” To me, he qualifies as one of the philosopher Guy Debord’s psychogeographers, people who “turn the whole of life into an exciting game.” Invader has said, “My palette is the memories of a place.”
His creations are landmarks for the metropolis. “We orient ourselves by their presence, like that of an old lamppost or a Guimard Métro entrance,” Libération wrote. Sometimes the joy of finding an invader is incidental. You’re on your way to the dentist and you spot a sly critter on a pediment, as though the streetscape has rolled up its sleeve and displayed an unexpected tattoo. “Thanks to you, many feel pleasantly accompanied on their journeys and trips,” Dimitri Salmon, a conservator at the Louvre, wrote. They even influence the way that Parisians move. One fan explained, “Because Paris has so many invaders, you’ll be walking down the streets, there’ll be a cutback in a wall, and you kind of instinctively assume there will be one.”
Invader has spawned legions of imitators, such as the individual who recently erected a large Queen Elizabeth II mosaic on the Rue Saint-Honoré. (An Invader alien that happens to occupy the same wall looks away with seeming disdain.) These derivative pieces lack the graphic punch and immediate legibility of Invader’s work, like documents that have been through the copy machine one too many times.
To the street-art impresario Steve Lazarides, Invader is a purist in a milieu awash in easy money and obvious gags. “He’s willing to put his liberty at risk, right?” Lazarides said. “Which is very different from the kind of person who hires a cherry picker and paints an eighty-foot photorealistic mural of a fucking Chihuahua.” (He was referring to an actual work by an East London duo known as Irony and Boe.) Lately, Paris has become so cluttered with street art that Invader can hardly find an appealing wall. “There is a kind of saturation, because now there are four or five copycats doing the same thing,” he admitted. “Even for the public, it’s a kind of assault.”
One day not long after my visit to the atelier, I encountered a ceramic mouse pasted to the front of a recently opened toy store. It looked suspiciously fanciful, but I opened the FlashInvaders app and snapped a photograph anyway. A message filled the screen: “WORKS BETTER IF YOU AIM AT A REAL Space INVADER.”
It took Invader only a year to develop imperial ambitions. In 1999, he ventured out of Paris for the first time, putting a yellow alien on the leg of a bench in Antwerp. Soon, he began working internationally, visiting London, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Los Angeles, where he managed to plant an invader on the Hollywood sign.
In 2srcsrcsrc, he invaded Jacques Chirac, surreptitiously patting a sticker onto his lapel as he worked the crowd at an art fair. “The basic premise of modern graffiti is that the winner is whoever’s up the most,” Magda Danysz said. “Invader managed to get a sticker on the President of France.” On two occasions, he has launched pieces into space. (The first time, he used a homemade weather balloon; the second time, he used the astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.) The highest invaders are situated forty-three hundred metres above sea level in Potosí, Bolivia, and the lowest one resides on an underwater sculpture off the coast of Cancún. (You can flash it if you scuba dive twenty-six feet.) There are invaders on passageways in Varanasi, and there is a pixelated cheeseburger above the Waverly Diner, in New York. Once, Invader spent the night in jail and slapped a mosaic onto a police-station desk as he left the next morning. Just looking at a world map, he told me, makes him unhappy: “I realize that there are lots of places where I’m not.”
A full-scale invasion takes about twenty days. Invader uses Google Maps to scout his targets in advance, arrives with dozens of premade mosaics, and puts up about three pieces a night. (His record is eight.) Then he documents the work. “Some of the photos look cooler years later,” he told me. “The clothes become vintage, and you can see changes in the architecture.”
Invader acknowledges that his choice of placement is “highly subjective.” In “Chasseur d’Invader: Comment des Mosaïques Ont Changé Ma Vision du Monde” (“Invader Hunter: How Mosaics Changed My View of the World”), the graphic novelist Nicolas Kéramidas observes, only half jokingly, that there are invariably “one or two borderline depressing” sites in every locale. Invader is mindful to cover as much terrain as possible, creating the sense that he’s everywhere at once. “There have to be little dots all over the city, because I think that goes with the concept,” he told me. “Then it’s a real invasion.”
I asked whether he’d ever considered the colonialist connotations of his work. “I don’t want to go in like a conquistador,” he said. “I’m doing something poetic, playful, aesthetic.” His imagery can occasionally seem reductive: pretzels and beers in Munich; magic carpets, aliens wearing fezzes, and a genie in a bottle in Rabat. “They look like the first page of a Google search,” the Moroccan muralist Mehdi Annassi (a.k.a. Machima) said. “Like an Orientalist who doesn’t know much about Morocco. But, in his defense, I think he’s not just doing it for the locals. He’s working for international followers, so he’s doing things that are recognizable, and iconography that can be easily connected to Morocco.”
In rare cases, if a site seems sensitive—a synagogue in Djerba, for example, where Invader sought to install a menorah mosaic—he will ask before making a move. His invasions are occasionally repelled. In 2src18, Invader travelled to Bhutan with a handful of pieces. He installed one of them, depicting a mandala, on a wall at the historic Chagri Dorjeden monastery, and posted about it on Instagram, where he has more than seven hundred thousand followers. Invader says that the chief monk authorized his work. But, he recalled, “there was an American who came up to me, very aggressively saying, ‘What are you doing? Are you doing graffiti in a country that is not yours? It’s disrespectful.’ ”
Invader was unmoved: “Frankly, he annoyed me, because he was telling me not to do something in a country that wasn’t mine—but it wasn’t his, either.” The fight soon spilled over onto social media. “You are an incredible narcissist,” one commenter wrote, on Invader’s Instagram page. Another suggested, “You should do the Grotte de Lascaux next since you’re such a brave irreverent artist, no?”
Not long afterward, the Bhutanese government removed the mosaics. (Neither the chief monk nor the Bhutanese government could be reached for comment.) Invader remains stung by the incident. “It’s a little black spot on my record, but, at the same time, I’m happy to talk about it, because it was completely ridiculous,” he said, describing his antagonist as an American interloper—“the tourist, the savior of the people.”
“It was someone who, more than the Bhutanese inhabitants, didn’t want Bhutan to change,” Julie told me. “He wanted to go there and find a Disneyland.”
Invader doesn’t say much about his past. He was born in the Paris area in 1969, and he allows that his parents were “normal people,” members of the mercantile middle class. In high school, he loved punk rock, film, and photography. He failed the baccalaureate the first time and decided to be an artist, even though he felt stupid saying “I’m an artist!” outright. The punk ethics of D.I.Y., of high tech and “bits of string,” and of contrarianism within community were important to him even before he became Invader. When World Cup mania seized France in 1998, he helped launch an “anti-foot” association that organized a slate of activities—pétanque, Brazilian dance, a “mini techno festival”—for fellow soccer dissidents. On the tournament’s opening night, like-minded souls were reportedly invited to hurl deflated soccer balls at an effigy of Footix, the World Cup mascot.
For a while, Invader pursued a project he called VNARC. It involved a computer virus personified as a man in a hat and a mask, and the acronym stood for Vous n’allez rien comprendre (You’re not going to understand anything). In 1999, he and Zevs, an artist who was making a name for himself in graffiti, formed a collective called @nonymous. Inspired in part by the avant-garde situationists, they roamed the city seeking le détournement—diversion, in the sense both of causing a scene and of having fun. “We loved art, but what we loved most was anti-art,” Zevs told me. In a short film they released, they rush into a subway car and start to scream. The gag seems more terrifying than funny now, but the passengers of the day appear to have seen them as mere weirdos. “We bombed it with our voices instead of aerosols,” Zevs recalled. They fancied themselves hackers of the city, urban pirates “creating dysfunctions and disrupting the everyday.”
Invader got to know other graffiti artists who were active in the Bastille neighborhood. “It was a social network before social networks,” he recalled. The nineties were a propitious moment for French street artists (initially derided by one prominent pundit as “retards who schmear their shit on the walls”). However, Invader’s first show, at the Castelbajac concept store, was not a success. “I prepared maybe fifteen mosaics and nobody bought anything,” he remembered. “Nothing.” No one knew quite what to make of him. “People saw the mosaics and thought it was some kind of cult, or a sign that someone had come to rob their house,” he recalled. He kept on invading, evolving his work through repetition and iteration.
Invader eventually built a fan base, and the theoretical dimensions of his project impressed the cognoscenti. “Referencing domains typically removed from urban art—from the video game to the history of ancient art, and even cartography—he brings the discipline into a more conceptual phase and represents the renewal of the movement,” Magda Danysz wrote in a monograph that accompanied “Capitale(s): Sixty Years of Urban Art in Paris,” a show at the Paris city hall which recently enjoyed so much success that its run was extended by several months. For a 1999 invasion of Montpellier, Invader came up with the idea to literally zoom out, spacing his mosaics so that, if you plot them on a map and connect the dots, you encounter the image of a giant alien.
One of Invader’s highest-concept invasions took place in Florida in the summer of 2src12. It was a difficult trip, with a hurricane brewing and crates of supplies stuck in customs. He put a mosaic on the staircase of the Miami apartment building where the chainsaw scene in “Scarface” takes place. Days later, he set out for a sugarcane field in the Everglades. According to a Miami Herald reporter who accompanied him, he was wearing “a white plasticized jumpsuit and a cloth mask that made him look like a cleanup worker at a biochemical spill or maybe just Woody Allen dressed like a sperm in ‘Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.’ ”
The first try was a disaster, but Invader eventually sent a piece to space from the field, using a helium-weather-balloon contraption that he’d been tinkering with for months. The mosaic ascended for several hours before the balloon burst, miles above the Earth. After an odyssey involving alligators, red ants, and a county sheriff, Invader was able to track down the mosaic, still attached to a mini-camera that had recorded the trip. The resulting video is surprisingly touching: a solitary creature surveys the clouds, the deepest blue looming over him, and then—pop!—plunges back toward human civilization, the layers of the atmosphere whooshing by, before crashing through a canopy of leaves and coming to rest in a grassy field.
“I’d always thought his work was a bit too simple,” the artist Damien Hirst told me. “The thing that sort of made me take notice was when he used that weather balloon to put a piece into space, right? I just thought, Wow, the levels.” Hirst told me that he was equally beguiled by Invader’s fervent following on Discord, the social platform, and by his “reactivators,” self-appointed guardians who reconstruct invaders that have been damaged or have disappeared. “In art, the object is everything, but with Invader the idea is everything,” Hirst said. “He’s created this community of people who care about his works enough that they can’t be destroyed.” Reactivators operate independently, but they submit their handiwork to Invader’s atelier, to be validated before reinstallation in the wild (and reinstatement in FlashInvaders). “They’re like a second army,” Danysz said.
A couple of years ago, Hirst sent Invader an e-mail asking if he wanted to collaborate on a series of N.F.T.s. Invader said no. “I wanted to have a really strong idea, and I didn’t have one,” he told me. But the two artists became friends. “He started sending me some images when he was out putting things up in Paris at night,” Hirst explained. “And you just go, Man, I’m all cozy in bed, and he’s out there doing it.”
The art market has also come around to Invader. In 2srcsrcsrc, he began creating “aliases”—“unique doubles” of his street mosaics, meant to be sold in galleries rather than enjoyed outdoors for free. Each alias comes with an “identity card,” or certificate of authenticity, that slides into the Perspex box upon which the mosaic is mounted, like a computer disk. In 2src19, the alias of TK_119—a likeness of the manga character Astro Boy that Invader had installed above a pedestrian tunnel in Tokyo—sold on the secondary market at Sotheby’s for more than a million dollars. Pieces from his Rubikcubism series have also fetched high prices: four hundred and eighty thousand euros, for example, for a “Mona Lisa” made out of the plastic toy.
As the value of Invader’s works has increased, so have efforts to procure them without paying. In 2src17, a pair of men posing as city workers propped a ladder against a wall in the Sixth Arrondissement and, in broad daylight, chiselled away an alien mosaic. The men helped themselves to more than a dozen pieces around the city. Onlookers took pictures and posted them on social media, hoping to stop the heists in real time. Invader was incensed, calling the men “greedy thieves.” He argued that his work had no value outside its original context, and that without a certificate of authenticity it was “barely worth the cost of the tiles used.” But the thieves, according to Télérama, continued their spree until their ladder broke. Since then, the reactivators, by complicating notions of authenticity and authorship, have succeeded in largely shutting down the illicit market for Invader’s work.
Invader idolizes Revs, the New York street artist who has steadfastly refused recognition and remuneration, and who argues that, “once money changes hands for art, it becomes a fraudulent activity.” But Invader says that he is perfectly comfortable, at this stage in his career, with cashing in. He has designed a wine-bottle label and sneakers (their tread leaves behind an alien-shaped footprint); recently, he worked with Comme des Garçons PLAY on a collaboration that included a five-hundred-dollar cardigan. “I lived the first part of my life like van Gogh,” he told me. “Now I’m starting to live more like Picasso.” He admitted that, with encouragement from Hirst, he was trying to increase his output. “I think Damien has been a bad influence on me, because he keeps telling me I have to produce more,” he said. “All the famous artists, they’re the ones who made the most.”
In late November, Invader showed me around the premises of a deserted building where he will mount his largest-scale exhibition to date, in January. The offices, at 11 Rue Béranger, served as Libération’s headquarters from 1987 to 2src15. This summer, the new landlord called Invader and offered him carte blanche to invade the thirty-seven-thousand-square-foot space before it undergoes renovation. Invader almost declined—too much volume, too little time. But the offer was irresistible. “It’s a total takeover,” he said. “It’s going to be called Invader’s Space Station, because the building will be like a mother ship, a starship.” We hiked up a ramp that leads to a showstopping rooftop terrace, passing by a porthole window where, in a famous photograph, Godard puffed a cigar while contemplating the city. Back when he invaded Libération, Invader, noticing that the terrace floor was made of square-shaped cement tiles, had painted it with a red-white-and-black invader designed to be visible from the sky. The colors were faded now, and he planned to refresh them.
Invader paced around the terrace, taking in the view. Suddenly, he stopped talking and walked to the edge, looking out over the Marais, and, farther on, to the Pompidou’s tubes and pipes. He leaned against the railing, squinting into the distance. I wasn’t sure what had caught his eye. Then, just as we were about to leave, he showed me: sturdy-looking scaffolding, freshly mounted on the roof of an apartment building, right in front of a huge blank wall.
Anytime people ask me what to do in Paris, I tell them to download FlashInvaders.
Invader created the game in 2src14, preceding Pokémon Go by two years. The more points you amass, the higher you move on the scoreboard. Part of the appeal is that the game is simultaneously mass culture and a niche entertainment. No matter how many thousands of people are playing at a given moment, it feels like a shared secret.
My kids introduced me to FlashInvaders after hearing about it at school. “Mom, can you download this app?” does not typically lead to countless hours of intergenerational harmony, but, like a lot of Parisians, we use the game as an invitation to explore the city, a goad to wander one more block. (At the city-hall exhibition, I met a seventysomething mother and her adult son who get together for weekly flashing walks.) It forces you to pay close attention to your surroundings, noticing not only the places that Invader favors but also the shops, schools, bars, restaurants, and parks that surround them—the arcade of everyday life. You get your dopamine hit—doo doo da lee doo, +3src POINTS!—but you can’t stay glued to your screen, lest you miss a specimen.
My kids love scrolling through the game’s gallery feature, which displays their invaders by order of encounter. It’s a repository of memories—they can recite the exact circumstances under which we flashed each one. “I love that someone decided to devote his life to giving other people that experience,” an American friend remarked, after spending the better part of her Paris vacation chasing aliens. While playing, you often meet people. A pair of strangers got to talking in front of the Pink Panther mosaic in the Impasse Delaunay, in the Eleventh Arrondissement, and married a year later. “We weren’t looking for love, but Invader offered it to us,” the wife told a reporter.
A live feature allows you to follow along as fellow-fans play around the world. Just before lunchtime on a recent Monday morning, one player was flashing a skull-and-crossbones-themed invader in Rennes. Another spotted a cobalt-colored cephalopod in Rotterdam, and in Djerba someone captured a pair of fish pasted onto the chimney of a traditional house. The pictures are a mesmerizing sliver of someone’s day—an open window, different weather. A shot of a yellow creature in Amsterdam doubled as an accidental candid of an elegant mother in a gray coat and her small, watchful son.
Hard-core flashers demonstrate an enthusiasm that borders on compulsion. When Invader posts about a new mosaic, or a reactivation team puts an invader back in play, they will drop everything to rack up points. The No. 1 player is said to be a French airline pilot who schedules his routes so that he can snap invaders in far-flung locales. “I’m crazy, but you need to have one crazy thing in your life,” one player, a telecommunications engineer who goes by the handle R4Y, told me. He has four children at home, but this year he managed to flash in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Nepal, India, Hong Kong, Morocco, Spain, Belgium, the United States, and Israel, travelling to Eilat for less than twenty-four hours in pursuit of two mosaics. Another enthusiast recently created a sort of open-air flasher’s hall of fame in Paris, installing mosaics of players in the vicinities of their apartment buildings.
Another flasher I met, a retired midwife who uses the name Illanéo, talked about the pleasure she takes in mapping out her flashing itineraries, using clues gleaned from photographs. “It’s like an investigation,” she said. “I spend hours and hours on Google Maps.” She and her husband, who ran a driver’s-ed school and is now a psychologist, are respectively ranked as the tenth and eleventh most accomplished flashers in the world. Before they started flashing, they had hardly left France. “It changed our lives, because we have a common project—now we make plans to travel, just for this game,” Illanéo said. Her Instagram page features pictures of the couple against various backdrops—Bangkok, Málaga, Potosí—often accompanied by a Teddy bear in a sweater, knit by Illanéo, that matches whatever Invader piece they’ve just found.
The rules of FlashInvaders are uncodified, and there is no reward for winning. Some people consider flashing by proxy a travesty, for example, while others guiltlessly partake in crafty schemes such as one that recently sent a player trudging to the top of the Eiffel Tower with a backpack full of other people’s phones. Theoretically, anyone can succeed, but the game favors the free, the nimble, and the ecologically unconcerned. I asked Invader, who doesn’t eat animals for ethical and environmental reasons, if he still believed it was tenable to go chasing aliens around a burning planet. “It’s something that I think about a lot,” he said. He was considering removing the game’s Top 1srcsrc list, to de-incentivize the most active players.
In September, five Parisians embarked on what they called a “road trip for crazy people.” They were mostly strangers to one another, and their plan sounded like the setup for a joke: a location manager, a general practitioner, a customs officer, a train dispatcher, and a retired legal secretary heading off together on a weeklong safari that would require more than fifty hours of driving and take them from Paris to Valmorel, Anzère, Bern, Lausanne, Munich, Ljubljana, Grude, Ravenna, Rome, Menton, Monaco, Nice, Esterel, Sainte-Maxime, Calvaire, Aix-en-Provence, and back. Their ages ranged from twenty-eight to sixty-seven. They were all chipping in for gas, listening to Invader-themed podcasts as they drove.
They allowed me to join them in Ljubljana. I arrived a few hours before they did, and by nine we were seated at a table on the terrace of a Slovenian restaurant.
“We left Paris at midnight on Sunday and saw the sun on the mountains at Valmorel,” Ghislain, the train dispatcher, reported. “We didn’t eat until Bern on Monday night.”
The two men were sharing a room, as were the three women. They settled on an eight-thirty call time for the next morning. The mission was to flash all forty of Ljubljana’s extant mosaics in the six hours they’d allotted. On the way back to their hotel, they stumbled across LJU_33, featuring a dragon, the city’s emblem, breathing out a red alien in a speech bubble. The team formed a semicircle in front of the mosaic and decided to allow themselves a flasher’s amuse-bouche to the next day’s feast.
“Turn your music up!” Harold, the location manager, shouted, as they raised their phones in unison. “One, two, three!”
The next morning, we convened at a coffee shop. The plan was to get the outlying mosaics first, then work our way back into the city center. Harold had mapped out the whole thing two years earlier, during one of France’s strict pandemic lockdowns. He was eager to start.
“Allez! ” he said, once the stragglers had finished their coffee.
By 9:3src A.M., the action was under way. The group flashed a mosaic that looked like an extraterrestrial mosquito, then continued northeast at a brisk clip, sweeping through a former squatters’ village, a high-school basketball court, a residential district with kitchen gardens full of cabbage and roses, and a mid-rise housing project where Invader had left a fruit mosaic on the façade of a ground-floor supermarket. At one point, they flashed a “ghost,” aiming their phones at a building wrapped in nylon construction sheets. The hope was that, one day, the mosaic would be reactivated, and they’d be awarded points for having already flashed its geolocation.
“My daughter was, like, ‘Mom, this is crazy—you’re going all the way to Bosnia with a bunch of strangers?’ ” Martine, the retired legal secretary, said, as we walked. “I wanted to get in the top five hundred, and I got that, and now I want to get in the top two hundred.”
Ghislain bent down to remove a rock from his shoe.
“I’ll catch up with you!” he yelled, as the others rushed on.
It was a gorgeous day in a picturesque city, but there was no time for sightseeing. By early afternoon, I’d already logged around twenty-five thousand steps on my phone’s pedometer. This was art that lived in your body, art you had to work for. “There’s one right there,” Harold said, indicating an ivy-covered bridge spanning a river the color of olive oil. This was his first time in Ljubljana, but he’d memorized the city in advance. Sure enough, there was a blue invader peeking out from under the leaves. As we approached the city’s market square, Jeanne announced that she needed to get something from the pharmacy.
“Some are here more as dilettantes,” Harold remarked. “Others are here to flash.”
After fifteen minutes, Jeanne and the other women, who’d accompanied her, returned from the pharmacy.
“Allez! ” Harold said.
LJU_35 was supposed to be somewhere nearby, but the map was proving imprecise. Harold took off running down a cobblestone lane.
“I can’t find it!” he yelled. Someone had put Invader stickers on a nearby lamppost, suggesting that the mosaic was close at hand. Harold resorted to searching Google Images for a photo that would provide some context. He darted into an archway, leading the group to a courtyard, where the invader appeared, a bashful white creature set into a speckled wall.
“That’s gonna be annoying with the shadow,” Ghislain said. He blocked the dappled light with his hand so that the group could flash.
“We’ve got a technique!” Martine said, triumphantly.
By three o’clock, we were all dripping sweat. A final count, over ice cream and Aperol spritzes, confirmed that the group had located all forty mosaics. They got right back into the car and started driving to Grude.
On the night I accompanied Invader to install his mosaics, he continued putting up tiles even as the police flashlights shone down on him from the overpass, perhaps figuring that, if he were to be punished, he might as well finish the crime. Mr. Blue and I stayed silent. A few minutes later, it was dark again. Invader scampered down from the ladder with a satisfied look.
“I don’t think they’re waiting for us,” he said, his upper lip beaded with sweat. “I think they understood that it was street art.”
Invader drove us to his next stop. Instead of punching his destination into the G.P.S., he navigated by his art works, pins on a personal road map.
“Look, there’s a small one,” he said, as we drove. “It’s been here for twenty years, can you believe it?”
Just after two o’clock in the morning, we pulled up to the corner of the Avenue de l’Opéra and the Rue Thérèse to park the van. The streets were mostly deserted, with the late hour and with many people having left town for the Fourteenth of July holiday.
“I like to work in summer,” he said. “It’s calm with no Parisians.”
Invader’s original idea for the night’s second mosaic had involved the upper half of the smiley-face-with-sunglasses emoji. He’d wanted to install it so that it emerged from a street sign that was missing the semicircle on top, but another artist had got to the butchered sign first. The new site was more exposed than he liked, and he had decided to do the full emoji. He assessed the scene: “It’ll take three minutes to put it up, but if someone happens to drive by you’re dead.”
He was aiming for a high corner of a Haussmannian building. He used a comb-like device to apply cement to the mosaic’s back side. Then he picked it up by a plastic handle that was affixed to the frame and dangled it like a Christmas ornament.
Within seconds, he was up on the ladder. “There’s one of my copycats,” he said, ascending past a blue alien with a triangular chin and red eyes. He kept going until he was flush with the second-floor balcony, about fifteen feet above the sidewalk. Then he drubbed the emoji onto the wall and scooted down.
“I was hoping to get it a little higher,” he said.
I assumed that Invader would be ready to call it a night; it was almost three o’clock. No, he said, he was headed back to the atelier to archive the two new creations, to be known henceforth as PA_1486 and PA_1487. “I’m going to put them in the database,” he explained. “Because at 8 A.M. people start flashing.”
Before pulling away, he sat still in the silence, taking in the haloed lights, the hushed avenue.
“I love the night—it’s another city,” he said. “And it’s still so early, you know?” ♦