Incredible but true! Graffiti in Nice on the French Riviera is booming!29 November 2023
Graffiti in Nice is anything but obvious! After all, we’re in the cleanest city in France, and certainly the most heavily policed, which doesn’t help the graffiti artists’ cause… If you’re looking for graffiti in the city centre, you’ve come to the wrong place! The Bay of Angels stretches magnificently along the Belle Bleue and you won’t see a trace of spray paint! And yet this magnificent city was the birthplace of one of the greatest pioneers of urban art: Ernest Pignon Ernest!
But that wasn’t counting on the strange space that is Le 109, an explosive cultural hub just 10 minutes from the old town! Frankly, I wasn’t expecting to discover such an explosion of urban art, nor such a breeding ground for local graffiti artists… Enough to turn the heads of us big graffiti and fresco enthusiasts! In Nice, the old adage “Don’t be fooled by appearances” really comes into its own. Any doubts? Follow my lead 😉
Incredible works and graffiti in stock at the 109 in Nice
It’s outside Le 109 that we meet Andy, Nice’s most passionate urban addict, and already I’ve got that feeling inside me that the show is going to be memorable! Entering Le 109 means stepping into the city’s former slaughterhouse, which have been somewhat rehabilitated. The venue on that day, a day before the Day of the Dead (a strange coincidence), was closed and therefore empty. But as soon as we arrived, it was clear that the place was alive and welcoming.
A work by Ben, also a contemporary artist from Nice, hangs outside, and others will punctuate my visit. It was when I passed through a hall to reach the inner courtyard that I got my 1st shock! Sure, it’s a collage, but more importantly it’s a 4-handed work that I’d never seen before, created by artists Ernest Pignon Ernest and Speedy Graphito! And that’s just the beginning!
This powerful work, produced in 2005 for the Section Urban exhibition in Paris, features the tortured characters of Ernest Pignon Ernest and Speedy Graphito’s Lapinture character in an incredible black-and-white scene. The poster reads “Like a dog without a collar, I roam the streets of Nice in search of the last palm tree”. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take a photo of the work in its entirety, so I hope my clumsy montage will give you some idea of how majestic it is.
The show gets off to a great, great start. Outside is a second work by Speedy Graphito in the pixelated style he has been so fond of for some years. We can make out young people playing at hanging pigs… And then on the walls of 109 there’s a magnificent recto/verso by Astro! Between these two trompe l’oeil paintings, we are astonished to discover a work by Rero… It’s as if all the big names in urban art had come together at 109!
But I have to tell you, despite the quality of the XXL works on display at Le 109, my eyes are constantly drawn to the walls of the building… Colourful and explosive, they’re full of graffiti, blazes, faces and, above all, signatures that I’m not very familiar with. Their names are Faben, Aroke, Artmor1, Roko, HKA, Jennifer Miller, Williamhamer, Otom… Their blazes, graffiti and works have nothing to envy the big names of Street Art, quite the contrary, Le 109 breathes the Pep’s of an abundant creation. Just look at the magnificent work Otom has created with German artist EOC Alexander lis, a specialist in abstract graffiti, and you’ll see that it’s top-notch.
There are some well-known signatures, like Astro‘s blaze, and a portrait of Ernesto Novo in the midst of this profusion… Rather than describe the works in a few hundred lines, I’ll leave you with this visual shock that will make you understand that graffiti in Nice is not the fruit of my imagination 😉
You saw it with your own eyes! I’m not lying to you! 109 has all the ingredients to become an iconic graffiti spot in Nice! The sheer diversity and number of works on display is disconcerting. The technical level of the graffiti artists is unequivocal. The themes covered: rap, tributes, etc. the styles: Graffiti Wild Style, bubble letters, etc. Everything makes this spot the ideal place for lovers of graffiti and urban art. Even in my wildest dreams, I’d never have imagined that Nice could be such a breeding ground for urban artists! But what about outside the 109? So it’s with Faben‘s little characters (yes, there are characters too!) that I’m off to discover what’s going on outside in the streets of this Nice district.
The number of free expression walls in Nice is growing, and they’re giving us a chance to see some high-quality graffiti & poignant urban artworks
Obviously, if graffiti in Nice had been restricted to the Le 109 cultural centre, it would have been a bit restrictive! Surprisingly, the city of Nice is moving on this issue and now has three free expression walls where talented artists can legally express themselves. The city’s councillors are well aware that there is a wealth of urban talent in and around Nice, and they are also well aware that, as in any urbanised city, there are a few unsightly underpinnings, dull gable walls and areas in need of improvement… so what better way to solve the problem than with street art 😉 Experienced artists and novices alike can now arm themselves with a can of spray paint and let their imagination run riot without risking being caught out!
So it was with curiosity that we continued our walk with Andy, discovering the first free expression wall, which is none other than the outside perimeter wall of 109. I was amazed to discover 4 portraits! The first one blew me away, because yes, Jean Rooble is the great specialist in hyperrealism in France… and we’re often used to attributing this movement to the Americans, who reproduce beautiful photos wonderfully with a brush. But Jean Rooble comes from a graffiti, lettering and wild style background, and he works exclusively with spray paint… What he brings to hyperrealism is a palpable touch of humanity… with each work we are discovering new feelings. This face from a photograph by Ken Wongyoukhong was like a new punch for me. It’s a striking work that I didn’t expect to see in the streets of clean-cut Nice. What a show!
Another portrait, another atmosphere; this time it’s Ernesto Novo who offers us a portrait of Nice graffiti artist OTOM. This practice of artists representing each other is as common in urban art as it was in classical painting. In this portrait we can clearly see Ernesto Novo’s own style, as he covers walls all over the world with his totems and faces.
It’s hard to believe that this powerful work is by Wanjah, the same artist who drew an adorable “Baby Love” in Antibes. A committed artist who likes to rap and take the piss out of politicians, his work is sure to send shivers down your spine! You could imagine a rapper on the rampage, you could also imagine a fundamentalist chanting hate speech… you could imagine a lot with this work. In fact, it’s the very essence of art to make people react, provoke, question… and this work completely embodies why art is so important; it offers another way of looking at the world, an open door… to discussion perhaps… In any case, this work will certainly evoke some feelings in you, and that’s why I’ve selected it to illustrate this article 😉
I close this gallery of portraits with a work by Alber Oner, an artist from the Bordeaux region. No political claims, no overly violent feelings; Alber Oner is all about graphics and flat colours that strike the eye without hurting the soul. His work is beautiful, balanced and decorative, and it’s always a pleasure to see one of his colourful portraits in a large number of French towns. Here he’s no exception to the rule, and it’s good to breathe a little too, isn’t it?
Before we set off to discover another of the city’s free expression walls, I’ve put together a small selection of photos to show you the diversity of the works on display outside 109. Graffiti, blazes of all kinds, mangas, portraits of artists, charming monsters… Graffiti in Nice is as varied as in Queens! That’s how well the city hides its game!
After a few bus stops, we arrived at the XV corps wall. As with the previous wall, the first works were orchestrated by the WholeStreet Association as part of the “influence ta ville” (Influence your town) project… unlike the portraits we saw earlier, there’s not much left to see here, apart from a huge graffiti by HKA depicting his child with the Wild Style tagline “Le Meilleur est à venir” (The Best is Yet to Come) and a very strange work that could be attributed to the world-famous artist VILE. But it’s a copy! Yes, even in urban art there are forgers! In the manner of VILE, the graffiti artist has created the letters of the city of Nice in 3D, incorporating elements that make up the city’s identity: palm trees, the Bay of Angels, the pétanque player and even Fernandel (an old french movie character)!
The wall of the XVème corps was not the most exhilarating that day… As it is the nature of urban art to be ephemeral, I bet that by the time you read these lines new works will have seen the light of day on this one.
A few dozen metres from the wall, in the inner courtyard of the Centre Social, you can see Vermeer‘s The Girl with the Pearl, revisited by rising Côte d’Azur urban art star César Malfi… A somewhat bizarre transition that will allow me to tell you a little about my meeting with this young Nice artist who’s on a roll!
César Malfi: from vandal graffiti in Nice to ancient and modern muralism!
We meet at Da Titin for a delicious traditional Socca. Young César arrives at a brisk pace with that little excess of self-confidence typical of sensitive people. His eyes sparkle with intelligence, he’s a joker and I have to admit that his verbal joust is funny and tasty… I’m not going to dwell on his story because the regional press has covered it extensively. In a few words… He started out wielding spray cans with his band of friends in a vandal way, then unfortunately fell victim to a serious accident during a rather risky graffiti session on railway lines… His vision of the world changed and his love for the Italian Renaissance, Ancient Greece and of course the mythology that stems from it provided him with inexhaustible material to feed his works and reflections. Even though he’s studying law, César is determined and it’s the combination of painting and sharing that makes him tick.
In his company, we take a tour of his major works, starting with a stop in a working-class district of Nice, Les Moulins. I can assure you, this has nothing to do with the northern suburbs of Marseille! The work Liberté, Égalité, Féminité (Liberty, Equality, Femininity) is inflated because female representation is not necessarily welcome in this type of neighbourhood. You can see from his self-taught work that he must have spent hours studying the shadows of ancient statues. The reproduction of the pleats in the toga and the fluffiness of the wings are wonderfully rendered. But I have to admit, even though I think it’s beautiful, I don’t really feel anything at the moment when I look at it… Young César remarks this with humour, and I’ll reserve my prediction for later…
The second work, in front of which we stopped, offers more substance and relief, and I can discern a certain evolution in the artist’s work between these two works. The horse superimposed on a minotaur, which could be inspired by Picasso, and these clear-cut split statues revealing delicate, poetic features à la Cocteau. It’s an interesting contrast that suggests a generational juxtaposition. It’s possible that I’m going in the wrong direction, because art is perceived differently by everyone, and as I hate ‘labels’ in museums, I don’t like reading explanations of the works either… I’m just giving you my own impression, leaving you free to make up your own!
The third work is by far my favourite. It has that extra “je ne sais quoi” that belongs to urban artists who play with architecture with intelligence. This kiss, made impossible by the nature of the building, reinforces the desire of these two embracing beings / statues. The tension is palpable, and we tend to remain captivated by this artistic and architectural rendering. Called “Lovely tension“, this work made me realise that César Malfi‘s work was evolving, undergoing reflection, and that he would continue to move forward without resting on his Nice laurels. This is reassuring, because fame, even regional fame, can sometimes get the better of creativity. I can’t wait to see how he confronts other worlds: Brooklyn, London, Athens… To see him leave his comfort zone and confront his thoughts with other architectures… A very, very nice encounter! An artist to watch!
Should you go and enjoy urban art in Nice?
A thousand times yes! And why is that? Quite simply because this city is a funny little secret! You think it’s clean, smooth and too safe, but suddenly it’s explosive, graffiti-ridden and even inclusive! If someone had told me that I’d be enjoying some beautiful graffiti in Nice, I wouldn’t have believed them at all!
In Nice, there are contrasts at every level, and there’s plenty to be surprised about… You can enjoy a meal at the very traditional Chez Davia, where Nissarde cuisine takes pride of place, or travel to Brazil and taste the best fish and meat dishes on offer at O Corcovado. You can have a drink on a chic rooftop with a sea view, or get your groove on at Le Six, the city’s oldest gay-friendly bar and dancehall… Personally, I’ve tried it all and loved it all 😉
I’ll stop dithering here and get back to graffiti in Nice; you can of course venture off on your own to the 109, visit the free expression walls or walk in the footsteps of César Malfi without any risk… which is not the case in every city. But if you want to take your discovery a step further and discover some secret, colourful spots, I’d strongly advise you to call Andy. Passionate and fascinating, he’ll give you an explosive Street Art Tour of Nice!
Personally, I’d love to go back and check out the hidden spots with my friend Andy and, who knows, have a crazy little live show together! So pack your bags, the most secretive city on the Côte d’Azur is waiting for you!
As for me, I’m digging into my trove of Street Art books to make you a Christmas selection that’s just right 😉 No new walks until 2024! But I’m sure you’ll find plenty to do as you wander around my map of the world! Mexico City, Brooklyn, Queens, Milan, Athens… and many other cities to discover.
See you soon for more Street Art adventures