Art and culture Andrea González

The new colours of Toulouse

Known as the Pink City, Toulouse’s streets are infused with a rosy hue that’s reflected in the River Garonne. In recent decades, this city in the South of France – which you can visit from just 4,500 Avios – has become a veritable open-air gallery and a European leader in colourful, cutting-edge street art.

In the 1980s, the Arnaud-Bernard district in the centre of Toulouse was immersed in a development process informed by the diversity of its residents from different migrant communities, from Spanish to North African. With a very young average age, this neighbourhood became a reference point in a political and social struggle that demanded the reform of the French state and its stance on racism. This mass mobilisation led to improvements in working conditions and the construction of new social housing, allowing workers from all over the world to integrate with one another. The multicultural environment – openly influenced by New York hip-hop – gave rise to the first street artists, who took advantage of the locale’s smooth walls to create compositions related to their struggle. Many of these have since disappeared, their creators compelled to go underground for fear of being prosecuted for what was deemed vandalism.

A graffiti in the city centre / Photo: © Arnaud Späni

The first graffiti by Mosquito – who is considered a pioneer of large-format urban art in Toulouse – appeared in 1985. His mural TOULOUSE at the edge of the train tracks quickly became famous. He was joined by artists such as Tilt, Der, Soone and Ceet who, by the 1990s, had created the Truskool collective (at the time, called the Arnaud Bernard Système Collective) along with 2pon. All of them lived in what was commonly called Arnaud-B. In the years that followed, other famous artists, such as Tober and Sike, joined the collective and their works began to appear in museums and galleries. Their original meeting point had been the long-standing Rue Gramat – the cradle of the graffiti movement in Toulouse – where young people experimented with different styles, painting on top of each other’s work, constantly changing the look of the neighbourhood’s main street. Now a tourist destination, this is where most of the city’s graffiti tours start. Local institutions soon began to consider street artists to be interesting representatives of the area. In the mid-1990s, Truskool carried out its first municipal commissions, such as the mural on the wall that surrounds the Jardin d’Embarthe, a park dedicated to the iconic activist of the anti-racist and feminist movement in Toulouse, Mathe Maurel. This 1994 work is a historical reference point in French street art.

Truskool became famous worldwide and, eventually, an international cult movement. In its honour, a huge 30m-high mural was created in 2017. Located in Arnaud-Bernard Square some 500m from Rue Gramat, it was created by seven artists from the collective. Each one signed a layer of the mural with their own name in their own style, using the warm range of colours characteristic of the Pink City as the guiding theme. Today, it is considered one of the works that best reflects the history of the artistic conquest of the streets of Toulouse.

This first generation of graffiti artists also included women pioneers who took to the traditionally male-dominated public space to display their art. Some of these female artists, such as Miss Van, gained international renown. At the age of 18, she began painting her famous and provocative Poupées on top of man-made graffiti. In 2016, the artist, who now lives in Barcelona, returned to Toulouse’s streets. Thanks to the Rose Beton Festival (last held before the pandemic), she was invited to paint the fresco La symphonie des songes on the Rue du Pont de Tounis in Saint-Cyprien, another historic district in Toulouse. Another icon of 1990s urban art, Mademoiselle Kat, also returned to the streets of Toulouse. Returning to the pin-up style – inspired by 1950s film adverts and posters she had used in her art to expose gender stereotypes – she designed a large mural in the heart of the city. Once again, it had a political message that makes more sense every year: The climate is warming.

Graffiti by Maye & Mondé for the Rose Béton 2019 festival / Photo: © Chloé Sabatier, Toulouse Tourism Office

Visitors can stumble upon graffiti and frescoes – both historical and recent – on every street and in every corner of Toulouse. From the wild-style of the aforementioned Der – who produced iconic works in 2015 for the WOPS festival, such as the one next to Galeries Lafayette – to the colourful 2019 abstraction by Hense that celebrated Toulouse and his native Atlanta becoming sister cities with a mural measuring more than 300 square metres. Street art in the Pink City never stops. Neither does Ceet, who returned from Hong Kong in 2019 to leave his Chicano imprint again in Arnaud-Bernard. Or Tober, who continues to do old-school graffiti throughout the city, sharing spaces with other underground graffiti artists such as Reso, while continuing to collaborate with Der and Tilt. Other forms of street art have also appeared outside of the neighbourhood, such as James Colomina’s red sculptures and the famous interventions by Space Invaders. Their 11 installations can be searched for as a kind of game throughout the city, as happens in cities such as Berlin, Vienna, Paris and London.

"L'enfant au bonnet d'âne", one of James Colomi's Space Invaders / Photo: © Chloé

And then there’s the icing on the cake: the largest work of art in Toulouse. On Rue des Anges in the Minimes district, 100Taur has a mural measuring more than 400 square metres. It features evocative creatures such as hybrid monsters that are mixed with references to Popeye and SpongeBob SquarePants, with influences rooted in Hieronymus Bosch and Picasso. Because, when art conquers the streets, there is no barrier to the imagination.

Aerochrome space, with works by Trom, Snake, Xerou and Miadana / Photo: © Cisart