UPaint: Graffiti's Grand Affair in Monaco

Written by Andi Schmitz

The existence of a street art festival in Monaco, where there are no tags on buildings, no murals in sight, and definitely no trains being sprayed, is unexpected. The city-state is a very prestigious, clean, secure place with strict rules—and a lot of them. Graffiti and street art are considered disrespectful by those holding on to the allure of the elite and romanticizing Monaco’s wealthy image. However, according to the UPaint Festival family, street art is synonymous with respect. To them, street art is useful. It has a purpose.

To host a festival of international graffiti artists and muralists in Monaco is a feat so grand that most would consider the idea ludicrous, unfathomable even. But to Alberto Colman and his family, it is a worthy and necessary act of love. They aim to share this powerful form of creative expression and social outcry with their Monégasque community while doing good and giving back. 

Colman emphasizes, “Through the artwork of the artists who participate in the UPaint Festival, we can showcase things that truly matter. It’s a powerful, important form of art that serves as a medium to spread the message, ‘Pay attention and respect the world around you.’ This mission is at the heart of our festival.” 

The live auction, curated by Hôtel des Ventes Monte-Carlo and hosted on the festival’s final day, allows the artists’ canvases to generate funds donated to the Fondation Prince Albert II and the local Society of the Protection of Animals. In 2023, UPaint raised €31,000 for the FPAII, which shares the joint goal of protecting the environment and promoting global and local sustainable development, and for the S.P.A. to assist in building a new animal shelter.

“They aim to share this powerful form of creative expression and social outcry with their Monégasque community while doing good and giving back. “

For the UPaint Festival to pop up and disrupt the status quo of a place like Monaco took four years and the combined perseverance of Alberto Colman and his partner Cinzia Sgambati-Colman. After eight festival editions, 76 artists, 212 paintings, and over €270,000 raised, the duo accomplished the impossible. Along with their two children, Valentina and Edoardo, the family affair has blossomed into a well-known and respected event. 

Edoardo admits, “My parents definitely hit some walls along the way. It was hard to get the permits and to get the local government to back up the project. We had to explain repeatedly what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. Eventually, little by little, we finally managed to convince people of the value of UPaint and street art in general.”

 

The intersection of street art and Monaco’s luxurious cityscape surprised the invited artists, as did the helicopter ride that brought some of them into the city from Nice, France. With this sprinkle of flair, over the past eight years, the UPaint festival has drawn in artists from all over the world. But it was a local Monégasque street artist, Mr. One Teas, and his partners Los Gringos, who inspired the Colmans to incorporate live art into the 2012 iteration of their annual Monte-Carlo Woman of the Year Award event. Mr. One Tea has been featured at every iteration of the UPaint Festival since its long-awaited inception in 2017, even when he was wheelchair-bound after a fall.

Mr. One Teas brings a needed manic energy, born of the graffiti world, to the swanky charm UPaint otherwise exhibits. This year he incorporated his dog Paco into his artistic contribution of “No Planet B” as well as his personal mantra, “As long as we breathe, we breathe.” Mr. One Teas embodies the graffiti culture’s insomniac passion for the action and thrill of getting up. Combined with the festival’s elegant appearance and an exciting live art show and auction, one is left with a completely unique street art experience. The fact that UPaint is held by the beach on the Promenade du Larvotto is merely an additive to four days of being embraced by and welcomed into the UPaint family. 

The 2024 international artist pool includes graffiti writers, street artists, and muralists from France and Italy to Canada and Columbia. Each of them excited by the prospect of raising money for a cause they care about, and equally overwhelmed by the experience of being in Monaco. As a cherry on top of the helicopter ride, Prince Albert II visited the event, stopping to chat with each of the 12 artists. Royalty doesn’t typically grace street art festivals with their presence, another bit of Monaco flair.

Colman underscores the festival’s philanthropic message: “All the artists we invite always agree with our values. It’s important for us to feature people aligned with our visions.” 

At first, finding artists to join UPaint was challenging as it was an unknown event held in an unexpected place. Now, they have a waiting list of eager creatives. Each year, the artists prepare mock-ups based on an environmental theme to curate the UPaint auction catalog ahead of time and entice potential bidders. However, the organizers never reject or demand particular images of the artists, except in one special case.

Combined with the festival’s elegant appearance and an exciting live art show and auction, one is left with a completely unique street art experience.

Juanjo Surace’s subject matter of enormous mouths on human bodies is what initially drew Cinzia Sgambati-Colman to his work, which is typically quite dystopian and full of dark social commentary. In an attempt to provide a lighter side of his work to the festival, his original drafts did not include his iconic mouths. But then came the polite ask to bring them into his pieces.

Jaunjo, originally from Argentina, was pleasantly surprised by the request, “It made me very happy because it is the opposite of what I usually hear, which is that the mouths are too aggressive. I don’t necessarily want to create a scary monster entering the neighborhood, but in this case, I was able to incorporate my commentary on social media and its narcissistic exhibitionism.”

Along with Mr. One Teas’ “No Planet B” canvases, which feature his dog and friend’s cat in space suits looking into space for the next planet, other artists decided to bring their messages to the forefront of their designs. Harry James emphasized the unity of humans and animals, drawing inspiration from Monaco and depicting a dog gambler, tennis player, and Formula 1 racer. 

“I like anatomy, human and animal anatomy. I decided to mix them and chose the dogs to honor the S.P.A. charity we are donating to this year.” Harry James says, smiling as his 17-month-old daughter imitates her father by scribbling on the public canvas set up for guests. 

French artist Mathieu_1976 eventually was commissioned to contribute to the public canvas, adding a sepia-toned watercolor-style leopard lying on its side, sending the message to protect our wildlife from poachers. Mathieu_1976 was one of the artists who utilized all the space on his canvases, including the large backdrop embellished with chess pieces. 

“I was pretty much astonished by the ambiance of it all. You’re on a cloud here, and I’m preparing myself to return to earth; it’s really special. I have the impression of having met some kind of a family. From what I’ve heard from the other artists, they feel the same.” Mathieu_1976 gushes.

The resounding feedback from the artists was that they felt wrapped up by the UPaint family and given the opportunity to showcase their art and raise environmental awareness.

“I love the open atmosphere. It’s so cool and easy, and there’s a community aspect because here you can exchange ideas with the other artists you’re back-to-back to.” says French graffiti artist Sven. 

Sven is one of the artists whose style stands out because his motif lacks the obvious animal content; rather, it highlights graffiti lettering and drip. Intense fluorescent colors consume his canvases and the backdrop they’re mounted on. 

Another theme divergent contribution was by Italian pop artist Andrew Tosh. His two canvases were reminiscent of the pop-art scene he emulates, portraying lovers embracing along the Mediterranean coast, clean lines and bright colors, and the words “Bisous,” meaning kisses in French, and “Cherie,” meaning darling, written in the corners. 

Tosh, one of the youngest artists, felt honored to be included in the talented group. “For me, it was enough to get to paint with guys with more experience than me. I love the communal spirit of the event and our ability to create whatever we want.” 

The other rebels include El Xupet Negre and Chanoir, two OGs working back to back. Reigning from Barcelona, El Xupet Negre is the original logo artist; his name translates to “The Black Pacifier,” and that’s his logo, a black pacifier. Unwavering from his style, his canvases exhibit a dappled multi-colored background populated by his pacifier-inspired characters, crowding around words representing his intended statement. 

While not explicitly represented in his canvases, El Xupet Negre carries the message of mutual respect for the environment within, saying, “The colors are 50%, but the message is another 50%. At UPaint, it’s ‘Peace, Love, Respect.’ It is super important for me to find a way to talk with my viewers, to communicate with them.” 

The resounding feedback from the artists was that they felt wrapped up by the UPaint family and given the opportunity to showcase their art and raise environmental awareness.

His neighbor, Chanoir, brings closer to the theme of animals. The Franco-Colombian artist is a self-described “cat in the street since 1996.” Chanoir delivers his classic Keith Herring-influenced cartoon cats, this time including dogs as a shoutout to the S.P.A. Although he doesn’t typically participate in festivals, UPaint is the exception because of its charitable roots.

In the spirit of a true sprayer, Chanoir isn’t an artist for the money. He explains, “30% of my work has to be non-profitable. Otherwise, you just spend your life thinking about money,” confessing, “It’s a bit strange for me to paint a canvas in front of people.” 

French calligraffiti artist Coffee is similarly dedicated to his art and personal style, not the money or the frills. In collaboration with his friend Reno, the duo took over an abandoned tobacco factory and sprayed every inch of it, funding everything and turning it into a funhouse of creative ingenuity. Coffee’s two canvases create a cat’s face, blue hues flowing with his swooping strokes.

To Coffee, “Calligraphy isn’t a way for me to write my name or tag; I use its flow to create animals and faces in a calligraphy style. It’s unique and personal to me and something I have worked hard to develop over the years.” 

Rounding out the cat category is Italian artist Mr. Piskv, whose three-canvas tiger montage was a step out of his comfort zone. After his memorial mural of Kobe Bryant in Rome gained international attention, Piskv has since been operating in the world of sports. 

Piskv found it important to focus on the tiger aesthetically; explaining his train of thought, he says, “I think that the way a tiger’s black lines contrast the color was perfect for my artistic style. I decided to create a new optical tiger illusion.” If you peeked behind his canvases, the backdrop would tell you, “Here, a majestic tiger was staring at you.” 

The only two women participating in the 2024 UPaint Festival are Canadian artist Alex and Dutch muralist Nina Valkhoff. Both artists’ typical subjects are animals and their environments, and they leaned into their strengths to create unique visions of creatures from the sky and oceans for this year’s UPaint festival. 

Alex’s seascapes featuring fish and turtle inhabitants have an air of whimsy as she incorporates daily items into her creations. Everyday things, such as a bike chain or toy tractor, add a human aspect to her canvases, allowing for distinctive textures and patterns to emerge. 

Weaving these items into her work allows viewers to have imaginative liberty. “The backgrounds are abstract but look like nature. I want people to be able to imagine the rest on their own. For me, it’s freedom. It represents my choice to be an artist and my choice to be free.” 

Nina Valkhoff incorporated some of her natural habitat into her work, depicting herons that can be found in her homeland of the Netherlands. UPaint is her first Monégasque experience and first time seeing a live auction being incorporated into a street art festival. 

Nina elaborates, “I think the auction is a way to introduce street art to Monaco in a palatable way. I’ve never seen it before; it’s very fine art, but it makes the medium accessible to the locals here. People here would likely have a heart attack if artists took over the building walls, but I hope to see that one day.” 

The festival’s final act culminates in the live auction hosted by Hôtel des Ventes Monte-Carlo, but MC’d by the combined forces of Edoardo Colman and Mr. One Teas. The duo warm up the crowd and garner excitement for the artists, their work, and the cause they are working toward. The energy and excitement they pumped into the auction were integral to its success, as the auctioneer seemed underwhelmed by the subject matter. Seen as just another hurdle to overcome, the UPaint family continues to fight for the right of street art to exist and be appreciated, no matter the community standards or locale.  

“I think the auction is a way to introduce street art to Monaco in a palatable way. I’ve never seen it before; it’s very fine art, but it makes the medium accessible to the locals here. People here would likely have a heart attack if artists took over the building walls, but I hope to see that one day.”

In the bid for change, some canvases sold, others didn’t and were relegated to the online gallery to be purchased later. Still, all the net proceeds from the UPaint festival and auction go to the FPAII and the S.P.A. Some of the FPAII’s notable projects are the “Beyond Plastic Initiative,” the “Global Fund for Coral Reefs,” and the “Human-Wildlife Initiative.” 

Wrapped up in the familial warmth and excitement of UPaint is the love for street art and the desire to make a difference, to show the world that graffiti is a medium for change and a means of communicating to the masses. While Monaco might still be grappling with the concept of street art and graffiti, the rest of us already know the impact it can have and the power of the messages it communicates. To those of you who are intrigued by the UPaint Festival and its exceptional endeavor of charitable giving, keep your eyes open for it to pop up in your city to spread the love even further across the globe. 

Andi Schmitz is a writer, artist and recent American expat. Born in Dublin, Ireland and raised in a smörgåsbord of places, she has recently relocated to Berlin, Germany. Lifelong writer and artist, she is recovering from former corporate fintech life by self-induced art immersion. Her hobbies include painting, a good whiskey sour, and exploring art as a form of social outcry.

IG: @andischmutzz