He’s been called “France’s answer to Banksy” for his striking stencil portraits, but, unlike his English counterpart, he pulls no stunts.
His street art moniker could refer to an old apartment number, or a prison cell, or it may just be a string of characters he likes hearing said in different languages.
He paints portraits of some of our most vulnerable and forgotten citizens, right alongside our most beloved pop culture icons.
He is C215, and though he may seem impossible to pin down, the Parisian muralist describes himself in much simpler terms: “I’m an artist, as others say.”
Take a look at the C215 photo gallery and we think you’ll agree that this is quite an understatement. In little more than a decade, C215 has put together a bold and profoundly moving portfolio of stencil street art: no showy cleverness, no quirk, no irony; only genuine artistry, unadulterated beauty, and deep empathy.
Remaking the “Boring Streets”: C215’s Street Art Origins
Though C215 has pursued more than his share of higher education, earning master’s degrees from the Sorbonne and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifque, he’s never formally studied art. Instead, like many outsider artists, C215’s success seems to stem from combination of grit, determination, and natural talent.
Born Christian Guémy in 1971, C215’s first tools -- and perhaps a share of that talent -- were passed on to him by his mother, who died at just 18 years old, leaving behind her art supplies. Encouraged by his grandmother to make use of these parting gifts, C215 took up drawing, contributing comics to the school newspaper and sketching caricatures of his teachers and friends.
He honed his talent, inspired mostly by the figurative works of old art masters, and had one of his first encounters with spray paint as a teenager, when his uncle commissioned him to create a mural in the style of the NYC graffiti artists.
So goes the story. But if you really want to learn about C215’s creative spark, the artist himself cites a simpler, arguably more spiritual motivation fueling his work: “I was bored to see nothing in the streets,” he tells Steez Magazine. “I wanted to see beautiful, detailed stencils in the boring streets.”
“Art is My Own Language”: The World Gets to See C215 Art
Though he’d painted on walls since the age of 14, C215 cites 2006 as the year he put up his first street art piece: a colorful portrait of Ava, the mother of his daughter, Nina. By most accounts, C215 drew international attention soon after, with an eye-catching showing at Banksy’s famous 2008 Cans Festival.
Check out the C215 photo gallery on Flickr (maintained by the artist himself) to see C215’s strikingly original contribution, a scatter of stark black and white portraits set against the multicolored brick of the Leake Street Tunnel: faces of friends, family, and assorted outsiders; children bundled in winter clothes smiling up at us or holding their faces in their hands, bored or beaten-down; old men with unkempt beards and missing teeth, disembodied in the low light, waiting to be seen if only we will take the time to look.
This piece, Nina je t’aime (“Nina, I love you”), showcased many of the stylistic hallmarks and recurring motifs that would come to dominate new works by C215 in the years to come. Inspired by the world in which his work is created, C215 has trained his sights on those who’ve left an invisible mark in his life and in the surfaces of our cities, those who are often forgotten, ignored, or hated: refugees, the homeless, street kids, even animals (C215 seems to be a cat person).
“When I knew clearly what I wanted to paint,” C215 says, “it seemed evident that it had to be [done] in the street.”
As you might expect, once the world got its chance to see C215 art, there was no stopping him. C215 has gone on to paint walls, mailboxes, phone booths and more around the world, leaving his mark in such far-reaching cities as New Delhi, Barcelona, Amsterdam, London, Istanbul, Rome, and Oslo, carried by the universal power of his portraits.
As C215 tells The Culture Trip:
“Art is my own language.”
Anonymous Icons: Learn About C215’s Unique Stencil Art
Though he’s rocketed from unknown street artist to fine art darling in just a few short years, headlining art shows across Europe and the U.S., C215 remains skeptical of the supposedly-sophisticated world of art collectors and gallery openings. Instead, he seems to feel most at home when immersed in the gritty purity of spray paint, stencils, and forgotten urban artifacts.
“I don’t believe much in ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A,’” C215 tells Street Art Paris, explaining that rather than impress sophisticates, he wants to capture his “feelings and the people [he’s] met,” allowing viewers to connect with his work regardless of their background or native language. C215 has gone so far as to claim: “I don’t like titles,” which, he says, “take away access to the universal themes of the art.”
This desire for simplicity and creative honesty extends to every aspect of C215’s process. He makes his stencils by hand with no help of a computer, and, like Vhils, chooses locations for his mural art intuitively, based on the feelings and memories they evoke.
“I don't go to a place specifically to paint it,” he says. “It's because I was there that I will leave a painting."
Indeed, C215 has said it’s easier for him to transform an existing context into a piece of street art than to turn a blank canvas into a painting. “I have [an] imagination, but not an ex-nihilo one,” he says. “A white wall in the street doesn’t inspire me.”
Instead, as C215 tells Street Art London, he hopes to use public spaces to reflect our society back to us, “representing the people that really belong to the streets, and kids who have no chance in life.” As an orphan himself, this is an intensely personal project for C215, and he describes the process of stencil cutting and painting as a sort of “personal therapy about my own fears, my own ghosts.”
It makes sense, then, that one of C215’s most central inspirations has been his daughter, Nina, who’s gone on to play a key role in much of C215’s work, serving as a frequent model, muse, and even collaborator, C215’s interest recalling that of legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who famously snuck the name of his daughter into the linework of his drawings (in a delightful coincidence, Hirschfeld’s daughter was also named Nina).
Instagram’s C215 photo gallery shows the Parisian stencil master hard at work on new projects across the world, continuing to transform neglected urban spaces while branching out into new mediums and forms.
Of late, new works by C215 have appeared on canvas, recycled 1920’s car parts, even Hawaiian shirts, and a recent gallery opening, Perdus de Vue, at Paris’ Gallerie Mathgoth, features stencils, wire sculptures, stained glass, and paintings on discarded wood and metal, with the gallery’s extensive C215 photo gallery showing his artistic lens still laser-focused on classic motifs of poverty and homelessness.
Though new works by C215 have also included portraits of film icons like Yoda and departed celebrities like Amy Winehouse and Robin Williams, C215’s interest seems to be not so much in these celebrities themselves, but in what they represent for ordinary people struggling to get by in their shadow. “In the end, behind the portraits,” he says, “the question is always freedom and dignity in the face of a capitalist daily life system.”
“What interests me isn't so much pop culture or overrated icons, but to follow an idea that is subversive in its own right,” C215 says. “A romantic idea, that anonymous people can be icons too.”