A chance encounter with a Niçois street artist reveals a unique personality and a fascinating life story

If you Google the name “Nicolas Stutzmann,” you get several results, including a balloon twister, a YouTube DJ, and even a murderer. This is the story of Nicolas Stutzmann the balloon twister; though in his 56 years of life, he’s been many different things.

Nicolas was born in 1967 at the foot of a mountain in northeastern France called le Ballon D’Alsace, literally meaning “the balloon of Alsace.” He spent his first two and a half months in an incubator, which at the time apparently also looked like a big plastic balloon. The irony of the balloon imagery at his birth is not lost to the balloon twister.

Nicolas Stutzmann

A Difficult Childhood

But Nicolas’ isolation from the outside world did not end when he left the hospital. In his own words, his childhood can be summarized “by a refusal to speak, to vocalize.” He was essentially mute until the age of six years, and he suffered from what he now understands to be irritable bowel syndrome. His doctors at the time claimed his symptoms were psychosomatic.

Though the stomach pains eventually subsided, Nicolas developed nervous ticks, became extremely anxious, and continued to isolate himself. By the age of 15, he was still struggling with his symptoms and began to party and experiment with soft drugs.

At school, however, he was an acceptable student until eleventh grade, when shortly before a parent-teacher conference he had a sudden fit of anger in front of the entire class. Decades later, Nicolas admits that he still isn’t sure what came to him at that moment.

Nicolas Stutzmann

After his fit of rage, young Nicolas stopped going to school but continued pretending for his mother’s sake, with whom he had a difficult relationship.

Then came summer break, and when the academic year started up again in September, still no one knew about his grand façade. Nicolas then claims to have done something strange. On the first day of classes, he showed up at the most expensive private high school in Strasbourg. He walked into a classroom with the other students, waited patiently through roll call, and after they had finished, launched into “a lie so big it worked.”

Nicolas said he informed the teacher that he was Australian, and that the reason his name wasn’t in the roll call was because his documents were a bit late, but that he was sure everything would be figured out quickly. The professor apparently believed him. It wasn’t until the first parent-teacher conference that the administration realized something was wrong. As you might imagine, Nicolas eventually left the school, and then he also left his mother’s home.

An Early Victory

At the age of 16, Nicolas began working odd jobs, from salesman to waiter and even a brief stint at a radio station as an audio storyteller. By the time his twenties rolled around, life was looking significantly better. He had a cat, an apartment, and a girlfriend (listed in that order). Everything was going fine, until in 1991 he got drafted for military service.

But Nicolas, then aged 24, had a plan. He went to get a psychological evaluation during which he pretended to be deeply disturbed.

Nicolas Stutzmann

“I remember being very convincing, to the point that I scared myself,” he said. The psychologist was apparently convinced enough to write a letter declaring him unfit for military service, and Nicolas maintained his façade when he was nevertheless summoned for an evaluation at the military barracks for conscripts in Nancy. For the three days before his departure he didn’t let himself sleep, drank lots of coffee, and rough-housed with his cat so that the pet would scratch his hands and arms. He arrived with a trash bag full of dirty clothes. He smelled so bad that on the train ride there, he had an entire compartment for himself.

Nicolas was deemed unfit to serve for the rest of his life. As soon as he was released, Nicolas went directly to a McDonald’s before returning to his cat, his apartment, and his girlfriend.

That was my first victory,” he said.

More would follow, as well as failures, so-called come-to-Jesus moments, and extremely dark situations. They all contributed to everything he was and is today: a mute child, a rebellious student, a run-away. A radio commentator, a professional storyteller, a colleague. Eventually, a homeless man, a street performer, a volunteer. Now he is an artist, a survivor, and an inspiration.

(Not a murderer—although the unfortunate coincidence of a man with his same name stabbing someone in a Strasbourg tram would cost him many contracts).

Nicolas Stutzmann

Read the full feature here

Find more articles on history, culture, and art by Margherita Bassi on Riviera Buzz and her own website.

another grey line

All photos courtesy Margherita Bassi

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