The famous Canadian street artist and Nice fell in love with each other in 2016. But does the story have a happy ending?
Flashback to the Nice terrorist attack in July 2016: if you walked down the Promenade des Anglais shortly after the horrific Bastille Day event, you could not possibly have missed among all the devastation several large scale messages of encouragement left on the blood-stained pavement courtesy of a Canadian artist. His name: Victor Fraser, and his declared mission in life: to spread love and light. Victor’s giant pavement murals of “Paix”, “L’Amour” and “Courage” were balm to the wounded hearts of the Niçois. Passersby and city fathers alike applauded him.
But Nice was not the first and not the last place Victor produced his work. After the November 2015 Paris attack, he was there. After the May 2016 Manchester attack, he was there. And after the April 2018 Toronto attack, he was there, too….
A theme emerges. Curiosity piqued, we set out to discover what makes this tall, slim, forty-something man in his flamboyant suit tick, to find out what impact Nice has left on him, and to see what’s Victor up to (#whatsvictorupto). And we also want to know why his mission in life is to spread love via his work is so popular with the people in the street but not universally welcome by authorities.
To make it quite clear from the get-go: this is not someone who professionally tours sites of terrorist attacks in hopes of making a fast buck. Victor’s heart is elsewhere, completely. And to understand that, we need to go back to his roots.
Square Peg, Meet Round Hole
Born in Ottawa, Canada and adopted by a Toronto family with a strong background in law enforcement and security, he grows up in a very structured environment. Maybe too structured for the sensitive and artistic child, because at age 13 he leaves home and starts living alone. Still in his teens, he dabbles in sidewalk art, trying to make a little money to pay for school. But realizing that he is not cut out for the rigid educational system, and that he is too much enjoying what he is doing, he quickly forgets about this goal.
Of course, we are in the pre-Banksy era, and street art isn’t hip yet. But that doesn’t stop Victor’s talent from shining through. So much so in fact that in 1993 internationally renowned PR firm Young & Rubicam hires him to do a cutting-edge street art advert for the iconic Mott’s Clamato beverage. Five sidewalk ads later, Victor has been thoroughly initiated to the corporate world and his name even circulates among celebrities. The likes of Pearl Jam and Alicia Keys come knocking on his door, and even Snoop Dogg (whom Victor refuses to work with, given the rapper’s misogynistic attitude.)
And along with his artistic prowess, human values emerge. “Live today. Stop asking for money, do away with materialism, put love in the centre of what you do.” His pieces become ever more colourful, ever more detailed, ever more refined…. and ever more meaningful. Close to the core of his personal philosophy, a deep aversion to the manmade strategy of abuse of power to suppress others, and the message of love triumphing over hate.
A First Brush with the Law
If Victor’s interest in public injustice, and his solidarity with the underdog, has already been jolted with the 1992 Rodney King case in Los Angeles, where police savagely beat up a helpless black man in the street, it now comes out in full force. His work is increasingly popular among passersby in the streets of Toronto and wherever he performs. Authorities, on the other hand, are less keen on the emerging star. In 1995, he gets arrested in Toronto for being an “undesirable element”. While it was the first time, it would by far not be his last. When hearing the case, the judge dismisses the charges with a simple, “Mr. Fraser, keep up the good work.”
Mr. Fraser does as the judge has ordered him, actively pursuing a personal agenda of “making the city beautiful”…. And yet, he is re-arrested in 2001. And again, contrary to what the police may think, court and public opinion label him “a force to be reckoned with”. Victor 2 / Cops 0. From then on, while authorities never support him, they stop bothering him – well, at least those in his native Canada… But the police are indeed not the only ones to mind the his work – every now and then there is the odd jealous fellow artist who makes the City of Toronto remove Victor’s œuvres – even if they have been there for years – with a pressure washer.
On the Road to being a World Artist
Over time, arrests seem to become something of a habit. But among his supporters are the likes of Mike Bolt, one of the Keepers of the legendary Stanley Cup, or the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team for whom he draws their logo outside their arena. For over 20 years now, he has embellished Toronto, leaving his “signature” all over with the goal to bring a smile to people’s faces and help them escape the grind of restless, joyless urban life. Among countless other notable works across town, Victor also creates compasses, zodiacs, unicorns, ethnic-patterned “rugs”, a two mile long alphabet, and a 20 meter long “David Bowie Forever” tribute upon the singer’s death over time.
This all helps strengthen Victor’s reputation as a true, high-caliber artist. From Canada, he slowly but surely branches out to other countries, defining himself as a “world artist”. This does not, in his mind, equate with celebrity status but with shaping his message to be more and more universal, and reaching out to people anywhere, not just back home.
If you ask him, “So, without any formal arts training under your belt, how did you get to be so good?”, he will simply say, “By making mistakes.” Humility is his credo. But there is nothing humble about his oeuvres; they are flamboyant in color, minute in detail, and substantial in size, often covering many square metres. He usually starts by outlining his pieces in chalk then fills them in with water based paints or pastel chalk, depending on the project.
Fast Forward: Terrorism Rears its Ugly Head
Paris, January 7, 2015: Charlie Hébdo and its aftermath. 12 people are shot dead and 11 others critically injured. Like the rest of the world, Victor is stunned and shocked, and all he wants is to go to Paris and comfort the grieving city the way he knows best – spreading love by drawing. But he doesn’t have the funds. Helplessly, he is watching from afar.
Paris, November 13, 2015: In a series of coordinated shooting attacks and suicide bombings, Muslim radicals kill 130 people all over the city, from the Stade de France to the Bataclan via restaurants and cafés. This time, he has a plan. From back home in Canada, he sends a message of encouragement to the French: “Force de Paris”, painted on three Toronto sidewalks. “It’s what I can do and it’s what I have to do and it’s what I need to do,” he says. “It was the first thing that came to my head…Strength to Paris and to the people of Paris.” And a few days later he actually does go to the City of Light and leaves his mark across town… eight drawings in six days.
Nice, July 14, 2016: 86 victims are killed and 400 injured when a truck driven by a radicalized Islamist mows down pedestrians on the Promenade des Anglais just after the end of the celebratory fireworks in honour of Bastille Day, the French national holiday. No question that Victor is soon on his way to bring his art right to the heart of the horrendous events. And then, “there was something right beside me where I painted. In that moment, I thought was an oil stain. Only later did I realize it was blood…” He remembers his heart sunk, and it was then and there that his time in Nice would impact him forever.
His pavement murals become a source of consolation to the heartbroken Niçois. Even the municipal government shows its appreciation: city councilor Olivier Robaut tells Victor that “one day we will erect a statue in your honour for such acts of selfless love”. He asks the artist to sign the brush he had used as a memento for the City. And he sends a handwritten Thank You note.
Manchester, May 22, 2016: A religiously motivated suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert costs 22 innocent lives. Sure enough, count on Victor to bring his support to mourning Mancunians. The dilemma: his mother is in hospital, awaiting surgery. But she knows what her son is compelled to do, and tells him to be on his way. After leaving a first set of art work outside the British consulate in Toronto, he hops on a plane to Manchester to sprinkle his messages of love and solidarity across town. And wherever he goes, he always signs his work “From Canada with love”.
Toronto, April 23, 2018: This one hits home close in more than one sense when Victor’s own city falls victim to a terror attack – a van plows into a crowd in a busy downtown shopping district, killing 10. Here he leaves another one of his signature messages, saying “Love” in five different languages of the local communities’ multicultural residents.
By now, it has become abundantly clear that Victor is an artist not just with talent but with heart. “It is so important for me to act in love,” he says. This is also why he finds it difficult to take money for his contributions. He doesn’t pass the hat around, he rather finds sponsors or makes it happen on his own dime with his innate ability of “doing more with less”.
From Hero to Zero? Victor’s (not so nice) Return to Nice
In 2017 and 2018 Victor returns to Nice to show his ongoing support. According to his philosophy, terror, and the pain it causes, is not limited to just one moment in time. For him, returning to each site at least thrice and creating new art work means to reinforce his message that “hate cowardly strikes once and runs; however, love never dies.”
The Niçois recognize him and are happy to welcome him back. The military guards patrolling the Promenade des Anglais give him a casual thumbs-up. A local beach bar owner befriends him. Tourists stop and admire his work, some even recognizing him from other cities.
But City Hall and its agents suddenly show him the cold shoulder. As happens frequently to many performers – including internationally renowned ones like pianist Steve Villa-Massone or painter Omar Logang, local police chases off street artists by municipal order, threatening them with – and sometimes actually issuing – hefty fines.
“I was told by local police that I was not wanted and needed to stop and leave. At first I did not, but when I did later after being threatened with arrest, I went back to the hotel that I had paid for myself and cried.” But Victor defies adversity. “The next day I decided with determination that I was going to proceed to show love to acts of hate for the last time.” He also reaches out to the city councillor who in 2016 had lavished such gratitude and praise on him… but he never hears another word from him. The typical concern cited by the Estrosi city government to stop street artists from working is “security”. But one would be hard pressed to find the slightest act of hostility in anything Victor does or says or draws. Or any of the Niçois street artists, for that matter.
In the light of being jilted like that by local authorities, it is therefore more than just a little ironic that the next International Terror Victim Congress, hosted in Nice in November 2019, was announced using a photo of one of Victor’s works. The municipal government should not feel proud that after Victor’s last visit to the City by the Angel Bay, and receiving that kind of treatment at their hands, he has little desire to ever return. But if there is one thing these acts of oblivion toward him will never achieve – it is to snuff out the love he has in his heart for humanity and for humans.
Behind the Façade
Of course Victor’s art work stands out in an instant, but so does he, oftentimes anyway. He frequently wears a suit and chapeau claque adorned with small glittering pieces of mirrors. He makes them himself from scratch, and he knows that his eccentric outfit makes people smile, especially children. He loves that. In his world, “to give is to receive”. What onlookers don’t see when they watch the artist work, on his knees, nose to the ground, is that he suffers from a debilitating spinal disease. Ankylosing spondylitis is an irreversible and painful condition which most likely will land him in a wheelchair one day.
But this won’t keep him from working for as long as his body allows him to do so. He still travels, he still spreads love. And wherever he goes, he not only brings his art but also an attitude of “never leaving an area less than I found it, even if that means just putting trash in the bin. I am a bumble bee, not a mosquito.”
It is a good thing that in a brutal, harsh, violent, and ungrateful world, artists with universal love in their heart still exist. His work, which he draws so painstakingly, patiently, and ornately, may be ephemeral in nature, like life itself, but his message is eternal.
If you live life free then it should flow like poetry, like a dance of thoughts that keeps all time.— Victor Fraser
All photos courtesy Victor Fraser except lead image and ‘Paix’, both by Natja Igney