Franck Noto

Born in 1980

Lives & works in Montpellier (FR)



Franck Noto's exhibition "Variations" : May 12 - 4 June


Who would have doubted that we spoke the same language? On this pale January afternoon, a tenacious cold clings to the rooftops of Montpellier barely made out from the studio’s roof window. Franck Noto and I are talking over some coffee as I remember thoughts JonOne and I shared a few years ago. I occasionally have the impression that, from far off, the words spoken by one complete those spoken by the other, which reawakens my fear that I will never manage to reconcile the two worlds.


In 2015, having invited the American artist to present an installation under the neo-Gothic vaults of the Carré Sainte-Anne, I was not expecting either the public success with which it met, as reflected in the record-breaking number of admissions, or the violence of certain reviews, sometimes rabid, often irrational. Their semantics diverged from those canons generally applied in appraising aesthetic statements and instead entered the realm of moral judgment completely foreign to our approach. Something didn’t sound right. Of course there’s the term ‘street art’, which isn’t the correct one, and draws on images of hoodlums and drifters at odds with the reality of these artists, at least today.


JonOne told me he had attended street school, as others went to art school. Noto extends that thought: ‘We didn’t go to art school classes: we sneaked in through the window. By painting on canvas and exhibiting in galleries, my status rose from delinquent to artist in people’s eyes, though I do pretty much the same thing.’ I in turn tell him about my preference for the term ‘urban artist’ and my desire to organize an exhibit entitled Urbain et Orbi. The idea is to combine worlds and draw attention to the obvious bridges between the streets and the institution, in the widest sense, the voice of legitimacy.


Why do feel like I’m dreaming as I write this? It is clear that there is a symbolic barrier that the contemporary art establishment refuses to lower, as if the briefest incursion might stain its purity. While modernity has gleefully appropriated everything suggestive of gratuitous, untamed creation, from folk art to the drawings of the mentally ill, our contemporary vision is confined to an unfailing mistrust of artists hailing from the streets. I interpret this as veiled classist disdain.  Unable to directly express the real reasons for their aversion (‘we are not from the same world’), urban art’s detractors take sidelong approaches, wielding a determinism they persistently reject in other contexts.


‘By definition, street art has to stay in the street.’ ‘Street artists are not a part of art history.’ ‘By investing the gallery, they condone the vulgarity of the commercial system.’ In other words, because they began by painting walls, and thus have not internalized the codes of contemporary art, they are condemned to artistic stagnancy. Will invoking Marcel Duchamp, Debord’s society of the spectacle, or the writings of Deleuze or Derrida make their work any more approachable?



In Montpellier, and the art world, we all know Franck Noto by his pseudonym Zest. So why did he abandon it two years ago? It was a somewhat romantic vestige of the graffiti era, when he only painted outside and flirted with transgression. There is a sort of honesty, of ‘common decency’, in taking off the mask of a rebel’s pseudonym that no longer reflects the reality of what you do. Noto was born in 1980. As he openly admits, nonjudgmentally, his parents were Sunday painters, which shows that an artistic impulse runs in the family. You might be surprised at how many major artists had parents with the same splendid flaw, a source of wonder for children enthralled by the mere possibility of depicting reality.


As a teenager, Noto executed his first murals with spray cans and an acrylic paint roller on the walls of the nearby stadium. Contrary to what we might expect, he had no desire to defy authority: he just wanted to paint in an adequate setting. ‘I painted all alone at the stadium, without bothering anyone. My tool, a can of spray paint, made me want to create.’ When you enter the world of graffiti at the age of 14, you lay your life’s foundations on ideas of adventure and wandering. Without expressing any nostalgia for the first steps of Zest’s artistic career, Noto describes his many journeys in search of graffiti spots; the creation of his crew TDM with friends who worked in construction; the dawn of Internet, which let people connect; and the birth of the graffiti community.



The world of graffiti is one of ghosts. Masterpieces are painted over by other works, themselves painted over in turn. The successive layers of colour conceal an underground history nourished by memories and stories. This rather romantic thought—I dare not quote Chateaubriand on the ruins of Rome—haunts Noto in his obsession for the expressiveness of material. A painting is successful when it appears to hide what is essential under its surface: an invisible past, a shrouded genealogy, an obscure archaeology. About a decade ago, near Manila, I had more or less the same discussion with the great Manuel Ocampo. The air is cold and no stars shine above as I cross the modern district on foot, returning to my office. At least I found a man with whom I share the same language.


Numa Hambursin

Director of the MO.CO, Montpellier Contemporary

March 2022

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