When the evening sun bathes the Old Town and Garonne bridges in its intense glow, Toulouse becomes the “pink city.” It’s a hue that reflects the town’s relaxed spirit – and spirited embrace of carefree delights. On hand to guide us in the new smart fortwo electric drive – locally emission-free and ready to stop at the city’s springtime delights – is tattoo artist Mahell de Narval.
The “Ville Rose” derives its monicker from the blush-red bricks that make up most of Toulouse’s buildings. The soft and fresh hue mirrors the mentality of a populace spoilt by its proximity to both the Pyrenees and Mediterranean, the wealth of excellent nearby wineries, and an exceptional faible for fabulous food. Residents rarely find themselves in the grip of typical metropolitan stress factors: They prefer tangible sources of happiness to chasing elusive dreams. The past three decades also saw the emergence of a tightly-knit underground scene of skaters, bands, and graffiti artists. So, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise that Toulouse also doubles as France’s undisputed tattoo Mecca, with 76 studios (and counting). Mahell de Narval, one of the country’s most sought-after ink artists, works at the city’s largest and best known studio: “La Cour des Miracles.” We join him in an electrified smart fortwo electric drive for a tour of the top spots where Toulouse recharges – and discharges any pent-up stress.
Mahell, you grew up in this city. How would you describe the character of Toulouse?
Mahell de Narval: Toulouse is a young-at-heart city with plenty of sun and a unique attitude to life. Many of us go to Paris at some point in our lives, but almost all of us return. At almost half a million inhabitants, Toulouse is a large city, but people still know each other. The scene is extremely vibrant; we tend to work together and for each other because we all grew up together. And although I work nearly every day, including weekends, the overall sense and feeling is one of relaxation.
If you have one of your rare days off – what’s the first thing you do?
Mahell de Narval: Since I really enjoy cooking, I’ll head for one of the markets; they also have such an amazing atmosphere. While the Marché Saint-Cyprien is more traditional and historic, the Marché Carmes is larger. Yet both plunge you head-first into the Toulouse way of life.
Marché Carmes is in the Old Town – any other must-sees in this area?
Mahell de Narval: Since I’m a total vinyl freak, my favorite spot in the Old Town is probably the Vicious Circle record store – they stock anything that’s great, from punk and metal to alternative, hip-hop, and electronic sounds. For amazing books – especially art tomes – I’d recommend the huge book store Ombres Blanches; it’s not far from here.
Time for lunch. Where shall we go?
Mahell de Narval: Let’s try Philibert, one of the city’s best restaurants. One of the owners is a trained butcher while the other was extremely well-known in the skate and graffiti community. Together, they’ve created a very elegant, but cool place to eat. Make sure you’re hungry if we go there for lunch – the daily three-course set menu is well worth it – or just order a la carte. I can recommend the faux filet with fries – it’s Philibert’s trademark dish and always a delight. Afterwards, you simply have to try what’s probably the world’s most incredible mousse au chocolat.
Over lunch, Mahell tells us how, when he was fifteen, he would watch the tattoo artists at a studio near his school – rather than finishing his homework. He also discussed how he developed his own, exceptional style he calls “black naïve,” which blends elements of modern art, traditional Japanese tattoos, Norse mythology, and the ligne clair of francophone comic artists like Hergé. Some of his clients flock to his studio from as far away as Scandinavia or the United States – the current waiting time for a tattoo by Mahell is three months. When he’s not busy transforming skin, he might illustrate record covers for rock bands or bottle labels for local craft breweries.
Your workspace, in the studio’s basement, relies on neon light. Is this where you develop your designs?
Mahell de Narval: Usually, I take my time designing and do it at home. The fountain on Place Dupuy, which we picked for the photo shoot, is very picturesque, but not really a usual location for me. I guess it’s probably the kind of place people imagine when they think where French artists get inspired. But I never attended art school – I’m a self-made artist. So, the photo is a bit ironic.
Mahell, what are the hip hoods in Toulouse at the moment?
Mahell de Narval: Many people now prefer the area in the south of the city to the slicker right bank of the Garonne. Life on the “left” is simply more quiet and laid-back. You can tell the Spanish border isn’t too far away. The best-known spot in this hood might be Les Abattoirs, our museum for modern and contemporary art. Right next to it, in the Jardin Raymond VI park, there’s also a fantastic spot for soaking up some springtime rays: People have built a new hothouse for urban gardening – i. e. a movement that’s obviously dear to my heart as a foodie and amateur chef.
Talking about food … any tips for a nice dinner?
Mahell de Narval: We won’t have to go far – right around the corner from my studio, try the restaurant Chez Yannick. Although it’s listed in the Michelin Guide, it has an incredibly lovely, intimate atmosphere. I’d order the jarret de bœuf, a beautifully tender beef simmered in red wine; it’s similar to osso bucco.
And afterwards …?
Mahell de Narval: … it’s time for a drink at Le Petit London, a tiny punk rock dive bar that’s been around since the 1980s. It’s more of a large living room with bar, burger grill, tables, and a small stage for live bands in the basement. Or we could head to the Dispensary food pub: It’s close to Les Abbatoirs and run by two friends. One of them is married to Jean who manages “La Cour des Miracles.” Both of the girls behind the Dispensary are from Britain, by the way, which guarantees the place’s Anglo-French authenticity.
Mahell de Narval is one of the busiest tattoo artists in France, popular for his monochrome illustrative style. He works at Toulouse’s largest and best known studio, “La Cour des Miracles”.
Local Secrets Toulouse:
La Cour des Miracles
3 Rue Idrac
7 Rue des Puits Clos
50 Rue Léon Gambetta
Historic market Saint-Cyprien
Place Intérieure Saint-Cyprien
1 Place des Carmes
5 Rue Riguepels
31000 Toulouse, Frankreich
76 Allées Charles de Fitte
Jardin Raymond VI
Allées Charles de Fitte
1 Rue Marthe Varsi
3 Rue Delacroix
Le Petit London
7 Rue Riquet