Ok, so before you get upset, I will openly admit that that title is clickbait. But to be honest, even after corresponding with the artist known as nicenothings, I’m still no closer to knowing who he is.
For context, if you don’t know the name nicenothings, you definitely have seen his work. Walking through just about any neighbourhood in Vancouver, you’ll see his smile tag, which has become synonymous with just about every public surface. Crosswalks, manhole covers, electrical boxes, the unobtrusive smile has somehow created a niche in graffiti where it’s no longer viewed as such. In a city where it’s been said that it’s hard to meet people, the smile offers a reminder to wanderers that a friendly deed can make lasting ripples.
Chatting to the artist, I asked if the symbol had any relation to Vancouver’s penchant for being emotionally inaccessible. “Zero relation”. Clearly, I was projecting a bit. “Vancouver just so happened to be the place where it began.” He told me. “Back in 2016, I was working a desk job that I hated. Every lunch hour, I would walk around downtown and started to notice loads of people looking at the ground before they crossed the crosswalk. So I started painting that smile right there. It was perfect; super visible but also low key.
With this subtle approach, the tag has steadily grown across the entire city over the years. “The more I painted it, the more it made sense to keep painting it. Seeing people smile is what it’s all about.”A solid mantra to subscribe to, especially now, as people have been getting more and more anxious over the last months. It’s a simple message that is instantly recognizable in identity and tone, despite still being anonymous.
The fact that there isn’t a formal artist name attached to it, and because it’s so easy to emulate, have been paramount in the symbol growing. I routinely see smiles in the nicenothings style that clearly weren’t done by him. A fact that seems to give the original artist warmth.
“I’m happy having no eyes on me. This isn’t about me, it’s about the message, so the more the better. It applies to all humans equally. so who am I to dictate if someone wants to put it somewhere. That’s not my place.” It’s an uncommon separation of art and ego that permeates through all the work he does. Without craving recognition and being content to have the art live and be repurposed, it makes it a much more personal experience.
Recently, I was taking a shortcut through an alley in Gastown and stopped to tie my shoe. As I knelt down, I saw that there was a tiny take on the nicenothings smile on the side of a nearby dumpster. It was oddly reassuring in the moment, that another person was here before me and we both have now shared this private place and moment.
It’s a reminder that good things can grow out of small, seemingly insignificant places.
So next time you see one of the smiles take it as a positive affirmation that things aren’t always as bleak as they may seem at a glance. Just as it may be only one smile, as you walk around they definitely add up to something more. nicenothings knows this too. When I ask if he knows the number of smiles across the city now: “No idea how many are out there. Nowhere near enough.”
For more info on nicenothings, visit https://nicenothings.com/