Theres an upbeat vibe to the hustle at Main and Hastings on this Sunday afternoon. The banter of dealers lounging outside Owl Drugs is jovial and laughter punctuates the clatter of shopping carts. Everyone seems in a good mood, the kind only sunshine inspires.
Its a crazy neighbourhood, but I love it, Shallom Johnson says as we exit her live/work studio across from the Carnegie Community Centre and enter into the fray. Its a perfect day to commit a crime.
In her bag, Johnson has all the necessary tools: a small container of water-soluble glue, paintbrush and an original piece of artwork a monochrome portrait of a young woman partially veiled by long, wind-whipped hair. Its an image shes been working with in gallery shows around town under the moniker Indigo, but today the piece is going up where her art career started, on the street.
On Pender, Johnson finds a spot she likes tucked inside the doorway of a hair salon. Her act of vandalism is complete in less than five minutes. A quick slap of glue, unravel, smooth and OK, I gotta get out of here.
Shes halfway across the street by the time I realize the urgency of the situation. Trotting behind her, we cross directly in front of a cop car whose driver thankfully doesnt give us a second look, and from a safe vantage point we pause to admire the work.
Its beautiful. The walls thick black paint offsets the portraits light grey tones brilliantly, as if it were intentional. I have to do more of that, she sighs.
"Putting up artwork outdoors has the potential to change peoples perspectives of how they view urban space and how they encounter and experience the space around them, Johnson tells me back at the studio. For me, it was a huge change in how I viewed my environment, being able to see things differently.
Given that philosophy, I wonder what to make of the fact that though Johnsons work can be found on walls in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and, by the time you read this,
Cape Town, South Africa, here, its largely absent from city streets. It seems like were missing out.
By Vancouver standards, Johnsons rise in the art world has been practically meteoric. After graduating from SFUs School of Contemporary Art in 2004 (where, I should note, we were classmates in the dance program) Johnson pulled a 180, going from a long-haired lyrical dancer to a mohawked street artist.
By 2008, she was running around Vancouver at 4am, postering, stenciling and painting and, in the great tradition of Vancouver artists, headed to Europe, where she won critical praise which translated into credibility at home.
Shes now assumed the role of de facto ambassador for Vancouver street art, teaching, curating and writing about the practice. Last month, she co-ordinated Unintended Calculations, the citys first large-scale graffiti-style mural painted by four internationally recognized artists on the Moda hotel.
But success has changed her work.
It means less time, and perhaps less motivation, to put art outdoors in Vancouver. Its a familiar story for many of Vancouvers more prolific street artists who got the attention of the art world by illegally placing their work in public and then slowly but surely migrated inside.
Being able to sell art helps me support putting it up outside for free. Unfortunately, it takes time away from doing anything outside, so I have a lot of the street work I do happening elsewhere, like when Im travelling, because I can finally get out of my studio, Johnson explains as she packs for a six-week residency in South Africa via London. There used to be way more active street artists here, maybe four or five years ago, she continues. People just lives change and they go different directions and there hasnt been a crop of new artists to really get the scene going again.
Which begs the question: If the art isnt on the street, is it still street art? No it isnt. Its something else, answers Bruce Grenville, senior curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Thats the paradox with what Grenville calls street-based art. While its the context of the work illegal, unsanctioned and in the public realm that catches the eye of curators like him, once it moves inside, the work is fundamentally changed; some might say it loses something.
Its a totally legitimate question, one you inevitably ask: Does Banksys art change when it moves inside? Grenville says, referring to the notoriously secretive U.K.-based artist. Is it no longer relevant within that stream? Well, it probably doesnt have the same connotation, thats for sure. Its a discussion Grenville had at length with Vancouver street artists Byron Cameraman and Office Supplies Inc., who he handpicked to create work for the VAGs current WE:Vancouver exhibit.
Its hard to begrudge artists a reprieve from the streets after obtaining a degree of commercial success. As Grenville points out, putting up work thats thought-provoking, well-placed and visually arresting in public on a consistent basis and thats key if youre going to get your name out there demands copious amounts of time, money and risk of legal repercussion.
Its utterly thankless, theres no chance of return, he says. However, if no other artists step in to fill the void, it does raise concerns about the health of the urban environment. Street artists are part of the fabric of the city, he says. They need to be there. If theyre not there, theres a problem probably.
So should we be worried about the current dearth of unsanctioned public work by Vancouvers crop of street artists? Grenville doesnt go that far. I dont think its representing the decline of the practice, he says, with a chuckle, but agrees the scene seems to be rather quiet lately. Id hate to see it disappear off the streets.
For Devitt Brown, aka the Dark, the street art paradox has been the source of much frustration, and the impetus behind his recent hiatus from working outside.
Brown finally broke into the gallery circuit a couple years ago, after more than five years plastering Vancouver streets at great personal expense. His large-scale images were designed to draw critical attention to the urban environment (think an 8x12-foot image of an anorexic model placed next to the Guess store on Robson).
When I first started, what really got me going about it was like Nobodys telling me, Im not asking anyone, its for free, its for me and whoever gets to see it, and its there for however long its there. Once its up, its not really mine anymore.
His arrival on the gallery scene coincided with the commercial explosion of street art as chronicled in the Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, which exposed an attitude toward street art that ssentially undermined Browns entire philosophy. The film offers a unique window into the world, but it also calls into question the artistic integrity of the whole practice through its portrayal of Mr. Brainwash, an artist who views the work as a commodity, mass-producing it in a manner that would put Henry Ford to shame.
For Brown, it was a slap in the face. I got really discouraged with that whole Mr. Brainwash/Banksy movie thing. I had a group show in L.A. the same weekend and I saw the work that other people made for him that he paid for, and the whole fucking thing was just like, it kind of made me a little sick. I was so fucking pissed off to see that, he says, balling his tattooed hands into fists. Its turned it into a circus act. Its like, heres this cool thing that I can put in a package and I can sell it to you because its cool; and I made it cool because all these people think its cool; and here you go: buy cool.
Adding salt to the wound: even after he landed gallery shows, Brown still couldnt make a living off his art in Vancouver, a city he says lacks the population, or perhaps the attitude, necessary to support street artists working in the public realm.
Even making it into the biggest gallery in town is no guarantee of financial success. Just ask as Byron Dauncey, aka Byron Cameraman. I have a lot of feathers in my cap, a show at the Monte Clark Gallery and a show at Vancouver Art Gallery, articles in the Globe and Mail and that kind of stuff, but as far as paying bills and selling work, its just not happening, he tells me, a note of defeat in his voice.
For Dauncey, street art was a means to an end, a way to get his art noticed by people like the VAGs Grenville. It worked, but not before he spent thousands of dollars on materials and months plotting locations for his intricate photographic installations. Oftentimes, the work would be removed immediately, in the same way an errant tag would be scrubbed off the side of a building. Vancouver, says Dauncey, could stand to be a little more tolerant of its art and its artists, sanctioned or not. I think the talent is here, but the support isnt here. The recognition of street art as art, or even the recognition of art as even being important, he says.
Thats an attitude Johnson hopes to change through projects like Unintended Calcualtions, the mural at the Moda painted by visiting artists Augustine Kofie (L.A.), Jerry Inscoe (Portland), Remi/Rough (London) and local rising star Scott Sueme. Despite its name, Unintended Calculations was anything but. It took Johnson months to gather the permits, letters of consent and liability waivers to get the go-ahead for the abstract mural, but she views it as a victory, a first step in getting Vancouver and Vancouverites accustomed to the way street art can improve the city, even draw tourists as it does in London, Paris, and Toronto. Shes hopeful more businesses and corporations will eventually come around to the idea, and offer space, sponsorship or gasp money to artists in exchange for permanent work. Without censoring content. Someone needs to be the person who makes it happen, to connect the dots, she says. But even if street art, Vancouver style, can find a way to go legit and stay outside, Johnson hopes other artists will still fill the unsanctioned spaces in the urban environment. Theres so much potential here. So many blank walls.