Vancouver's graffiti community seeks street space

Art or vandalism? It depends who you talk to

The Leeside Tunnel skateboard park, one of the more popular — and only legal — spots for graffiti artists to display their work in Vancouver provides visitors a small glimpse into the local underground world of graffiti. Despite the rebellious nature of non-commissioned street art, some artists have managed to turn their work into a livelihood while others have remained anonymous within the graffiti community.

Joel Alaouze has been developing his painting skills for more than 10 years. The 25-year-old “writer,” a term preferred by some graffiti artists, lives two lives — one as a restaurant manager and the other as an artist painting murals and pieces on public walls, both legally and illegally.

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Ultimately, he hopes more public walls, besides Leeside, will be made available for artists to paint on in Vancouver.

“It’s been a very large aspect of my life over the last eight to 10 years — more or less it was a good escape for me,” said Alaouze, whose parents divorced when he was younger. With his mother out of work and battling drug addiction, Alaouze dropped out of Grade 10 to work full-time to support his mother and two sisters. He said graffiti provided him with an outlet and allowed him to keep his sanity.

“It’s more a lifestyle than a hobby for a lot of us,” he said.

Another local artist, iHeart, who prefers not to use his real name, had the Internet buzzing about his stencil pieces when he pulled off an unsanctioned art show called #asignofthetimes at the Granville Loop Park at the south end of the Granville Street bridge in June. The exhibition highlighted the heightened role social media plays in graffiti culture.

“Social media can be really awkward and that’s the product of giving every person a platform to be heard,” said iHeart via email. “However, a lot of what people say should fall on deaf ears. I really like highlighting the awkward parts of social media that people seem to overlook.”

Some of iHeart’s pieces, which have drawn comparisons to the work of Banksy, incorporate or comment on aspects of social media, such as how many “friends,” “followers” or “likes” someone might get, or status updates about heading to the gym or feeding their cat.

The “buff,” a term used for graffiti cleaners and removers, wiped out the exhibition shortly after it went up.

Thanks to social media, graffiti subculture has grown and provided a way for artists to share and promote their art.

Artists such as Banksy, a world-renowned artist from England whose stencil graffiti work often involves a statement on a controversial issue or political problem, turned his work into a lucrative business, selling canvasses and making books and documentaries featuring his art, all the while keeping his true identity anonymous. His most expensive piece, “Keep It Spotless,” sold for $1.8 million in 2008.

Despite the popularity of artists such as Banksy and growing appreciation for graffiti as an art form, having it pop up on walls and public spaces is not necessarily appreciated.

Kendra Klemke, vice president of sales for graffiti removal company Goodbye Graffiti, said illegal graffiti affects how people perceive a neighbourhood.

“When there’s graffiti, there’s obviously a lot of negative impact within communities with regard to overall safety and perception of an area or a neighbourhood. So it’s important to keep them clean.” She also said Vancouver is one of the company’s largest markets because the city has been proactive in keeping its streets clean, especially compared to Toronto or Montreal where graffiti is more pervasive.

Vancouver also developed the Integrated Graffiti Management Program more than 10 years ago, which works to prevent illegal graffiti.

Scott Edwards, manager of street activities, which includes the Graffiti Management Program, said the city has recently developed an app that allows people to report civic issues such as graffiti. The management program sponsors murals on specific public places around the city to nourish artistic skills and steer writers away from vandalism.

“We support some of the up-and-coming artists in development of murals and we also work closely with the VPD and the court system to try and encourage those individuals that may be caught tagging, defacing, damaging and vandalizing property to encourage them to provide opportunities for a better outlet for their artistic capabilities,” said Edwards.

Constable Derek Wong of the Youth Squad and Anti Graffiti Unit of the Vancouver Police Department said that taking preventative measures is just as important as catching the suspected defacer.

“Definitely we’ve been putting some more emphasis on trying to determine the culprits. But [we’re] also trying to discover new ways and new programs where we can try to educate or remediate or try and curb the graffiti,” Wong said.

According to Alaouze, compared to other cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Australia, Vancouver has been slow to accept graffiti in public spaces like alleyways but he hopes that will change.

However, that option is already here, said Edwards, as long as the property owner is involved.

“We actually support those property owners to either keep it clean or actually work with people who might have an artistic skill to put a mural up, and it not only beautifies the city but it also invites the property owner to work with the artist on something that they might both appreciate doing,” said Edwards. “When it’s not invited on the property, it can often elicit concern from the property owner…We would prefer to have a more collaborative approach.”

Alaouze explained there’s a certain hierarchy for writers that many “toys” or newcomers in the subculture don’t understand but will eventually learn. It’s about respecting other people’s art and even the places where writers choose to display their art. “I wouldn’t go up and hit the front of a bank or hit something like that. I might do some SkyTrain stations because everyone hates the SkyTrain. You just don’t be stupid with it.”

Const. Wong added that the spots defacers choose to mark can have larger repercussions on business owners. “For the suspects, there’s no monetary gain, however for the victims, there’s a huge financial loss.

Not only do they have to suffer with regards to the remediation of the paint, depending if it’s on glass or stone, or how easy it’s to come off. For a small ma and pop shop at the corner store or those small businesses that aren’t making loads of money, it’s a lot of money off their bottom line,” said Wong.

Take5 is one of Vancouver’s most legendary and respected graffiti artists. Despite being paraplegic, he’s produced large, elaborate pieces that are highly regarded around the city. According to Alaouze, Take5 has earned a certain level of respect among the graffiti community, and his work largely remains untouched by other writers.

Alaouze hopes a better understanding of the subculture might promote some change in city bylaws and turn more alleyways into open spots where graffiti artists can showcase their work. He understands many taggers and “bombers” (graffiti writers that tend to do smaller, quicker types of work in larger quantities) may not share his viewpoint, but he thinks it would lessen the amount of graffiti on private property.

Alaouze is working on transferring his graffiti chops to canvas. Whether he’s successful or not, he said he’ll still be painting in public for a long time.

“Don’t just pass graffiti art as not an art form because it’s a stepping stone. It’s a stepping stone for many graphic artists that are worldwide now, for many digital artists, and musicians, and hip hop artists. This is an art form and an expression, just like any other. Give us the space and the time to do it.”


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