I recently had the honor of being a featured contributor to 4AM Magazine published by Programme Graffiti Lachine. Having been documenting and researching graffiti writing culture for over a decade it was nice to be a part of the winter 2017-2018 issue not just as a returning photo contributor but also to share some of my thoughts and ideas concerning the local Montreal scene. For whatever reason the article was misprinted and there was a considerable amount of it left out rendering it incomplete and somewhat incoherent. This write up took some time and effort to put out so it was a disappointment to see it not printed in its entirety in the finished product. I have decided to post it here and hope that those who got the magazine will be able to read and appreciate the complete article.
Contemporary signature based graffiti writing has a history in Montreal spanning nearly two and a half decades. In the early to mid-1980s graffiti writing began to rise in prominence in and surrounding the island of Montreal. Back then only a handful of writers were getting up and had to compete with the abundance of politically motivated scrawls and slogans which dominated the streets. These writers had mainly been inspired by the growth and diffusion of graffiti out of Philadelphia and New York and began to actively take space in Montreal streets. By the late 80s and into the early 1990s more writers emerged shifting the tone and content towards name based forms and characters. Writers from Europe (France in particular) also started to come through Montreal and influenced the local subculture in new ways which, along with the flavors and styles from the United States, helped to give Montreal graffiti and street art a uniquely cosmopolitan character. The mid-1990s saw an increase in political and language based writings in large part connected to the 1995 referendum, and by the later part of that decade signature based graffiti writing had become ubiquitous with Montreal’s urban landscape. It was also at this time that signature based graffiti was deemed a major social problem and those who practised it were condemned, vilified, and heavily policed. Graffiti was dirty, dangerous, illegal, and cost tax payers tens of thousands of dollars a year to clean up.
In the late 90s and early 2000s Under Pressure (first held in 1996 as Aerosol Funk) was in its fledgling years, having established the first, and still longest (21 years), running convention for graffiti artists and hip hop culture in North America. It did well to acclimate the city’s population and media to the more artistic and finely painted representations of what was overwhelmingly considered to be a blight. Other events across the island have also been instrumental in the familiarization of graffiti to the public over the years such as Do It Jam in Lachine (early 2000s), Hip Hop You Don’t Stop –Graffitude in NDG (2005 – present and in conjunction with Elementality), and Meeting Of Styles when it was held on Bleury and Saint Catherine’s. Even one-time events like Bombe Sur La Main in 2010 have had a part in changing perceptions and showing the fine artistic side of signature graffiti to the general public. These events have also been in conjunction with the prevention programs in Lachine, NDG, and Ville-Marie which have actively been involved in supporting graffiti arts over the years in an effort to both professionalize streets-based arts and give youth positive outlets to explore their artistic interests.
By the time I had begun to document the local scene in 2003, Montreal had already gone through at least two main waves of graffiti and several generations of writers. Many claimed that graffiti had come and gone in the city and that its greatest moments had passed into a history that only few truly and fully appreciated. Certainly graffiti had changed a great deal over the years but it was not dead on any account. From what I had witnessed graffiti had matured and changed forms; graffiti art had grown in popularity and reception even with the continued high frequency of street bombing. A number of local writers took their streets-based writing to semi-professional levels painting graffiti productions and murals on the walls of properties and businesses. Across the island but most popularly in the Plateau, St. Henri, and the East end, graffiti productions and murals graced many restaurants and small businesses where artists were often given permission or were paid small commissions to splash color, style, characters and letter forms for those eager to cover up the unsightly tags covering their walls.
Graffiti muralism was already a well-established practice in the city: CBF, DA, TA/UX were doing permission and commission work along with ICM , Trife Life, NME, AG, and a host of other writers who were independently acquiring walls such as Akira, Dfek, Flow, Seaz, Zek, Monk-e, Axe, Stare, and Ware (among many others). These writers and crews established some of the first relationships between local property owners and businesses with the subculture and helped to engender the sort of thinking which led to larger and more spectacular wall painting projects and festivals we are seeing today. Presently, the work of Stare or the artist run production company A’Shop are probably two of the best examples of this at the professional level to-date. Stare has been painting walls in the city close to fifteen years, and most, if not all, of the members of A’Shop have backgrounds in graffiti and have combined their talents to produce a number of similarly themed murals in the city and abroad over the years to great success.
At the same time there are still many classical (academic) style murals being painted (such as those by mural arts organization MU but also by municipal programs across the island). Although some the artists who have painted for these organizations and programs have backgrounds in graffiti or street art, they are mostly painted using fine arts and design approaches. Combined there have been over 100 such murals produced across the island in a number of boroughs. These projects have also forged strong relationships with the property owners and communities that they have painted in and continue to build and nurture these relations with every new project. Perhaps the most overt evidence of this shift in narrative has been the growth and popularity of Mural Festival (first held in 2013) in the Plateau area of Montreal along St. Laurent Boulevard. With substantial support from local businesses, property owners, and the municipal government the festival has developed into one of the more popular yearly attractions showcasing both home-grown and international artistic talent. Many of the local and international wall painters involved in the yearly festival have backgrounds in graffiti and street art and the festival organizers do well to accommodate these interests. Mural Festival has annually showcased the talents of local writers and artists on some of the largest and well positioned walls with top shelf given to one of Montreal’s all-time top writers, Scan, in its inaugural year.
Although local writing culture and graffiti art have been kept relevant through the efforts of local artists, events, and organizations, and one of the largest concerns which remains has been the loss of wall space to new mural art projects and festivals. Many of the walls that murals are being painted on are the same which graffiti writers have historically bombed and then later painted permission or commission productions or murals on. These are walls they have worked hard to regulate and maintain over the years. As festivals continue to expand they appropriate these former graffiti walls for muralism, effectively erasing a history of writing and the names of those who helped to establish the culture of contemporary wall painting in this city. The attitudes of the public, property owners, and proprietors have shifted with the narrative as well, who see the rising popularity of monumental wall painting and the type of aesthetics involved –mostly photo realism, portraiture, and super graphics (large graphical designs that are applied with vibrant colors, usually in patterns or geometric shapes, over walls or floors and ceilings making the illusion of altered space) –as more appealing and so are less inclined to continue permitting or paying graffiti artists to paint productions or murals which are typically not as large and contain elements which are too similar in form to graffiti lettering and free hand characters. Even the members of A’Shop have to contend with the interests and demands of their clients who are less and less interested in having anything overtly graffiti themed in their murals.
As graffiti productions and murals are slowly replaced with large-scale contemporary murals, there are mixed reactions from community. Older writers who have turned to painting large scale murals (including those from A’Shop or who participate in Mural Festival) are targeted by a younger generation of bombers who consider them to be ‘sell outs’ or lacking any more street credibility which inflames the relations between older and newer generations. Older writers who have professionalized their talents lose interest in being associated with the younger elements on the street who lack historical knowledge and disrespect them with their cross outs. As well, older writers, including those who independently pursue the painting of local walls, find themselves struggling to maintain their hold on older walls, and finding new ones on which to paint by permission or for commission. There has also been concern that increasingly, more and more wall space is being given to international artists who have little to no connection to the communities that they are painting in. They are appreciated that is for sure, but their time is fleeting, more ephemeral than the walls they paint, they may only be there for a week or ten days at most before they go off to the next wall in the next city, country, and festival. As much as this engenders an appreciation for different forms, styles, and messages, there is less and less connection between the artist and where they are painting. In an odd and ironic twist, an illicit form of writing and taking space (graffiti) has led to the engendering of a stronger sense of responsibility and connection to one’s community through graffiti productions and muralism. For some who have taken their graffiti muralism to monumental levels this translates into a certain sense of civic ownership and pride for one’s streets, regulating and maintaining walls, taking responsibility (more than just the space) over a wall as a sort of resident artist.
Ultimately, as we move forward it is important to both recognize those who have made contributions to the growth and development of the subculture and to nurture the relations between successful more experienced artists and the younger generations of writers who are eager to pursue in their footsteps and make their own mark. We need to make space for new forms of artistic expression but also to respect the space that older generations and traditions have worked hard to establish and maintain. Festivals and municipal programs on the island of Montreal have generally done well to do this, incorporating both graffiti muralism and experienced artists into their projects to develop lasting relations between them and the emerging generations of street artists and graffiti writers. It is not just how graffiti paved the way to street art and then to contemporary forms of muralism, but how writers and artists have inspired and driven us to continually create, innovate, and push ourselves to achieve greater accomplishments, individually and collectively. That is the true legacy of names, commemorating those who have passed but also recognizing those who have helped to make the current art worlds of graffiti, street art, and contemporary muralism possible. We owe it to them to continue that project, to keep inspiring each other, to push ourselves, the medium and the community to even greater heights.