Weaving through the busy sidewalks of Granville Street, head bowed over a screen as I heed the Pavlovian ding of my incoming text messages, I retrieve a description of who to look for at the designated meeting spot on Hastings Street. “I’m out front with a bucket and pole. Hard to miss.”
It’s the tail end of summer and I’m fresh off an inspiring trip to the street and graffiti art mecca of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Now back in Vancouver, my resolve is focused on sourcing the best examples of urban art in the city.
Initially encouraged by the recent addition of the behemoth OSGEMEOS mural on Granville lsland by Brazilian artists Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo, my quest turns a bit challenging as I glance down manicured streets lined with glass towers, with no trace of my target visuals in sight. That said, there is street and graffiti art in Vancouver – you just have to know where to look for it.
Standing out front of a record shop, artist Troy Steen, otherwise known as Wrk(less), is clutching a long brush with a ring of silver keys dangling from his camouflage shorts. Those who are familiar with downtown Vancouver have likely come across his work that sometimes combines Breaking Bad-influenced imagery with a stylized touch.
Being that there are strict city regulations around street art and mural work, Steen works in studio on paper, and then installs the pieces with a homemade paste that is applied with a long brush to smooth out the air pockets. This method not only sees work that is applied in minutes, it also allows the artist to create pieces in detail as their schedules allow. These wheat paste works serve as temporary creative shrines as paint is not applied to the building exteriors, like with traditional mural work.
Heading into the back alley behind Hastings, we move through a corridor of hidden painted gems that are barely visible from the street. A crimson luchador rolls his eyes in our direction as we meet the gaze of a snowy-haired man with a long beard. Layers of paper and paint speak to ongoing collaborations, while Steen scopes out prime real estate for three new pieces, which are currently rolled under his arm. Shortly after, an alien in silhouette pays tribute to H.R. Giger, head lowered in respect to the passing of a creative master. Following that, an urban Shiva sits cross-legged with multiple arms holding cans of spray paint at the ready. The final installation sees a Stormtrooper in hip hop gear, poised and ready to bust out a rhyme or two.
As we exit the alley, Steen takes the time to point out a massive wall that flanks a parking lot just off of Hastings and Hamilton. Previously, this site had been home to a rotating gallery of quality murals by a slew of local artists who regularly met to collaborate in the space. Given a recent crackdown, the last mural was entirely covered with red paint, which in essence serves as a blank slate invitation for the type of illegal tagging that the public often tragically lumps together with thoughtful street and graffiti art work by skilled artists.
In a growing number of urban centres throughout the world, curated urban art serves as the voice of the people, speaking to concepts around politics, social injustice, and the importance of freedom and human connection. What’s better is that these urban spaces are open to everyone – an inclusive forum for discussion and direct interaction. The presence of street and graffiti art are even noted by some as providing value to a neighbourhood, with frequent references to Soho in New York City where flocks of locals and tourists gather to bask in the painted landscape.
Mark Anderson, a Vancouver artist who creates murals and restores heritage structures in the city, notes that these painted pieces are also a beautiful way to pay tribute to the history of a building, as with the mural that he produced on the historic Vogue Theatre. Anderson has been diligently working within city bylaws, and often collaborates with property owners in pursuit of new pieces. He shares that he sees the future of street art in Vancouver moving towards vinyl murals that can be applied directly onto glass surfaces.
My cell phone is soon buzzing with the energetic voice of Milan Basic, artist with Hi-Fi Murals and creative partner of Anderson (who has kindly connected us). Basic speaks from his current work site, a massive mural near Clark and Hastings (which I sadly didn’t get to) where he has been granted the rare opportunity for full creative freedom. With an overall approach that is rooted in collaboration and mentorship, Basic has done a lot of work in Northern British Columbia, along with custom ghost signs. These murals see the application of paint to look as though they are faded relics from another time – a look that is quite popular at the moment. Together with Anderson, Basic is working on launching a creative collective in the city.
While there is currently a woeful lack of street and graffiti art in Vancouver, the discussions that are happening within the local creative community are encouraging. As the citrus-hued faces of the OSGEMEOS characters stare across the city, a new energy beckons both inhabitants and visitors alike to open the door a little wider.
On the importance of remaining active and engaged in order to promote changes in relation to urban art in Vancouver, Steen repeats a mantra: “You gotta keep showing up.”
With this in mind, for an authentic taste of the local Vancouver street art scene, mark your calendars for the opening of the Streets exhibition at Hot Art Wet City. The gallery is owned and operated by Chris Bentzen, a champion of the local creative community, with this particular show sporting an impressive array of work by local wheat paste and stencil artists iHeart, Joy, Slingshot, Wrk(less) and MW Bowen.
The opening reception for Streets will take place on Friday, September 5 from 7 – 11pm. If you want to check out the work in before the reception, there is an advance preview today from 12 – 8pm.
Time to gather up your best gallery duds and head out, because in the end, you gotta keep showing up.
Words and photos ©Ehren Seeland