Graffiti: an art form without enough canvas

Tagging might be on the rise in Victoria, but don’t mistake that for graffiti says local artist

When Jean-Paul Thout arrived for work at Stillpoint Community Acupuncture in Vic West earlier this fall, he was greeted with a freshly spray painted tag bearing the name “Blank.” He figured it was probably just the handiwork of some bored teenager who probably needed a more constructive place to practice their art.

“I’d love for that person to come back and paint over it,” he says, but he doesn’t own the building. “I do believe real art of some kind does elevate the community.”

Thout’s reaction is the type local artist Nathan Davis appreciates. Davis, a sometime graffiti artist, has been advocating for more of what he calls legal walls – a place for the graffiti community to paint at will, without being tagged as vandals.

“This is the problem,” he says sitting inside Chinatown’s Fortune Gallery, where he often displays his work. “When people hear the word graffiti, they get nervous, they get scared, but graffiti covers a wide range.”

Graffiti, the manipulation of letters, has steadily gained popularity since the ‘80s, Davis says. So much so that it’s now become a staple in marketing campaigns, but tagging is just vandalism, he says.

“To get a legal wall, all we really need is to have someone that owns the property just say: ‘hey you know what, I’d like some artwork on here. I’m okay with you painting here.’ ”

What has prohibited other local business owners from offering up a “canvas” is a mystery to Davis, though he recognizes it could be the risk of what kind of content might end up there. There is a respect and a hierarchy of sorts in the graffiti community, which is filled with artists of all ages, he says. What one artist paints will eventually be painted over by another, but never tagged, and offensive material doesn’t last long with older artists mentoring younger ones.

It’s what Wildfire Bakery owner Erika Heyrman calls “an uncurated art gallery.” The side of her business on Quadra and Mason streets is a burst of colour for the eye for anyone heading south toward downtown. It’s one of only two legal walls in the city, the Vancouver Island School of Art is the second.

“The way we’ve always looked at it is – we moved into it,” she says, having owned and operated in that building since 2000. Heyrman says she’s developed a relationship with the artists and a mutual respect keeps the wall active, without offending anyone.

But she laughs, knowing this type of deal is rare. “This idea that it’s just an “anything goes”, free-reign sort of idea, is radical for people in Victoria.”

It’s something Davis hopes a new generation – one who grew up with graffiti – will help progress as they take on leadership roles, in the community and in business. “We’re the ones that can slowly start making some change,” he says citing the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria as an example; Davis is the first graffiti artist whose work the gallery has carried and sold.

He’s also taught drop-in classes for kids through Esquimalt Parks and Recreation teaching kids about graffiti art, and hopes to maybe employ the example set in Portugal recently, where a class for seniors introduced them to the art form.

“It’s not gangs, it’s not thugs, that’s your stereotype,” Davis says. “It’s art, and spray paint is just a medium.”


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