One of the questions that always comes up in discussions of street art is that of vandalism. How do you justify defacing public property? What about private property? Do you think there will ever be a point when the value of art is seen as equal to property rights?
I’ve always viewed street art as a form of civil disobedience so the term “vandalism” is open to interpretation in the same way that protesting can be construed as “disturbing the peace.” Given the systemic vandalism and violence that’s legally perpetrated on a daily basis by states, corporations and individuals against the environment, the economy, humans, animals and the well being of the world and its citizens in general, the vandalism practiced by street artists and graffiti artists is quaint by comparison. When I first started doing street art I had a sense that our lifestyles in general represented a form of violence against nature and therefore against our own best interests. The “business as usual” attitude that characterized the media, corporations, the government and the public in general seemed highly irresponsible and dysfunctional given the increasingly alarming indications of environmental deterioration in particular faced by the planet. A tendency to segregate issues such as the environment, the economy, human health and social well-being in general into distinct categories as opposed to viewing them as inter-dependent aspects of a whole suggested a myopic view. The “vandalism” that I and many graffiti artists and street artists have practiced has to be considered in the context of the industrial vandalism that’s a part of our everyday lives. I also chose to practice street art to question the hypocrisy implicit in the notion that public space is democratic when in fact, it caters more to corporations than it does to everyday citizens. This is evident by the prevalence and acceptance of corporate advertising on one hand and an intolerance for individual expression on the other whether it be in the form of graffiti or a poster affixed to a telephone pole advertising a local band, piano lessons or a lost cat. Acting in public space was a way of not simply pointing the finger sanctimoniously at corporations and goverments but of recognizing the need to take collective responsibility of our reality/destiny.
On the sake token, street art seems to lose some of its impact when it is commissioned or done in an otherwise legal way. How much meaning does street art derive from the fact that it’s illegal? Why did you work illegally when, in theory, you could have gone through legal channels and eventually gotten permission to do what you did?
I’ve always distinguished “street art” from “commissioned” or “public art” even though both may appear in or on the street and may be otherwise indistinguishable from one another. There is a spirit and a certain spontaneity that occurs in street art which does not, in my opinion, exist in the context of commissioned work. That’s not to say that public/commissioned art has less value. I think there are many advantages to working in a legal context and the expressive and political impact of a commissioned piece can be greater than that of a non-commissioned one. Having said that, the automatic impact that exists in street art by virtue of its illegality lends a certain conviction and weight that can’t be reproduced in a legal context. The implicit message is one of rebellion and that energy is as present in the hastily executed tag as it is in the most sophisticated and premeditated example of street art or graffiti. I think it’s also possible to be rebellious in the context of a commission but it often feels distorted and contrived. I’m not a purist though and don’t feel that street art and public/commissioned art are mutually exclusive. Working “within the system” can be as important and as valid as working outside of it despite the varying potential and quality of expression. My decision to work illegally rather than asking permission to do so wasn’t necessarily a rational one. I just assumed that there was no chance that I’d get permission to do what I did and based on my experiences since then, I’d say my assumption was correct. Although I’ve received permission from the City to do work on the street, the process is relatively onerous and the restrictions and limitations stringent enough that the work I was doing prior to my arrest would have been impossible via official legal channels. As they say, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.
Do you have any idea how many interventions (for lack of a better term) you took part in before your arrest? In other words, just how many of your stencils were there between 2001 and 2004? What about since then?
I never really counted but I estimated that I laid down at least 300 hundred stencils between 2001 and 2004. After my arrest in 2004, the interventions were primarily in the context of legal commissions although I’ve continued to do street art since that time both inside and outside of Montreal albeit to a less prolific degree.
You’ve noted before that there hasn’t been much art criticism of your work. Why do you think this is?
I’m not sure why that is but I don’t spend a lot of time seeking it out so maybe there is criticism out there that I’m not aware of. I can only speculate but one reason might be the fact that street art is not really considered serious art and therefore unworthy of an art critic’s attention. Even though I’ve done a lot of public art it resembles street art enough that I’ve always been considered a “street artist”. I’ve never really been inducted into the world of galleries and museums in which “serious” art supposedly resides and where art critics direct their focus despite the fact that I’ve participated in various gallery run exhibitions. I suspect that the kind of work I do might be considered naive and “light” by art critics… not that I necessarily take issue with that. I’m definitely not immune to criticism though and am more impressionable than I’d like to be when it comes to what others think. Maybe it’s a blessing that I’ve been spared artistic criticism since it’s allowed me to maintain a level of confidence in what I’m doing. On the other hand, I’m prone to moments of doubt when I question the artistic merits of my work and suspect that the lack of critical attention is proof of that. At the end of the day I get enough personal pleasure from what I do and feel that others, even if it’s just kids and their mothers, do too that I don’t spend too much time worrying about it. When I started doing street art, it was if anything, a response to advertising, my immediate surroundings and my feelings about the world in general rather than an effort to be acknowledged or accepted by the art world. The people I wanted to communicate with, to initiate a dialogue with, were everyday people in the street and not just the relatively small percentage of those that frequent art galleries and museums. These and other institutions represent a system and hierarchy of critics and curators who ultimately decide what constitutes “art” and whose careers and reputations are contingent upon this definition. That’s not to say there isn’t value in this kind of expertise but it was never a concern of mine to appeal to it. The fact that street art, at least in the true sense of the term, lies outside of this system makes it hard to situate, define and justify. In some senses it could even be viewed as a threat to that system since it bypasses the vetting process that an artist is usually subject to before gaining access to a public audience. Street art completely obliterates this process and dispenses altogether with the “middle man”.
Have you seen any evolution in the attitude of Montreal towards street art, public art interventions or the like? What about in the other cities where you’ve worked?
I think the world wide popularity of street art in recent years has created a certain openness to different forms of public art as long as it’s officially controlled. There are more and more sanctioned walls for graffiti artists and events that feature work by street artists but as far as I can tell, the intolerance for unsanctioned expression is as strong as ever. The proof of this is in the anti-graffiti policies that exist in most cities, including Montreal, which seem to be getting more and more severe despite dubious results. I think that graffiti is a popular cause of politicians because it is easy to identify and good for appearances. Everyone’s seen the photo ops featuring mayors with their sleeves rolled up, power spraying graffiti from a wall. It’s a visible way to show that work is getting done and distracts from the more serious, complicated problems that cities are faced with.
One of your original aims was to critique car culture. Montreal has done a lot to promote bicycle use and reduce car use in the past few years, especially on the Plateau. What do you think of this? Where can the city improve in this regard?
It’s true that the situation for cyclists has improved in recent years, especially in the Plateau and Montreal has become one of the most cyclist friendly cities in North America. The city seems to be moving in the right direction on that front due in large part to the fact that it’s finally acknowledging the high percentage of the population that uses cycling as a primary mode of transportation. For a long time, bike paths seemed to be designed merely for recreational use and they could usually be found in and around parks but were inadequate from a practical point of view. Conditions for cyclists are better but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. In my view, there should be bike lanes on every single street just as there are sidewalks. This would not only diminish the number of cyclists that are killed or maimed every year (an acquaintance of mine was killed recently when he was run over by a truck while riding his bike) but it would encourage more people, who are understandably discouraged from competing with cars and trucks, to take up cycling. The more people cycling and using public transportation, the healthier people and the city would be in general both from a physical and psychological standpoint. And it would save cash strapped cities money in the long run in both health care costs, due to improved air quality and a fitter population and by diminishing wear and tear on road surfaces. This is above and beyond the obvious advantages of limiting our use of fossil fuels whose potential for catastrophic damage is well known. It’s a no brainer in my opinion.
What do you like about Montreal? What kept you here for so many years after moving from Toronto and graduating from university? Do you ever think about moving somewhere else?
I like the scale of Montreal and the tension that exists between the francophone and anglophone communities. Some view this as problematic but I think it can be a positive tension if people are not feeling overly threatened, abused or marginalized. This and a strong immigrant population is what I think makes Montreal dynamic and special among North American cities. I think I will always consider Montreal home but having discovered and fallen in love with many different cities over the years, I’ve often entertained the thought of living elsewhere.
Where are your favourite places to hang out? Which parts of town do you find most inspiring?
I like to hang out with my kids in various parks around where I live such as Parc Lafontaine or Parc Laurier. If I’m solo I like to ride along a bike path that runs alongside the train tracks that cross the northern width of the Plateau. It’s also fun to hang out in the train yard and along the train tracks themselves where you can enjoy some relative peace and quiet in proximity to the hustle and bustle of the city.
It would be nice to know a bit about your home life. Can you tell me about your family? I assume you met your wife after you were already working as an artist — what’s her take on your work? Can you describe a typical day in your life?
I met my wife just prior to the time I started to doing street art in 2001. She’s always been supportive of me and even assisted me on some of my earliest forays into street art. On a couple of occasions when we were laying down a stencil and a cop car would approach, we would start smooching as a decoy; a way of saying “nothing to see here.” Of course it was also a great excuse for a smooch. She’s also helped a lot with logistical and administrative matters when dealing with commissions and some of the larger projects that I’ve worked on. We have two young children so our days start a lot earlier than they used to and are full of responsibilities that I couldn’t have imagined prior to parenthood. That added responsibility’s forced me to sharpen my focus though and being exposed to the youthful energy and spirit of children has, I think, rubbed off on me creatively…If only I could find the time to exercise some of that creativity. It’s hard not to sound cliche when talking about parenthood I guess because it’s such a universal experience.
Where exactly did you grow up in Toronto? What school did you go to?
I was born in North Toronto and grew up around Young and St. Clair. I attended High School at Jarvis C.I.
What kind of materials do you use — specific kinds of paint, material used for stencils, etc.?
It depends on the project and the concept that’s being executed. Most often I’ll simply cut stencils out of cardboard that I buy at the dollar store (2 sheets for a dollar) and tape them together depending on how large an image I want to create. In the past I used a lot of masonite which is a wood composite that can be cut using a circular saw or a jig saw. This would come in handy particularly on projects where there was a lot of image repetition. I also used it a lot when doing street art since the material is heavy enough that it won’t be blown around by the wind and can even be left in the street and run over by cars without getting damaged. This gave me a lot more flexibility and allowed me to quit the scene in a hurry if a police cruiser showed up for example, without worrying that I would lose the stencil. When I first started doing street art I used street paint (paint used for road markings, street lines etc.) out of a gallon bucket and applied it through a stencil using a brush. This proved to be quite messy until I discovered street paint in aerosol form which brought my game to a whole new level. Since that time though, I try to limit my use of spray paint. Nowadays, I mostly use house paint of one kind or another which can be applied through a stencil with the use of a roller or an electric spray gun. More and more, I’ll execute pieces without the use of stencils or at least by creating what I call “in situ stencils” which involves drawing out an image with chalk and outlining it with masking tape or simply doing a way with the masking tape altogether. This is particularly useful when doing large pieces which don’t involve a lot of repetition.
What is your process for developing commissioned work? How long does it take you to come up with a concept for an installation? Where do you draw your inspiration, beyond the space itself?
Yes, the first thing I look at when developing a commissioned work is the space itself but a space is more than just a physical entity. It represents the confluence of several factors including the function that it serves, the people that use it, the way that it’s used and experienced, the history that it was witness to and a variety of other psychological and non-physical factors that are both distinct from and directly related to the physicality of the space itself. In this sense, my approach resembles that of an architect. I’ll then focus on one or a combination of these factors and try to come up with imagery that reflects or emphasizes them in some way. One of the best ways to highlight aspects of a space is through contrast. The Eaton Center installation in Montreal is a good example of this. The space is dominated by slick surfaces made up of glass and steel so I wanted to contrast this with something more rough and organic looking. It was an attempt to contrast the slick and sterile look of the space itself that led to the decision to use cardboard and other forms of recycled material as building material for the installation. I also like to transform a space by creating absurd situations and by introducing surreal and often over-sized imagery that’s completely out of place. Creating this kind of contrast has the unexpected effect of revealing and drawing attention to the space itself.
Regarding the Eaton Centre installation(s) – how was it to work on such a big project in a very commercial setting? Are you happy with how it turned out?
It was exciting to have the opportunity to work in such a large indoor public space since it represented such a departure from the usual spaces I was given to work with which often involved asphalt. The fact that this space happened to be a shopping mall made the task that much more challenging since more than with other projects, I was in a position where I had to conceive of an installation that would be acceptable to the client (the Eaton Center) but that would also be true to my own feelings about the space. In other words, I was in a position that many artists who do commissions have found themselves in over the centuries. At first, it was proposed that I conceive of a design that could be transferred onto vinyl and affixed to various surfaces of the mall. Having created several large scale installations in the past, I was familiar with the amount of waste this often entails and I told myself that I would do my best to limit the amount of waste in future installations. So the thought of producing massive vinyl stickers that would be thrown in the trash once the exhibit was over seemed vaguely depressing to me at the time. This and the fact that another artist by the name of Phil Allard had created a sculpture at the Eaton Center a couple of years previously using discarded water bottles, gave me the idea of constructing the installation using the material (cardboard, plastic water bottles, coat hangers etc.) generated by the mall itself. And there was definitely no shortage of materials to work with. When I first proposed the idea, I didn’t think that the client would accept it. By exposing the waste generated by the mall the installation could be construed as critical of the Eaton Center and consumerism in general – that was definitely part of the intention- so I didn’t think they would be open to this kind of self-criticism. Or if it was accepted, I assumed it would be watered down in some way. I was surprised to learn that they had no reservations whatsoever and were prepared to see the project through. I wasn’t sure if this was because they were in fact open to a degree of self-criticism or whether it wasn’t perceived as being critical at all. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out in the end even though there were aspects that I would’ve done differently or that could have been improved upon. There were also other elements conceived for the installation that were never completed due to a lack of time and budget. I’m also aware of the fact that as much as the installation influenced the space in the shopping center, the opposite was true as well. In other words the roughness and somewhat organic look and feel of the recycled materials toned down the slick, sterile look of the shopping center and subdued some of its own rawness in the process.
Also, you mentioned that you had had some run-ins with the police before your arrest. Why did you decide to press on with your work regardless?
My first run in with the police which involved being detained in hand cuffs for a few hours, did in fact spook me enough that I went on hiatus for several months even though I wasn’t actually fined anything. My second run in happened at least a couple of years later but strangely, it actually encouraged me to continue doing what I was doing because it seemed at the time that the police were unaware of my other activities and the extent to which I had already bombed the city. If they had, I reasoned, they wouldn’t have let me go and charged me such a small fine equivalent to that of a parking ticket. It seemed to me that they were treating this as an isolated incident. I was definitely humbled by the incident and didn’t plan to do much more in the way of street art but I had the mentality of the addict that thinks he can pull off just one more. Of course I was wrong to think that the police had treated the last incident as an isolated one. Not long after I was arrested and it was apparent that there was in fact a file of evidence that had been growing against me for some time.