Register Friday | October 22 | 2021

The City as Canvas

Graffiti and Stencil Art from New York to Montreal

If you live in the city, there’s a good chance you’re surrounded by street art. Take a look out your window; see any? There’s probably some graffiti in the alley or a strange stencil on the back door of the restaurant down the street. Maybe this afternoon you were walking home and noticed a bright new piece of graffiti on the side wall of a tall building. Street art is now as ubiquitous as trash cans or mailboxes—probably more so, considering that a magic marker has likely had its way with each of those. Graffiti is the most common form of street art and it causes strong reactions in the people who live with it. Some revile it, some love it, but still, it’s there. And it’s fascinating.



Faces on Clark Street, Montreal.


Baby-faced graffiti in a Plateau alley, Montreal.



Graffiti goes way back—at least two millennia back, since archaeologists discovered graffiti in the long-buried streets of Pompeii. Some of it was political, a running commentary on the local mayors and town councillors. Most, however, was more common: Lucius pinxit (Lucius painted this), Myrtis bene felas (Myrtis gives good blow jobs) or maybe Suspirium puellarum Celadus thraex (Celadus the Thracier makes the girls moan!). Graffiti as we know it today, though, is more recent, the product of the late 1960s New York. One of the earliest publicized graffiti writers was a seventeen-year-old Greek kid from Washington Heights, who scrawled his tag—Taki 183, an amalgam of his nickname and his street—on hundreds, maybe thousands, of surfaces throughout the city. “I just did it everywhere I went,” he told the New York Times in 1971. “You don’t do it for girls; they don’t seem to care. You do it for yourself.”

That individualistic approach to graffiti didn’t make its way to Montreal until the mid-1990s, when traditional political graffiti gave way to New York–style tags and murals. You can still see remnants of the old-style graffiti in duelling inscriptions of “Oui” or “Non” or in little fleurs-de-lis accompanied by that perennial question, “Qui est Québécois?” But as old paint fades away, the city’s graffiti has hit a more creative note. Today, a number of Montreal graffiti writers are internationally renowned, thanks to the art’s emergence into mainstream culture and to websites like Bombing Science.



Political graffiti and an Omen piece, Montreal.


Random tags on Bernard Street, Montreal.

Chris Hand is the owner of Zeke’s Gallery on St. Laurent Boulevard, which specializes in mounting premier solo shows for visual artists, and occasionally represents and exhibits graffiti artists. Hand has dabbled in the métier himself, having first picked up a can of spray paint twenty years ago. Graffiti, he says, is by and large the product of big, densely populated cities: “When everything is anonymous, it becomes numbing. Graffiti relieves that.” Unlike more traditional forms of visual art, graffiti transforms the ordinary urban landscape into a vast and nuanced canvas. Hand is hesitant to make a distinction between traditional art and graffiti—“You’ve been hanging out in places like the Louvre and the Met too long,” he tells me—but a vital difference does exist. Those who attend vernissages or art exhibits do so by choice, but graffiti engages people in their everyday environment, forcing them to reconsider their notion of urban space.

Of course, not everybody reacts well to this. Some people have a visceral, deeply negative reaction to graffiti and lash out against it; others consider it a nuisance. It’s an understandable sentiment, if not always justified. For many Americans, the explosion of graffiti in 1970s New York is linked inextricably to that city’s decline. Abandoned buildings throughout the five boroughs were festooned with tags, as was every available inch of the subway. When Mayor Koch cracked down on crime in the 1980s, he made a point of declaring war on subway graffiti. But street art wasn’t the cause of New York’s decline. Near-bankruptcy, skyrocketing crime and a struggling economy forced the city to cut back on all but the most essential of services. Cops were too busy fighting an epidemic of muggings to deal with a few pesky kids with spray cans. Still, graffiti’s bad reputation persists. In 2003, the British parliament passed the Anti-Social Behaviour Act, which bans the sale of spray paint to those under sixteen and gives municipalities the power to remove graffiti from private property without consent. Similar measures are being taken by police around the world. Montreal is no exception, with the police announcing last February that they, too, would crack down on “anti-social behaviour.”



Writing in a Mile End alley, Montreal.


Piece on a Water Street scaffold, Vancouver.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from this kind of repression is graffiti prevention. Frederick Haryszyn runs one such program, Graffitable, in the Notre Dame de Grâce district of Montreal. Proactive rather than reactive—“It’s not really anti-graffiti,” Haryszyn is quick to specify—the program seeks out budding young graffiti artists and focuses their talent on sanctioned murals and graphic design, giving them the chance to work alongside older, more experienced artists. “We’re not here to tell people that [graffiti] is wrong,” Haryszyn says. Far from it: he himself has been writing graffiti for more than a decade. “You definitely get caught up with it,” he confesses. “I guess it’s the adrenaline.”

So far, the project has been a success. The community has given the organization its blessing and Haryszyn is constantly being offered opportunities to create new murals. Two years ago, the City of Montreal started a similar program, Projet Graffiti. It provided jobs for seventy-seven people under the age of thirty, received nearly $5 million in government funding and produced some striking collections of graffiti around the city. But the project ended this past September, after some city councillors expressed fears that Projet Graffiti promoted illegal graffiti, and there are no apparent plans to continue it. “Now [the city] is definitely back to repression style,” says Haryszyn. “Last year, a graffiti crew got busted really hard. Unfortunately, it comes in waves.”



Graffiti high above Mont Royal Avenue, Montreal.


Throw-ups on a Park Avenue bank, Montreal.

Purists would say that the constant tug-of-war with authority is an integral part of graffiti’s spirit, or that writing it illegally gives it more edge or artistic meaning. They might have a point. Going through official channels of approval is cumbersome; nobody likes red tape. Besides, much of graffiti’s appeal derives from the fact that it’s random and unexpected, a break from the relentless regulation of our lives.

Take Roadsworth, for example. Born and raised in Montreal, this thirty-year-old artist has created some of the city’s most inventive and interesting graffiti by applying his stencils to asphalt. He described his work this past summer as “what would happen if the guys who are hired by the city to paint the lines on the street decided to drop acid while on the job.” Roadsworth’s work is a playful riff on the symbols used to govern our movements: solid white lines become perches for owls; lane dividers are transformed into zippers; crosswalks are embroidered and protected by barbed wire. On one level, it makes us rethink all the arbitrary symbols that govern city life. After all, what’s the point of having a zebra crossing if Montreal motorists (even police!) don’t respect the pedestrian’s right to cross? On another level, it’s funny and aesthetically pleasing—yet another patch added to the urban quilt.



Examples of Roadsworth stencils, various locations in Montreal.



Roadsworth’s stencil graffiti is part of a new wave of street art, far more creative and interesting than those first primitive tags that covered early-1970s New York. The end result is an urban melee that is endlessly interactive: anybody with a can of paint, a pen or some paper can contribute. The effect on our urban space is obvious. “Boring,” declares a piece of graffiti painted on a looming concrete wall, an artist’s revolt against a brutalist no man’s land. Thanks to that artist, though, that space isn’t boring anymore. In the end, that’s what graffiti does: it makes cities so much more interesting.


Roadsworth has been arrested. Last week, the stencil artist, whose real name is Peter Gibson, was charged with eighty-five counts of public mischief after being caught at work. Gibson, whose work will be exhibited at Zeke’s Gallery in the new year, faces the possibility of jail time or thousands of dollars in fines. According to Chris Hand, the officer in charge of Roadsworth’s case has said the last person she charged with a similar offence was fined $50,000, sentenced to 300 hours of community service and prevented from entering Montreal for five years. That was for scratching his name into storefront windows, though. “Not exactly the same thing as what Roadsworth does,” fumed Hand on the Zeke’s Gallery website.

If you consider Roadsworth’s work to be art, you can voice your objections to his arrest by emailing Inspector Annie Prevost and the mayor’s office. You can also write to the editorial boards of La Presse, Le Devoir, Le Journal de Montréal or the Gazette.

When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of The Urban Eye appears every second Wednesday.