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The fight to legitimise graffiti

Once seen as an illegal act of vandalism, graffiti is being used to improve urban areas.  Chris Stokel-Walker speaks to the Montreal godfather of the street art movement 

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Sterling Downey, founder of street art festival, Under Pressure Photo: JF Mailhot
Sterling Downey, founder of street art festival, Under Pressure Photo: JF Mailhot

Montreal deputy mayor Sterling Downey recently framed a newspaper clipping of himself from the mid-2000s. “City councillor sees the writing on the wall” reads the headline, stretching out above a picture of Downey standing in front of a wall daubed with technicolour graffiti.

 

But the story isn’t talking about Downey’s achievements as a city councillor. It predates his time in office. Instead, it’s talking about him as the graffiti artist convincing government of its merits. “It’s funny how things change,” he says.

 

Downey’s deep eyes and grey beard stand out among the ranks of Montreal’s elected executive – as do the tattoo sleeves that extend from his shoulders to a couple of inches past the elbow. But Sterling Downey isn’t a traditional politician: he’s the founder of Under Pressure, a street art festival created in 1996 in the city that helped redefine what until then had been termed “graffiti”, and showed that outdoor, urban art had a place in improving, rather than hindering, the cityscape.

 

Getting Under Pressure off the ground was a battle for Downey and his co-founder. “The authorities had very little understanding of what graffiti and graffiti culture was,” he explains. Coloured by the perceptions of the two biggest cities in the world that had a thriving graffiti culture – New York City and Los Angeles – urban planners in Montreal and elsewhere had a skewed perception. In Los Angeles, graffiti was used by gangs to tag their territory; in New York, it was a way for bored kids to vandalise the city.

 

“Far from the traditional viewpoint that painted walls are a sign of destitution, there are economic arguments to be made in favour of street art – it’s sign of a thriving subculture”

 

However, as Downey explains: “If you bang your head against the wall long enough, something ends up happening.” The first Under Pressure festival took place in 1996, and the 24th edition kicks off later this year. In that near quarter of a century, the face of street art has changed – and with it, street art has changed the face of our cities.

 

“There’s less and less of a reliance on the spray can and a meeting of different mediums, like sculpture and yarn bombing,” says Claire Malaika Tunnacliffe of the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London. “You’ve got stickers, you’ve got light shows. Street art has now encountered fine art, and it’s a vast, vast field.”

 

Downey’s role as an early advocate for the movement in Montreal brought him worldwide fame. What he didn’t realise was that it was shaping him into a spokesperson for the community that would have significant consequences. At the age of 40, he was asked to run as a local councillor in Montreal. Now he’s the deputy mayor. And he had big plans. “I’m going to be talking to my colleagues, my administration and my mayor, and proposing we put together a working committee on graffiti and street art,” he says.

 

“I want to democratise graffiti and street art – to make it easier,” he says. “I like to say less red tape, more red paint.”

‘Granny’ by A’Shop from Montreal’s Mural Festival 2013. Photo: Renault Philippe/Alam
‘Granny’ by A’Shop from Montreal’s Mural Festival 2013. Photo: Renault Philippe/Alam
123Klan’s artwork at the Under Pressure Festival in Montreal in 2015. Photo: Le Babillard/Alamy
123Klan’s artwork at the Under Pressure Festival in Montreal in 2015. Photo: Le Babillard/Alamy

Though it faces a barrage of criticism, the preponderance of street art in cities across the world is rising. Cities like Montreal lead the way, while the Wynwood district of Miami has become a pilgrimage for lovers of street art after the walls of the 7,725 square mile square of land became a giant outdoor art gallery in 2009. In Britain, Bristol has transformed itself off the back of its best-known son, Banksy, with street art tours and an annual festival, Upfest (which is taking a break in 2019). Far from the traditional viewpoint that painted walls are a sign of destitution, there are economic arguments to be made in favour of street art – it’s a sign of a thriving subculture.

 

Most importantly, every daub of paint is a blow against the undying homogenisation of city spaces. Malaika Tunnacliffe actively seeks out spaces in cities for paintings, murals or graffiti because they have human life and aren’t a faceless, nameless, cookie-cutter cityscape.

 

“Street art allows you to scratch the surface of a place,” she says. “That can be through graffiti, which is often quite territorial, or through the use of environmental art.” Malaika Tunnacliffe has researched the way in which environmentally engaged street art helps bring a sense of connection back to city inhabitants. Some artists will use stencils and moss in place of spray paint to create living art that changes with the seasons, or ‘reverse graffiti’ – removing dirt from surfaces and creating artwork from them. “These are powerful messages that get injected into spaces.”

 

“Far from the traditional viewpoint that painted walls are a sign of destitution, there are economic arguments to be made in favour of street art – it’s sign of a thriving subculture”

 

The arrival of street art in a city can have more impact than lifting the spirits of its inhabitants. It can act as a tourist attraction, bringing footfall to areas that have fallen into disrepair or out of favour. Take the rise of Shoreditch in east London, from pass-under-country on the city’s Tube network to a hipster hub full of trendy cafes, boxparks and start-up companies. Its success was in part fuelled by the street artists who used its abandoned buildings and walls as a canvas. “We now have street art tours in east London,” says Malaika Tunnacliffe.

 

Such tours see return custom because of the ever-changing face of street art. “You think you know a space, then it changes and morphs,” she says. “Street art often has this wonderful connection to the shifting of time, and things being left in the elements – both natural and social. People responding to a piece, painting over a piece, or councils destroying a piece. It’s an exciting conversation with a city.”

 

Downey agrees. “The city acts as a living portfolio of street artists’ work.” He also thinks that for many, having artwork out in the open, rather than in the rarefied surroundings of a gallery, is preferable. “It’s much better to have your work on the street and seen by hundreds of thousands of people a day, versus having it in a studio or a gallery space where nobody or very few people will see it,” he adds.

 

And once installed, sceptics are often won around to the benefits of street art. “We had a couple of business owners who said that having a mural on the side or front of their business was helping them get more attention and clients,” says Pierre-Alain Benoit, the general manager of Montreal’s Mural street art festival, which came about as four former Cirque du Soleil employees would travel the world and commission posters for their shows in different cities designed by local street artists.

Marc O’Brien of Doras Creative, during Montreal’s Mural Festival, 2018 Photo: Renault Philippe/Alamy
Marc O’Brien of Doras Creative, during Montreal’s Mural Festival, 2018 Photo: Renault Philippe/Alamy
‘Fear and Loathing’ portrait, 2015 Under Pressure festival in Montreal. Photo: Justin Desforges
‘Fear and Loathing’ portrait, 2015 Under Pressure festival in Montreal. Photo: Justin Desforges

The first festival took place in 2013 in Montreal, providing a jolt in the arm to a commercial district within the city that had been depressed after construction compounded the long hangover of the financial crash. “At the time it was one weekend, but after a couple of years it became 11 days.”

 

Mural captured the zeitgeist, proposing street art at a moment when the movement was evolving from the underground, illegal graffiti culture into a more structured, legal and varied movement. “It helped us succeed where it would have been more difficult in the 1980s, when all the artists were only doing lettering,” he says.

 

Still, some naysayers held out against the street art revival – in business and in government. “We had to go and see difficult government institutions,” says Benoit. “There are still a lot of people – building owners especially – who are a bit prudent. They’re not always open to having us paint things on the walls.”

 

“It contributes to the fact that images of street art are shared around the world. We can now realistically say street art is a tourist attraction in different cities”

 

Benoit, like Downey, has seen public attitudes shift to street art – partly fuelled by social media. “It contributes to the fact that images of street art are shared around the world,” he explains. Just as we preen and pluck to put on our best face for Instagram, so street artists do their best work when they’re aware it could go viral. “We can now realistically say street art is a tourist attraction in different cities.”

 

Benoit believes there are eight or 10 cities currently leading the way in the street art scene. “But with every year that passes, more cities are added to that list.”

 

Of course, Shoreditch has suffered – like many places – from gentrification. What was once the cutting edge of cool and a thrumming haven for creative minds has been overtaken by capitalism. Massive conglomerates including Starbucks, MTV and Ikea have paid reverse graffiti artists to powerwash pavements with stencils depicting their logos. Domino’s Pizza spent $20,000 on 210 stencils daubed onto the sidewalks of three American cities by GreenGraffiti, a Dutch marketing firm. A slew of other companies have cropped up in Italy, the UK and elsewhere offering similar services.

 

“I’ve watched the slow but inevitable gentrification and commercialisation of graffiti through the late 1990s and early 2000s when this term ‘street art’ appeared,” says Downey.

 

The change mirrors the rebranding of Banksy, who started out as a graffiti artist tagging his name on walls, into an elusive street artist, whose hidden identity adds an extra layer of intrigue to his work.

 

Downey has issues with areas where state intervention in the world of street art has become too oppressive. Wynwood’s business improvement district in Miami is one area he believes has overstepped its mark. A friend of his recently showcased an installation at Wynwood – but the tortured discussions about what they could and could not paint put them off the whole enterprise.

 

“It’s like going to a zoo and seeing an animal rather than going to the Serengeti,” he says. “Part of it is people’s freedoms of creativity have been taken away or are being moulded and shaped by sponsorships and endorsements.”

 

Similar shifts have seen Malaika Tunnacliffe cast a much more critical eye over artwork she encounters on her strolls through cities. “Overlaid between all the street art are advertising campaigns using street art and graffiti to sell their products,” she says.

 

But regardless of the provenance, she’ll still continue to enjoy the art she encounters as she navigates a cityscape. “I think it benefits people and brings a splash of colour,” she says. “And perhaps if you linger in a space a little longer, you might meet other people.”

American artist Buff Monster on The Salvation Army shop in Bristol, Upfest 2017. Photo: Paul Box
American artist Buff Monster on The Salvation Army shop in Bristol, Upfest 2017. Photo: Paul Box
John Lennon on the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra Photo: Paul Box
John Lennon on the Tobacco Factory in Bristol, by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra Photo: Paul Box

 

Find out more

upfest.co.uk

muralfestival.com

underpressure.ca

 

Chris Stokel-Walker is a journalist and communicator specialising in digital culture and influencers. He has written for The Times, Sunday Times, The Economist, Bloomberg, the BBC and Wired

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