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A & E ART | Graffiti for Good

No longer a four-letter word, graffiti comes out of the alley and into a community, one wall at a time.

BY Tor Lukasik-Foss

I've always had a bit of a prejudice against public murals. And I come by it honestly. There was a time in the mid-'90s, during the pitch of recession, that this city saw a lot of murals installed in the downtown core. I participated in the making of several of them. Either as a solo artist or mentoring youth in a collaborative project, both the process and finished results felt a little empty to me. The notion that a beleaguered downtown could somehow be cheered into action by peppy imagery seemed utterly ludicrous. Not only did the murals do nothing positive, on a bad day they seemed like salt in a wound.

It was quite refreshing then, to talk with Sylvia Nickerson and Paul Elia, two accomplished visual artists and illustrators who have both moved to the city in the last four years, and who have both become deeply involved in the Beasley Neighbourhood Association (Nickerson was recently elected president and Elia serves as Communications Coordinator). Beasley is a hive of activity these days, with a surge of public art slowly unveiling itself over the summer and fall. Projects include a large spray-painted mural on the side wall of McLaren Park, which launched this past May, a communitygenerated mural for Beasley Park, a freshening up of the graffiti that decorates Beasley Park's skate park as part of the 20th anniversary of the annual SK8 Jam Festival, a street banner project and development of a legal wall for street art at the old Tivoli Theatre. Some of these projects are the brainchild of the BNA, others are going ahead with its support.

It's quite an array of endeavours, but what struck me most was not the quantity of projects but the health and integrity in how they are being delivered. These do not seem like art projects being used to band-aid the needs of a community.

For example, the McLaren Park Mural, designed and spray-painted by local artist and illustrator Bryce Huffman, combines graffiti and a comic book aesthetic to bring to life the neighbourhood's architecture, skate culture and most importantly the Beasley Badger, depicted by Huffman as a defiant, even threatening animal. The mural relied heavily on consultation with community stakeholders to ensure the neighbourhood got the image it wanted.

Explains Elia: "We wanted the mural to be something that people could fall into, stop people on the street. Bryce Huffman was given a pretty precise set of criteria — we needed the Beasley Badger to be the centre, we wanted the image to be tough, scrappy; because that's how the neighbourhood sees itself."

Beasley, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, is bounded by James, Barton, Wellington and Main. It is also one of the most culturally diverse, economically challenged, crime-intense areas, and at times has had a notorious reputation. That being said, Beasley is also motivated; it made history last year by drafting its own community Charter, the first time a neighbourhood in Canada had ever taken such a step. It was an ingenious ploy, compelling the police, school boards, faith organizations and area businesses to sign a public agreement to work together to tackle the neighbourhood's issues.

The Charter has no legal authority but it formalized community alliances into a kind of brain trust, dedicated enough to draft a Beasley Neighbourhood Plan less than a year later, a detailed manifesto which takes on improvements in housing, education, public perception, urban design and crime, to name a few. Its public art projects have been situated within a more comprehensive strategy to strengthen and re-brand the neighbourhood. And the BNA has been organized enough to secure funding from Cogeco for more than one of its endeavours; they can run the barbecues and school events needed for a community-generated mural. It can even assist with something as thorny as a legal wall for street art and graffiti.

Says Nickerson: "The city's policy is so strict, you can even call 911 if you see graffiti in action, that's how serious a crime they are making it. And it has struck fear into people…Nevertheless, it was the Police who initiated the discussion about establishing a legal wall: a wall where graffiti is legal, but only during events where the activity is coordinated. We are excited to be part of the Tivoli Wall Project, because there is a real hope that it could set the precedent for even more legal wall spaces throughout the city."

The artwork on the Tivoli Wall is a collision of styles, from graffiti to formal drawing to contemporary art. Allowing such diversity is smart; not only does it allow graffiti to be celebrated, but it situates graffiti amid other genres, placing it rightfully into the spectrum of this city's artmaking. Graffiti art gets to connect to the positive glow of the James North scene.

So intentional or not, the Beasley BNA may have cracked the riddle of effective community art. They've created a strong network of partners, engaged the arts community and identified the funding, resources and spirit needed to bring life to its projects. If the results live up to their promise, perhaps other neighbourhoods will start drafting Charters of their own.