The air is noticeably cool, even when compared to the freezing temperatures outside. The backroom carries a recognizable scent of paint, as newly renovated buildings typically do, but not for the usual reasons.
A place for graffiti street art to thrive
Multiple layers of hollow squares with coloured shadows coat one wall reflecting the distinct use of spray paint.
Wedged between a pastry café and a high-end boutique in Glenora, a new type of gallery is set to open its doors in early spring.
Fresh Canvas Art Co., owned by Annaliza Toledo and Trevor Peters, will focus on displaying high-quality, street-inspired artwork. The gallery will also be used for workshops and studio space and will be first of its kind in Canada.
“We have a background in graffiti art and spray paint culture,” Toledo says. “We want to create awareness for the city and the general public, so they can see there is something positive that can come from spray painting and public art.”
In Edmonton, there is constant tension between street artists, taggers and the city officials who are responsible for cleaning up after them. According to the City of Edmonton’s 2015 Graffiti Vandalism Audit, there were 977 tags in 322 locations that the city had to clean up.
Karey Steil the Graffiti Project Manager and Community Relations Advisor for Capital City Cleanup says, “Our role is to protect taxpayers who have illegal tags that they do not want, they did not ask for and are personally responsible for removing.”
Currently, 94 per cent of graffiti in Edmonton is on private property. The majority of the vandalism the city deals with has no artistic value, Steil says, and all of it is illegal.
‘The challenge is, graffiti culture is about staying anonymous. It’s about tagging wherever they want to.’
— Karey Steil, City of Edmonton Graffiti Project Manager
“The challenge is, graffiti culture is about staying anonymous. It’s about tagging wherever they want too. That’s what it comes down to, and that causes property damage,” Steil says. “The City of Edmonton wants to support the victims of graffiti.” This leaves the city on the hook to pay the cleanup tab.
Edmonton is a city that prides itself on its art scene, and has deliberately been promoting mural projects in areas that have been hit hardest by repeated graffiti vandalism. This progressive view of the arts is one reason the city ran a highly experimental free wall pilot project from 2014 to 2016. It was inspired by a few cities around the world, including Toronto, which is the only Canadian city that still has a functioning free wall that allows artists to legally paint specific public walls.
Free walls can’t contain the street artists
“The intent of the free wall was to allow a safe space with no monitoring for graffiti writers to do their art, but there was an understanding that they wouldn’t tag the surrounding area,” Steil says. The dramatic increase of what Steil terms “spillover” that followed the opening of the two new free walls – and the high cost to clean it up – caused the pilot project to close prematurely.
“When all these walls closed, a lot of talent and a lot of emerging artists got shut down,” Peters says. “I think it will suppress really talented kids.”
So last September, Peters and Toledo launched Rust Magic Street Mural Festival to replace the gap left behind by the closed, free wall street art spaces.
“One of the reasons we started Rust Magic was that all of these walls shut down. There was no place for emerging graffiti artists to practise. The whole festival for us was a way to start a platform and be the people you could come to, and we can mentor emerging artists and hopefully start opening up some walls.”
‘When all these walls closed, a lot of talent and a lot of emerging artists got shut down.”
— Trevor Peters
The failure of the free wall, Steil says, has the city still looking for other ways to deter graffiti vandalism. The new focus? Public art.
“Typically graffiti writers don’t write over art… Public art is fantastic. It adds to revitalization, community engagement, sense of belonging, sense of ownership, cultural diversity and ownership of space.”
This lack of public art in Edmonton is a void Toledo and Peters plan to fill.
After the success they had with their own mural project, Rust Magic, which featured 15 large-scale street art pieces across the city, they are working to form a partnership with the City of Edmonton to create more murals in 2017.
City warms to organized graffiti street art
“I think originally they were a little scared, because Edmonton hasn’t had something like this before,” Peters says. “They were supportive, but I think they were waiting to see what we produced before they were fully 100 per cent supportive.”
Increasing public art in the form of murals doesn’t always prevent vandals from leaving their mark. Even as a street artist, Peters worries that bombers protesting the normalization of graffiti will paint over the murals that Rust Magic has created.
“But I guess you just have to let it roll off your shoulders. It comes with the territory,” Peters adds.
Graffiti has a long and vibrant history that intersects neighbourhoods, generations, cultures and socio-economic classes. Since the ‘60s, graffiti has evolved in technique, style and public perception. “If you haven’t been studying it you have no idea what’s going on with it,” Peters says.
Peters recalls what it was like when he first started painting. “The whole city being in that environment, you never really see the city like that until you’re outside by yourself doing all these pieces. You really think you are doing good for the universe. Some people think it’s vandalism but you are actually just trying to put out your art and let people see it.”
For Toledo, respect is a key part of graffiti and is what separates it from vandalism. “ It’s done professionally and with thought and planning,” she says.
The distinction between paid graffiti-inspired art and unpaid art further blurs the line between what is socially accepted and what is not.
Peters points out that the style unique to graffiti is being gentrified in some ways, both by street artists and mainstream culture. “It’s losing its soul,” Toledo says.
“It’s really weird to be hired to do a graffiti piece in some rich kids bedroom, but when we do it on a bridge or something it’s so bad,” Peters says. “What we are getting hired for is for what we’ve done in the past to get to this level. We’ve painted a lot of places — a lot of bridges.”
Peters agrees that defining and labelling graffiti is difficult because it can take so many forms. Some artists use graffiti to showcase their art in attempts to build notoriety whereas others never want their work to be legitimized.
For the city however, when it comes to graffiti their focus is not on individuals’ rights to expression, but on the legality of the action. “When advertising billboards go up behind your house, whether we like it or not, it’s a regulated space,” Steil says “I agree, that we might not like looking at advertising — we might not like looking at art.”
This sentiment is not often shared by members of spraypaint culture.
‘We are both super passionate about the arts, and we are both really passionate about Edmonton as a city and believe in its future. We want to make the art scene here a lot more vibrant.’ — Trevor Peters
Toledo compares signature tags to freedom of speech. “We go outside, and we don’t get to choose what we see. We are bombarded with ads and all this stuff that’s in your face. You can see the ugliest billboard and you have no choice. You have no say about what you see. In a way, vandalism is a personal protest.”
When looking to the future, Toledo and Peters recognize the need to bridge a gap between the negative perceptions of graffiti and public art. For them, one way is reaching out to the community and giving them the opportunity to make public art that is both respectful and legal.
“They can’t just tell these kids that … it’s not going to get you anywhere in life, because we do it full-time and it’s a great life,” Peters says. “I think they just need to be mentored and not shut down.
“We are both super passionate about the arts, and we are both really passionate about Edmonton as a city and believe in its future. We want to make the art scene here a lot more vibrant.”