The building is quiet, cold, abandoned. Two street artists from the Calgary area have been scoping the place out for a week, long enough to be confident they can hang out here for hours unnoticed. If police come, there are three ways to escape.
Jared and Paul, who don’t want their real or tag names published out of fear of police retribution, waste no time unpacking aerosol cans and paint rollers from a backpack and duffel bag. And they get to work — breaking the law.
A student in his early 20s with a 4.0 grade-point average and broader ambitions for a career, Jared has been drawing graffiti since he was 12 and painting since he was about 14.
Despite the threat of being arrested, which could turn his life upside down when “there’s so much that’s positive going on in my life,” he has no plans to quit any time soon. “It’s so much a part of me, I can’t stop.”
Working in broad daylight under the cover of an abandoned building, Jared and Paul spray sketches of distorted letters before filling in a black background with paint rollers. Next, they begin adding dimension and detail to their side-by-side pieces.
In a city where police have waged a forceful crackdown on graffiti, these blank walls are precious, valuable real estate. Admission is by invite only. Jared and Paul have installed their own lock at the most obvious entrance to keep out vagrants and people who would attract attention.
They feel comfortable here — the conversation shifts from cooking lamb to Jared’s respect for standup comedy — but there is still an underlying sense of unease. An echoing sound rumbles from the other side of the building. Is it the police? “It’s just the wind,” Jared says.
Artists say there is an active graffiti scene in Calgary, but the police crackdown has forced them to be more careful, given the dearth of businesses and public spaces that allow it. Although artists are uncomfortable disclosing their favourite spots to paint, the steady stream of rail cars covered in stylistic letters suggests they remain a mainstay for locals.
Graffiti, artists say, is largely misunderstood. They say many public perceptions of the art form appear to have been shaped by police messaging that casts artists as criminals and their work as nothing more than vandalism.
Where police see a menace recklessly defacing businesses and public places, decreasing property values and costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year in cleanup expenses, the renowned graffiti artist known as Pesto sees a “phenomenally creative, recreational art form.”
Perhaps the opposing sides will never see eye to eye. This is an underground subculture, after all. “There wouldn’t be graffiti if there wasn’t police officers,” says Pesto, an artist Jared calls a legend who has been painting for 20 years but left Calgary after too many run-ins with police. “There’s always going to be a beautiful harmony between the two things.”
Any bid to gain broader public sympathy for the graffiti culture took a giant step backward in November 2011 when a vandal sprayed a tag on the riverside wall of the Poppy Plaza war memorial, just days before Remembrance Day.
Military officials were saddened and disappointed to learn that a memorial recognizing the sacrifices of fallen soldiers could be so senselessly “desecrated.”
Poppy Plaza, which sits on the corner of Memorial Drive and 10th Street N.W., was defaced again a year ago.
“These aren’t people who respect property; otherwise, they wouldn’t be doing the vandalism in the first place,” said Const. Dave Ladic, who leads the Calgary enforcement team that aims to smash illegal graffiti and target repeat offenders.
Voes, a veteran Calgary street artist who gave only his tag name, says back when he was more active, in the 2000s, there were walls in the city where police turned a blind eye to graffiti. He says it gave the older artists a chance to school the younger kids on technique, teach them ethics about where not to paint — from places of worship to war memorials — and encourage them not to lead a life of crime.
“There hasn’t been too many places for younger kids to paint without them doing illegal stuff,” says Voes, who used to run with Pesto, costing city hall loads of money in repair work.
“Now, if you want to go paint and you’re a younger kid, no one’s going to give you the side of their store to paint. They want to see what you can do. If you’re not good enough, well, too bad. It almost forces kids to go out and do more illegal graffiti. And the more illegal it is, usually the (worse) it is because you don’t have time to hang around.”
Police “shot themselves in the foot” by shutting down spots where artists felt free to paint, Voes says, because “once these places were gone, it forced kids to go out and write everywhere and probably cost the city more money than it would have to maintain a quiet place somewhere to paint.”
Ladic, who has been investigating graffiti since 2006, says there had been talk that wooden boxes where city sweepers dump gravel on the sides of roads, such as Blackfoot Trail, were considered free zones for graffiti artists. Nonsense, the constable says; it’s always been illegal to paint them.
A 2009 experiment to give local artists a sanctioned spot to paint was a spectacular failure, he says. City hall had planned to give select paint-slingers permission to create murals on the Landmark building at Millennium Park, the home of the east downtown skateboard park, with plans to allow only the best works to remain.
Within days, mischief makers had covered much of the surrounding area with tags, profanity and homophobic slurs, the vandalism spilling onto ramps, bowls and the men’s bathroom. The cleanup had been estimated to cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Ladic says allowing artists to paint “free walls” is pointless because graffiti is never contained to the sanctioned area — it spreads all over the place.
He says he’s willing to consider a program that would register artists by name, allow them to paint somewhere, review their work and take them aside if they painted something inappropriate. But he says many graffiti writers would likely be unwilling to submit themselves to so much oversight and control.
“There has to be a little bit of control and balance, but I don’t think it’s right to say that you can’t express yourself in a meaningful way,” he says.
Ladic’s team, which brings together police, bylaw enforcement and transit officials, has been waging a war on illegal graffiti since the squad was formed in 2012. In its first two years it has laid 594 charges against 23 suspects.
Last month, the team announced its latest arrest, a 17-year-old female who faces 32 charges of mischief under $5,000. The girl, who cannot be named because of her age, is accused of writing her tag on businesses, transit shelters, sound walls, light posts and utility boxes across the northwest, from Crowfoot to Dalhousie.
Part of the appeal of graffiti is the reputation that skilled artists build. They have fans. Peers admire their work. They carve out a presence, a stature that they may not otherwise have been able to achieve, especially at a young age.
Jared started after watching a camp counsellor sketch drawings that amazed him. At 15, he was bitten by the “fame bug” when people five years older wanted to hang out with him.
“I’m standing in a store and people are talking about my work and how much they loved it, but they don’t know it’s me,” he says, taking a break from painting in the abandoned building. “That’s a pretty great feeling.”
Jared says the frustrations and trials of daily life melt away when he has a spray can in his hand. He says he was bullied relentlessly at school until he was in Grade 9, but his art allowed him to “drown it all out.” He compares the feeling to meditation.
“And that’s if you’re doing something legal and ultra-colourful, or if you’re doing a tag under a bridge,” he says. “That’s a big reason why people like it so much and why it’s so easy to fall in love with.”
The feeling, the lifestyle, the reputation — all of it keeps Jared drawn to the art form. And he is showing no signs of slowing down.
“I see myself continuing what I do. I don’t see it stopping. I see it growing and evolving into new things.”
By Reid Southwick, Calgary Herald April 13, 2014