Canadian Street Art

Canada’s Street Art Evolution

Painted teardrops run like waterfalls down the eyes of pop icons—Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, David Bowie. The dead superstars are confined to the dimensions of their frames and canvasses, but street artist Pure Evil’s signature teardrop extends from their eyes down to the concrete floor. The air smells fresh, save for the spray paint emanating from the artist’s in-house studio at the back of the gallery. The price tags are staggering. A green, black and blue spray-painted stencil of Liz Taylor titled “Richard Burton’s Nightmare – Paris ’68,” is £4,000. “Pure Evel Knievel” is a black-and-white depiction of the legendary daredevil’s skeleton sitting atop a motorcycle—it costs £10,000. East London’s Pure Evil Gallery and Pure Evil Department Store are houses of rapture in the street art world. They represent the culmination of what can happen for a modern street artist if things line up just right.

Corporations are now shelling out big bucks for street art themed advertising in places like Brooklyn and Hamburg. Governmental institutions across the world are forming street art programs to beautify their cities and shape them into popular tourist destinations. Street artists that launched their careers at the perfect time—and who are talented and creative enough to produce their own distinct brands—are now reaping the rewards of the booming industry.

Charles Uzzell-Edwards’s lucrative career as Pure Evil was made possible when street art first became a global phenomenon. The term “street art” originally meant art created in public spaces, usually for free, but in recent years galleries and exhibits have been emerging across the world, monetizing the growing popularity of street artists while simultaneously confining their work to indoor spaces for the first time. This has blurred the meaning of the term street art. Neither the past or present definition can solely define Pure Evil’s work. Though he sells his work in galleries worldwide, he’s also spent a substantial portion of his adult life creating unsolicited artwork in the streets with no economic incentive.

Making Elvis cry for #ruarkaudio at #harrods

A post shared by Charley Uzzell Edwards (@pureevilgallery) on

Pure Evil’s career as a street artist began modestly. Upon returning to London after a decade living in San Francisco, he began spray-painting his other signature design—a haunting bunny character—all over town. His work throughout London’s urban landscape gained him enough notoriety to install his work in Banksy’s now defunct Christmas pop-up shop, “Santa’s Ghetto.” After this breakthrough, Pure Evil retreated to the mountains of Wales to create the artwork that would be used to open his gallery in 2007. His success has continued since then, with solo exhibits worldwide and the opening of his second gallery, The Department Store in 2014.

Pure Evil’s rise to fame has mirrored that of street art; what began as pure mischief making around Brick Lane has become something else entirely—and something far more lucrative than he could’ve imagined.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, far away from the street art mecca that is London, Shawn Davis, 38, sucks down his third cigarette in less than an hour. His red beard is formidably long and thick, only overshadowed by the intricate tattoos that cover his entire physique. The ink on his knuckles reads like a piece of eighteenth-century oak furniture: H-A-N-D M-A-D-E. The studio we are sitting in defies stereotypes of the order-less artist. It is impeccably clean and everything is just where it should be. Shelving units house hundreds of cans of spray paint of every colour, organized every bit as neatly as the rest of the room. Spray-painted cat caricatures and a psychedelic pizza installation occupy the walls. The studio belongs to Montreal street art duo HOAR KOR, who was recently asked to participate in a show of the city’s top ten muralists. Davis (HOAR) informs me that his partner Clarence Nolin (KOR), 33, won’t be able make the interview because he has been called into Dieu du Ciel, where they both work part-time as cooks.

It surprises me that two of the top street artists in what is considered Canada’s street art capital can’t live entirely off their art while prominent US and UK artists appear to be thriving financially. I ask Davis if they want to leave the restaurant game behind: “Oh yeah, absolutely,” he replies. “We are pretty close.” But still, it says something about the Canadian street art industry when two of its stars are still working in kitchens, dodging hot oil and serving up Kamouraska charcuterie plates to hungry customers. “Eventually it’s going to be art full-time,” says Davis, “but right now we make most of our money in the summer doing murals. A mural is what pays the most.”

Davis started out as a graffiti artist when he was 16, gaining invaluable technical skills with spray paint that he would later use as one half of HOAR KOR. He met Nolin in the Dieu du Ciel kitchen while working towards his BA at Concordia in Fine Arts, and they instantly meshed artistically. The pair began creating stencils and wheat pastes, which would become the signature mediums of street art. “It had nothing to do with money,” he tells me, blowing a plume of smoke towards the ceiling. “Even now, I don’t think it has much to do with money,” he says. While profit may not be the motivating factor behind Davis’s artwork, the increased monetization of street art since the turn of the century has been undeniable.

In Alison Young’s 2016 book, Street Art World, she argues that Banksy deserves much of the credit for the street-art craze that took the globe by storm at the turn of the century. “The popularity of Banksy’s art led to a wider appreciation of street art generally, a phenomenon known as the ‘Banksy effect,’” according to Young. Along with Banksy, other international superstars such as America’s Shepard Fairey and France’s Thierry Guetta (Mr. Brainwash) emerged and became millionaire street artists seemingly overnight. Governments and corporations soon recognized the sensation that street art had become and funding soon followed.

Though Canada hasn’t been able to lay claim to celebrity street artists on the same scale as the UK or USA, the movement has had its effect. Festivals and galleries have begun to pop up all over the country and many provincial governments have created substantial funding for hiring street artists. These projects usually take the form of murals aiming to beautify the urban landscape by turning drab looking buildings into works of art. Enter artists like HOAR KOR, who have the rare gift of actually being able to pull off such ambitious projects. The success that these programs have experienced in Canada can be measured financially. The funding for Toronto’s StreetART program went from $400,000 in its first year in 2012 to over $1.5 million today according to its director Lilie Zendel. While these programs are highly beneficial to Canadian artists and cities, they aren’t specifically designed to generate exposure worldwide.

Street art festivals however, generate thousands of international visitors each year. As a result, they give Canadian artists more exposure than municipal programs are often able to. According to the Boulevard Saint-Laurent website, Montreal’s annual Mural Festival welcomed over 1.15 million visitors in 2015 and had a budget of $500,000 that helped fund the line-up of half Canadian, half international artists. The festival attracted some of the world’s most famous street artists to participate, like NYC’s iconic twosome Faile, who shared the stage with locally sourced talent like Montreal’s Stikki Peaches. Though the artists share the spotlight at festivals such as these, many of the Canadian street artists don’t yet draw the same name recognition as many of their American or international contemporaries on the international stage.

In 2013, Complex compiled a list of the “50 Most Influential Street Artists of All Time.” Faile was ranked at number 14; zero Canadians made the cut. A year later, GQ magazine put together a list of the world’s 15 best street artists and, again, not a single Canadian was chosen. The recurrent lack of recognition from publications like these and elsewhere raises the question: are Canadian street artists not as good as their international peers or are other factors at play?

Across town from HOAR KOR’s studio, tucked away in the southeastern corner of Montreal, sits a small studio in the Sainte-Marie neighbourhood. The smell of art supplies and stale wooden floorboards invade my nostrils as I enter. The ground is caked in paint, a polychromatic explosion of color only dulled by years of dust accumulation. Empty bottles of La Fin du Monde are propped up against a wall—remnants of another late night studio session. Painted stretched canvasses, stacks of black-and-white prints and various haunting wooden figures decorate the room; a yellow one stares back at me from the windowsill. The studio has a loft, but can’t be more than 25 feet in length, shockingly small when you consider it is home to one of Canada’s most influential big-wall muralists.

Jason Botkin, 42, is doing his part to extend the global reach of Canadian street artists. According to CBC, Botkin has created over 230 murals worldwide. All City Canvas named Botkin’s 2015 Halifax project the fourteenth best mural ever created. When I spoke with Botkin, he had just returned from working on an experimental residency in Paris and a sea turtle conservation mural in Grenada.

What seems to set Botkin apart from many Canadian street artists is his keen understanding of the intersection between art and business. Though he isn’t becoming a zillionaire like Fairey or Brainwash, he was able to accomplish HOAR KOR’s goal of sustainability-through-art a few years ago. “Two thousand twelve was my make-or-break year,” says Botkin. “If you were looking at my taxes, that was the year that I actually stopped taking income in from sources other than art.”

When Botkin’s name comes up during my interview with Davis, he acknowledges the respect he has for his fellow Montreal artist: “Jason got it early on,” he says. “Making a business out of art.” It’s a skill that HOAR KOR is close to mastering, but one with which many Canadian street artists still seem to struggle.

Maxilie Martel, 27, is a multi-disciplinary Montreal artist, who goes by the moniker Mono Sourcil when she is creating street art. “I think I’m not a good business girl,” she tells me in her small graduate studio at Concordia, where she is studying for a Masters degree in sculpturing. Her studio is full of all kinds of different art she has created; colourful skulls adorn the windowsill, stacks of drawings sit at the back of the room and two giant costumed figures tower over us imposingly while we talk. In the street art world she is known for drawing unibrowed figures, often workers, who are struggling with the structure and routine of their lives. Like Botkin and HOAR KOR, her work is well known in Montreal street-art circles and she’s been paid to do work all over town, including a 60-foot wall she illustrated at Osheaga in 2015. “For me, having a lot of money is not something I care about,” she says, although she admits it would be nice to eventually become more financially comfortable.

As I continued to meet Montreal street artists, I began to notice a fairly common theme: many of the city’s most respected street artists were still figuring out the business side of things. Back in Britain, Pure Evil had recognized the global industry that street art was becoming in the twenty-first century and capitalized on it. In Canada, however, the Banksy effect that Young alluded to in her book, and that allowed the Pure Evil Gallery to successfully open its doors, only really started to materialize a few years ago.

Many of the significant dates associated with Canada’s street-art culture didn’t take place until 2012. That’s not to say that various forms of street art weren’t being created. Canada had a thriving graffiti scene long before most people had even heard the term street art. Montreal’s Under Pressure festival was founded in 1996 and celebrated as much, but its mainstreaming is a much more recent revelation. “The marketability of street art has changed the culture entirely in the past ten years,” says Melissa Proetti, director of Under Pressure. Her voice perks up when I mention HOAR KOR, whom she calls, “incredibly diverse and talented in their capacity as artists.” I ask if she’s surprised they aren’t full-time artists quite yet? “You gotta build notoriety for yourself,” she says. “It’s understanding branding and marketing, I think that’s where artists sometimes have a difficult time,” she says.

Things may get easier for Canadian street artists, buoyed by a shift in culture according to StreetARTs Zendel, who says, “Europe was far ahead of North America, when it comes to street art culture, but we are catching up.” Mural Festival, a huge platform for Canadian street artists like HOAR KOR, Botkin and Mono Sourcil, was launched in 2013. The same year, Station 16—Montreal’s first street art-influenced gallery—was opened. “We do have a lot of artists who are already internationally recognized,” says assistant gallery director Amanda Brownridge, two Brainwash originals resting on the floor behind her. “We can take local artists like WHATISADAM or Stikki Peaches and help them gain international exposure,” she says.

A year after Station 16 opened, the COA Gallery also began hawking street art indoors in Montreal. Toronto’s Struck Gallery opened in 2015, lining its walls with Pure Evil and Shepard Fairey originals priced in the several thousands of dollars. Canada has without question been a late bloomer in the street-art business, but that isn’t a reflection of the talent level amongst Canadian artists. The scale on which HOAR KOR works is breathtaking—every detail meticulously calculated. The enormity of Mono Sourcil’s Osheaga project proves that, she too, has long graduated from amateur status. Jason Botkin’s giant mural is worthy of its coveted ranking; though the project’s installation was initially met with resistance, it has become a highly sought-after tourist destination in Halifax.

The expansion of street art as a business in Canada isn’t waning. Festivals and galleries continue to open across the country, like Vancouver’s first mural festival that opened last summer. Municipal programs continue to spread and create new funding opportunities for local artists to achieve self-sustainability. Inevitably, the increased networking opportunities these venues open will lead to more business. Whether this will result in a Canadian artist becoming the next Pure Evil or Banksy remains to be seen. For most it doesn’t appear to matter. All of the Canadian street artists I encountered do it because they love it, not because they want to be rich and successful. Back in HOAR KOR’s Montreal studio, Shawn Davis strings his hands through his beard. I ask him if he ever thought putting up his art in the streets would turn into something profitable, to which he replies: “We’ll do it whether we get paid or not.”

Words by Dan LeBaron.

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