Vancouver’s Street Art Scene Comes to Life
Images by Joern Rohde
Gearing up for its second year, the Vancouver Mural Festival is painting the town red, green, blue, yellow and more.
Vancouver may be one of the most walkable cities in the world — a stroll or cycle along the Seawall should be on every tourist’s to-do list — but even its most devoted fan would have to admit that its attractions are scenic, not architectural. We admire the horizon, the mountains, the ocean, but not so much an uninspired foreground of utilitarian concrete boxes and high-density glass towers.
Happily, in recent years the city has upped its game to give nature a run for her money, first with the Vancouver Biennale’s popular public art pieces, including Yue Minjun’s A-maze-ing Laughter sculpture on English Bay and the six saturated Giants by Brazilian artists OSGEMEOS, looking out from the cement factory silos on Granville Island. The Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF) transformed an area of East Vancouver seemingly overnight last summer. It is, truly, amazing what a fresh lick of paint can do.
In its first year, VMF organizers unveiled more than 50 large murals in Mount Pleasant and False Creek Flats, areas that have been havens for cash-strapped artists for many years (though they’re trendy now, and priced accordingly).
Still mostly low-rise, with zoning topping out at four to six storeys, the area has yet to succumb to the glass and steel structures that dominate the downtown core. That’s just as well, because one thing you need for a mural is a wall.
“A group of us came up with the idea as a way to advocate for the arts in general, and more specifically bring the young and vibrant art scene that exists in Vancouver out from the underground and put it on view,” recalls David Vertesi, executive director and co- founder of the festival (and frontman of local indie band Hey Ocean!).
“We were looking for a way to serve as a catalyst for the area to be seen through a different lens. This is a part of the city that has long been a hub for artists, and we wanted to raise a discourse around public art, graffiti and gentrification.”
Pulling it together took more than a few cans of spray paint, however: There were more than a year of meetings with everyone — from city officials to businesses and their associations to galleries and artists — before the project was given the green light.
“Our job is to handle all the bureaucracy that artists don’t want to do,” Vertesi says. “We want the artists to be able to just turn up and do their thing.”
Persuading businesses and building owners to donate their walls took real legwork: After a lacklustre initial response to the proposal, the VMF team hit the streets, knocking on doors up and down Main Street and its arteries, securing spaces. Meanwhile, more than 300 artists — local and international — applied for the paid commissions.
“Then we became matchmakers,” Vertesi laughs.
While some building owners were completely open to whatever the artist wanted to create, others had specific thoughts — one stipulated only that there were to be no spaceships on the building’s wall. Each artwork was signed off before work on the murals began.
The finished pieces run the gamut from abstraction to realism. The most prominently placed are two giant murals on either side of Main Street on the south side of Broadway: Paris artist Kashink’s curious four-eyed, greenfaced native, a cartoon shaman welcoming (or warning) interlopers as they venture into mid-Main; and opposite, a diptych by Vancouverites Drew Young and Jay Senetchko of photorealist portraits, young and old, set in a hothouse garden, and bearing the message: "THE PRESENT IS A GIFT."
If these are hard to miss, dozens more murals are clustered in the immediate environs, but are best discovered on foot as you explore the lanes and back streets of this hipster ’hood. Wander across to tech company Hootsuite’s headquarters on Eighth and Ontario and you’ll be rewarded with the sight of how a once nondescript office block has been transformed into a candy-striped confection of Miro-esque patterns in blue, green, orange and red by Scott Sueme. A few blocks south on Main Street, Justin Broadbent has emblazoned festival sponsor Dulux Paints with a quirky cavalcade of iconic graffiti: a cheeky clown smile, a ghost, flowerpot and cat’s whiskers, among others, while First Nations designs adorn the Native Education College at 285 E. Fifth Ave., courtesy of Corey Bulpitt, Sharifah Marsden, Jerry Whitehead and Marissa Nahanee. Vertesi says the festival is making a conscious effort to create increased presence for Indigenous artists.
Harder to find, but a joy to discover, are seven more small but pointed street ’toons by I Heart Stencils in “secret” locations, several of them in the witty, subversive Banksy style. (A map showing the locations of all the murals is available for download, while those who would like more context may want to consider booking a guided tour.)
“Our vision is that the look of Mount Pleasant will reflect its community,” Vertesi notes. “It is a cultural hub, and we want it to look the part.”
The Vancouver Mural Festival takes place June 24 to Aug. 12; guided tours available every Saturday into fall (pre-booking required).
Details and downloadable map available at vancouvermuralfestival.com.
For more information to help you plan your visit to Vancouver, phone 604-257-8335, or visit tourismvancouver.com.