From One Wall to Another

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Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking

roadsworth-1-2001.jpgGraffiti goes six-figure legit
by Joshua Knelman
Globe and Mail
August 4, 2007

Montreal - If a cop had walked in, the audience might well have scattered.

On a drizzly evening this past spring, Montreal’s most imaginative – and usually, for good reason, elusive – graffiti artists were assembling in the exposed-brick, well-lit rooms of the city’s Yves Laroche Gallery. They were there to pay tribute to American "billboard liberation" artist Ron English, whose show was opening that night.

Local royalty in attendance included Peter Gibson and Jean Labourdette (known to their legions of fans, respectively, as Roadsworth and Turf One). Also on hand was Pablo Aravena, director of Next: A Primer in Urban Painting, a groundbreaking 2004 documentary about the global graffiti movement. "Montreal is one of the most painted cities in North America," enthused the filmmaker. "In Canada, it’s No. 1."

And tonight, certainly, the Yves Laroche Gallery is providing a glittering example of the degree to which graffiti artists are making the big leap from underground rebels to celebrated artistes. Whether copying the furtive, on-the-fly style that is a trademark of most street art, or branching out into more formal directions as they make the move from brick wall to stretched canvas, many of the hottest artists – and Montreal boasts several – are being spurred on by the enormous success of British-born graffiti master Banksy, whose has been raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars at major London auction houses over the past several months.

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English is among their top ranks. A legend among street artists, he earns a respectable living from the gallery system, even though has never stopped redecorating – or is that vandalizing? – corporate billboard ads with subversive images. He has covered a Marlboro sign with a poster that reads "BREATHE" in a red-and-white palette matching Marlboro’s own. He’s revamped a McDonald’s ad with a portrait of an obese Ronald McDonald. In the mid-1990s, English put a dent in Joe Camel’s image, too, when he plastered over numerous cigarette ads with his own cartoon: a camel offering smokes to cherub-faced American children.

And just like a wall saturated with graffiti, there were several layers of irony at the Montreal gathering: Yves Laroche is an esteemed gallery, yet this night it is overrun with notorious vandals, their tags (street names they mark on walls) well-known to police; English’s canvases sell for thousands of dollars indoors, but it’s his outdoor escapades that have drawn most of the fans tonight; and outside the gallery’s doors, the grey-stone walls of Old Montreal, a historic tourist haven, are one venue where graffiti artists have traditionally hesitated to ply their trade.

Bad-boy English has a theory about the rise of street art in tony galleries such as this one: Wealthy art collectors are running out of blue-chip art to buy, but are still hungry to invest, and art from the street, a globally recognized phenomenon, comes with instant cachet. It’s a logic not lost on artists themselves. "I know a studio artist," says English, "who suddenly told me, ‘I’m going to go out and be a graffiti artist for a couple of years, to make a name for myself.’ "

The fact that English’s own iconoclastic work, and his once-deviant acts, are now sanctioned by the world of high art certainly says a lot about the migration of graffiti onto the radar of savvy collectors, who have no trouble paying big bucks for an art form that was once free – and that remains against the law in its traditional form.

Certainly Yves Laroche Gallery is among the most high-profile vendors riding – and driving – that trend. English’s acrylic-on-oil canvas, Fat Ronald, for example, boasts a price tag of $12,000 – this, for an artist whose recent shows in Paris and Amsterdam were completely sold out.

All of which gives hope to Montreal’s thriving class of graffiti artists, many of whom have been recruited to show at Yves Laroche by Ximena Becerra, the curator of the English show.

At 24, and with tattoos on both arms, Becerra looks more punk rocker than art dealer. Four years ago, she and gallery-owner Laroche saw the writing on the wall of the contemporary art market, and opened a space called L’Autre Gallery in Laroche’s unused basement. Becerra then siphoned off the cream of Montreal’s maturing crop of graffiti and street artists, themselves searching for ways to earn money from skills they’d honed in their outdoor artistic pursuits.

"L’Autre Gallery was the first in Montreal to show graffiti in a commercial space," says Becerra. "And the response was amazing."

Says Laroche: "My banker didn’t like the change, but I did. I used to work two days a week, and play golf the rest of the time. Now I’m here six days a week, because I’m having fun. Our clients used to have white hair. Now, they’re between 25 and 45 – graphic designers, computer programmers and tattoo artists."

In fact, a year after opening, L’Autre Gallery outgrew its basement space, and Laroche invited Becerra to move her operation upstairs. It wasn’t long before a roster of urban images, including those by legendary Montreal graffiti artist Zà¯lon (whose works now fetch up to $6,000), had almost edged out the traditional pieces that Laroche was known for exhibiting. "L’Autre Gallery became Yves Laroche Gallery, but then Yves Laroche became L’Autre Gallery," says Becerra.

Jean Labourdette, a.k.a. Turf One, is a Parisian-born, Montreal-based graffiti artist recruited by Becerra. The soft-spoken 31-year-old had his fingers broken by Parisian police at the age of 13. He spent a lot of nights in lockup. Then, in 2001, he moved to Montreal because, he says, "it’s freer here, and only a few hundred miles from the birthplace of graffiti, New York."

His often moody and surreal comic book-like images and characters, mostly painted on canvas and found objects, now sell for up to $5,000. In November, he will be opening at Fuse Gallery in New York’s East Village.

Like many graffiti artists, Turf One is careful to distinguish between the work he creates on the street and the stuff he sells indoors for money. "Graffiti is an act that is illegal. It’s something that you are writing on a wall that doesn’t belong there. The act is subversive," he says.

And while he recognizes there are "a lot of artists who are using graffiti to gain credibility in art galleries," Labourdette says that, in his own case, he draws on his street work to bring life to his gallery pieces: "Going out and painting on the street renews the energy of my studio work. Playing cops and robbers has a lightness to it, and an excitement."

Standing near him at the gallery opening is another Montreal graffiti celebrity, Peter Gibson, a.k.a. Roadsworth, tonight flanked by a crew making a documentary about him. In 2001, Gibson began riding out on his bicycle in the middle of the night and painting bike paths where none existed. "I’m a proponent," he explains, "of urban cycling."

Gibson’s imagery toyed intelligently with the bureaucracy of road signs. He would paint an owl perching on a yellow parking line, or the shadow of a bike on a street corner. By 2004, he actually began worrying about having too big a fan club. "Strangers would introduce themselves on the street," he recalls, "and say, ‘Hey, you’re that guy who draws the bikes.’"

One late November night, Gibson was working a wall on Rue St-Denis when a cop car appeared. "I gave the police some lame excuse about being an artist and having trouble sleeping."

Gibson rode off, his knapsack clanging with paint cans. A few blocks later, three police cruisers pulled up. "The police were going to make an example of me," remembers Gibson. "I spent the night in prison. They searched my apartment, confiscated my computer. They had a file on me."

But the arts community stepped in, and the media followed suit. "I appeared on television and radio – there was support for my work," he says. In the end, he was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and given a $250 fine.

Then the unexpected occurred: Gibson’s high-profile arrest electrified his artistic career. "I now make a living doing this," he says, "but legally." He has since completed a series of public and private installations, including the Montreal parking lot for Cirque du Soleil. Ironically, the City of Montreal hired him to do his own unique take on a bike path in Old Montreal. And Britain’s Kent Municipal Council commissioned a Gibson mural for the Tour de France. Last month, hundreds of the best cyclists in the world sped over an original Roadsworth mural.

Now Gibson, like many graffiti artists, is setting his sights on selling his work in galleries. "I want to figure out a way to bridge that gap between the street and the gallery," he says. "A lot of street artists look down on selling work in galleries, but I’m not a purist. One doesn’t exclude the other. And there are lots of things you can’t do when you’re running around in the dark."

Chilean-born, Montreal-based documentary-maker Aravena chats amiably with Gibson at the Ron English art opening. Aravena’s Next: A Primer in Urban Painting has aired on Canada’s Documentary Channel and on TVE in Spain, and has been screened at over 30 film festivals. Next week, it is set to show at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.

The 33-year-old filmmaker doesn’t paint on walls at night; rather, he’s an art historian for the movement. "My thesis," he says, "was that these are important artists who will be remembered. Spending time with them was the equivalent of hanging out with the Impressionists in Paris cafés. ... If I had money, this is the art I would be decorating my house with, not a van Gogh."

Adds Aravena: "The graffiti artists that are moving into galleries are smarter then the older generation. They manage their business more seriously. They manage their brands. Just look at Banksy."

If there’s one street artist whose reputation as an intelligent prankster has surpassed English’s, it is the British-born man known as Banksy, who controls his image tightly. Banksy made a name for himself in the alleyways of Bristol and London, but now his studio work has been snapped up by such celebrities as Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera. In February at Sotheby’s in London, the Banksy painting Bombing Middle England fetched over £100,000 – or about $214,000. Just two months later, another Banksy sold at Bonhams auction house for almost three times that amount.

Despite his success, Banksy’s real identity remains a mystery to the public. "I’ve met him twice," says Aravena, one of the few people in the world who can identify the artist by face. "Our first meeting was in Miami. We drank and talked, and he painted in South Beach. The second time was in London the day after he pulled his prank at the Tate."

In October, 2003, Banksy walked into London’s Tate Britain and glued one of his works to the wall, a traditional English landscape with a crass line of police tape cutting across serene countryside. The Banksy stayed up for several hours until the glue failed and it fell. Only then did Tate staff realize they’d been infiltrated.

After the Sotheby’s sale, the artist announced his continued claim to countercultural cred, updating his website with a blunt message to the art establishment: "I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit."

Aravena can. Graffiti, he explains, begins with "poor kids proclaiming their existence. ... The whole point of graffiti is that it’s not in a gallery, it’s on your street corner. Graffiti is art for all. But now, flash forward. Look who’s running society: the same people who grew up in the era when graffiti was born.

"The kids from the eighties are now entering positions of power ... and they’re buying the artists they know."

Just ask Frederick Hryszyn. The 28-year-old decided to start Le Kop Shop gallery in the spring of 2006 with a few other local graffiti artists and friends in the Plateau, a Montreal neighbourhood covered in graffiti from its sidewalks to the tops of its old brick warehouses.

"In a lot of ways, starting this gallery was just as crazy as going out and drawing my name on a wall at night," says Hryszyn. "I didn’t know anything about the art business. I didn’t have a list of clients, and I’m not a well-connected rich person. But I’m learning fast."

Adds Hryszyn: "The big problem is that when you get old enough, you realize that [graffiti] is a stupid thing to be doing, but you’re good enough at it that you can’t leave it behind. ... Suddenly, painting illegally on walls is one of your biggest and best skill sets."

Hryszyn watched Laroche’s gallery transition closely. "They were moving toward that graffiti aesthetic, but they’re an established gallery," he notes. "At Kop’s, we’re still earning our reputation as curators."

Noting that his clients are mostly "young, hip" professionals, he says the works at Le Kop Shop "can sell for anywhere between a couple hundred and a couple thousand dollars. That’s the market right now in Montreal. We’re way behind the curve compared to New York and Europe." A show by Peruvian-born Montreal-based artist Peru just came down, and Friday a new show opened by Montreal’s Labrona.

Another artist that Hryszyn has featured at is the elusive Omen. A four-time winner of the Montreal Mirror’s Best Graffiti Artist Award, he agreed to be interviewed for this article on condition that his real name not be used.

I met Omen during a lunch break from his nine-to-five job on the edge of Old Montreal. He had a wry sense of humour, and, like Banksy, exhibited a healthy suspicion concerning graffiti’s move from street to gallery. "When I started off, Banksy wasn’t around," he recalls. "I abhorred the idea of being shown in an art gallery. It was the ultimate sellout, because graffiti is about freedom."

Since then, besides his Le Kop Shop exhibit, he has had one other Montreal show, as well as three in Taiwan and one in Australia, and sells canvases on his website. Still, he’s conflicted: "Now, graffiti isn’t even called graffiti – some people don’t even consider it vandalism any more. They call it street art, or public amelioration programming for the benefit of society.

"You get some artists who work 99-per-cent indoors, and then they come out and draw something nice on a wall and say, ‘Done!’ Then, they turn around and sell it in a gallery as graffiti. Art galleries aren’t about art – they’re about selling a product. So let’s be clear: There’s graffiti and then there’s the aesthetic of graffiti, sold as a product."

Before returning to his office for the afternoon, Omen crystallizes the conundrum faced by any graffiti artist hoping to mesh his art with the limitations that art presents in its purest form. "Of course, it’s my dream to make a living from what I do best," he says. "And what I do best is paint with a spray can on a wall."