Street art blooms on Vancouver walls

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There's a little burst of colour emerging from an alleyway near Vancouver's 8th Ave. and Main Street. Giraffes and chickadees poke their heads out from a riot of magnolia blossoms in Vancouver's newest mural.

It's the work of artist Ilya Viryachev, who has been painting outdoor murals in Vancouver since 2014. This latest piece, In Bloom, was completed two months ago.

"We have a lot of alleyways in Vancouver which are a little grungy, a little dirty. I think art like this brings a positive vibe," said Viryachev.

Vancouver has had a longstanding reputation as a "no fun city," and the swift removal of unsanctioned street art has added to that image.

"Getting street art on walls in Vancouver is a bit of a challenge," says Chris Bentzen, owner of Hot Art Wet City art gallery. "The city tends to cover it up pretty quickly… Part of street art is that surprise of finding it, if you ever get to see it at all."

Thanks to the revitalization of the mural program, alleys across the city have blossomed with art, and it looks like there's a lot more to come. However, some artists dislike the restrictions of the program and those on creative freedom.

Artists, the city and business associations team up

Scott Edwards, manager of street activities with the City of Vancouver, said the mural program was revitalized in 2012 after artists and businesses expressed concern over the degradation of existing murals. 

"They wanted something back. They were seeing them tagged, they were seeing them defaced. Some were being defaced to the point where the city needed to remove them," Edwards said. "We wanted to be able to re-engage the community and get the muralists and the artists and everyone excited about putting something back up without worrying about it getting damaged."

Over the past two years, the city has made further changes to the mural program in response to feedback from artists and businesses, who said they wanted the approval process to be faster and easier. The streamlined process has resulted in permits for 60 new murals in the last two years. The city has also been actively commissioning more artists to paint utility boxes around the city.

The city's mural program, Edwards said, is aimed at beautifying neighbourhoods and building strong communities. Viryachev's In Bloom did just that. He teamed up with a youth group from the Mount Pleasant Community Centre to design and create the mural. 

"They really helped me out a lot," Viryachev said. "I've taught kids painting before and sometimes it can be a lot of attention and work. But in this case it was perfect." 

The first murals Viryachev painted were entirely his own initiative. He found walls, got permission from business owners and applied for permits with the city. The city paid for his paint, like it does for all approved murals.

He said the mural program gives local emerging artists the chance to find an audience and get their name out. In fact he credits the exposure he earned from these early projects with getting him to where he is now -- being hired by business associations and paid for his time.

Vancouver's business associations play an important role in the mural program. The Mount Pleasant BIA, in particular, has been active in securing permits and paying artists to create murals in their neighbourhood -- including Viryachev's In Bloom.

For communities like Mount Pleasant, murals are a way to create a unique sense of place in a neighbourhood that's known for its artistic community. What's more, it's an effective way to fight graffiti.

Discouraging graffiti

Viryachev said the value of mural art as a graffiti deterrent should not be underestimated.

"What people don't realize is the city would love artists to create more art because it's more rare that a mural would get tagged than a random wall," said Viryachev.

Property owners in Vancouver are required to remove graffiti if it appears on their buildings -- likewise, the city is responsible for removing graffiti on its property.

Viryachev says some business owners worry about the cost of creating and maintaining a mural, not realizing that the city pays for paint and covers the mural with a protective coating to make it easier to remove unwanted tags and graffiti. What's more, artists can be held responsible for upkeep.

"For the next two years if this mural is tagged I have to come and clean it up, which I'm perfectly fine with," said Viryachev, adding that he's already had to get up at 5:00 a.m. to paint over a tag on his mural before his workday started.

Rumours of a mural festival in the works

Viryachev said that local musician David Vertesi of Hey Ocean! has been working to get a mural festival organized in Vancouver for this coming summer.

"I hear that it's ramping up, that there's walls being chosen," he said. "It's a big push for local artists to be seen in the city."

Edwards confirmed that the city has received an application to explore the idea of a mural festival but that nothing has been confirmed yet.

Viryachev hopes a festival will help raise awareness about the city's mural program

"Some businesses may be afraid of it, people might not want to deal with it. Once you see a lot of them people will hopefully realize how cool it is," he said.

The thrill of unsanctioned street art

Some artists, however, would rather not be restricted by the mural program. Graffiti artists like iHeart, whose stencil work was shared by Banksy in 2014, always have their work quickly removed by the city.

In an interview earlier this year, iHeart said the city's mural program is overly restrictive. He doubts his designs would be approved and he'd rather continue creating unsanctioned street art.

Other artists prefer to tread the middle ground between permitted murals and illegal spray paint art.

Artists like Jenn "Slingshot" Brisson, wrk(less), Mega McGrath and M.W. Bowen use a technique known as wheatpasting to stick their art in alleyways and on boarded-up buildings around the city.

The technique is fast, easy and impermanent. Artists create their work in studio and then use homemade flour-and-water glue to paste it up. Most wheatpaste art washes away during Vancouver's rainy winter.

For M.W. Bowen, the slightly illicit nature of this artform is part of the thrill, as is the creative freedom it affords.

"You really have complete freedom. There's no one giving you a theme or guidelines or materials you have to work with," he said. 

The immediacy of wheatpasting is another draw.

"Getting into a gallery, becoming more well known in the art community -- that takes a long time. But this is something I could do right away," he said.

Bowen doesn't rule out the idea of taking on a mural project of his own in the future. But regardless, he says the revitalized mural program is a boon for the city's artists.

"I think this one thing will have a ripple effect that can only create positive energy in the city," he said. "It'll raise the community's awareness of public art," he said.


Megan Devlin is a multimedia journalist and former rabble news intern. Right now she's based in Vancouver pursuing a Master of Journalism at the University of British Columbia

Rachel Sanders is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and broadcaster. She is a Master of Journalism student at the University of British Columbia.

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