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Graffiti in Montreal – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


by Sergio Martinez

Suddenly emerging on the wall of a building located almost at the corner of Notre Dame West and Atwater is the image of Mighty Mouse—the iconic mouse super-hero created by Paul Terry in 1942 who made dozens of theatrical and TV movies until 1961 as well as appearing in its own comic book between 1945 and 1990. Then there is that other strange mural right on the building located at the southeast corner of St. Laurent Blvd. and Pine Avenue: the image features an old lady wearing a pendant shaped as the logo of the City of Montreal seemingly using a paint can (or setting fire) to what looks like a decrepit area, resembling very much the neighbourhood of the painting itself.

Those are just two examples of the good that you can find on many of the walls in Montreal: these two murals are great examples of genuine street art which should be celebrated. Unfortunately it is not only the good what you can find on the walls of our city, in fact most of what appears on walls, traffic signs, light poles, bus shelters and any other object located in public areas are some more or less incomprehensible signs known as tags, a graphic way for street gangs to mark territory. Those tags are then the human equivalent to dogs urinating to warn others about their territoriality: the tags left by the leader of a crew indicate to other fellow taggers that if they enter their territory (for the selling of drugs or sex, for instance) they do it at their peril. These tags, which could come as a writing that resembles a signature or on other occasions as the spelling of the whole name of the gang leader don’t have any aesthetic value. When some commentators use the expression “graffiti artists” in reference to these people in fact they are just trying to be “cool” and be accepted by some young people who feel attracted to an act presented as a transgression with a certain degree of rebellion. The truth is that only a very small portion of what is written or drawn on the walls reveals some doses of talent or, in other words, of those involved in the production of graffiti only a very small minority could be regarded as talented and creative. For the most part their creation on the walls of Montreal is not only bad but also ugly.

Then there is another variation of the bad, the writing on traffic signs (really a dangerous offence since it may contribute to accidents) or the one done on the timetable at bus stops which prevents people from learning when the next bus will come. I don’t think anybody in the name of “coolness” or “understanding youth” could endorse such acts which are nothing but vandalism.

Of course some will say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” while others will reply to that sophism saying that indeed there are standards of beauty which may not be absolute, but still allow us to say contextually, that a graffiti on a wall is inconsistent with the design of that wall or the structure of which that wall is part of, and therefore is against the aesthetics of such structure.

Nevertheless I admit the discussion may go on forever, however I would insist that even though some legitimate talents are putting their art on the walls, most of the writing and drawing is done by talentless losers, and borrowing now from another context I would add that the “writing is on the wall” and most of those tagging the names of their gangs on the city’s walls will more likely find their names in the future in the papers’ crime pages than on the arts section.

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