Their names are code names. Cameraman, Rich S, Jerm9, Rabbit, Take5, AO1, Emma. Here are the vital introductory details. They work together and separately. They want both recognition and anonymity. They’re street artists but they’re not Banksy or Shepard Fairey, who they admire yet also despise on occasion, too. They work at night, but I met each of them first during the day: another telling detail. I became curious about them the way you do looking out a window and seeing somebody walking on the roof of the building next door, which is where I saw Rabbit for the first time, hunched down among the galvanized roof ducts and fans, the litter and the weeds. A few weeks later, I saw him on the street and my curiosity deepened. So I followed him from my daytime work into his work at night. A few evenings out there in the alleys, sharing smokes and a pint bottle of whiskey, watching the art go up on brick walls and dumpsters, on plywood hoardings over long-dead buildings down on Main and Terminal streets. I watched this action in Vancouver, but it was and is happening all over the urban west. Art going up in the darkness. Posters, banners, photographs, stencils. Once, a huge mural involving grass Cameraman picked out of a ditch in East Van and glued to the side of a popular Gastown bar, shaping this organic material into a border around a photograph of himself with many arms, like a street art Kali. But as I watched, I was always the person who worked during the daytime. And they were always the ones who worked at night. That’s the way it would always be between us.
Hastings Street, January 2008. 1 a.m. The wind is freezing. The sidewalks are shifting with people in heavy coats and wool caps. We can all see our breath, ghosting in the air.
Hastings and Main Street, to be precise, putting us—that is me, Cameraman and Rich S—at the epicentre of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Here, at one in the morning, everything is the opposite of the rest of the city. The streets are alive. The bars are full. Nobody is sleeping and the street market is in full swing. People sell old luggage, or a set of brass dope scales. Someone is combing the gutter for cigarette butts to harvest for roll-your-owns. That bearded guy on a chair next to the plywood hoarding is actually a doorman. Nobody slips past him and into the abandoned building beyond without paying the entrance fee. No matter that past the hoarding you step directly from planet earth into the ninth circle of hell, a betrayal unto death on mattresses wreathed in crack smoke, surrounded by heaving shapes in the darkness. You have to pay to get in on that action.
We only want to use the hoarding, which is new and graffiti-free, and which Rich S scoped out riding by on his bicycle that afternoon. We want to “put up” here. That is, mount the huge poster Cameraman and Rich S are carrying in their knapsacks, broken into sixty separate panels, each one printed off at Kinko’s on legal-sized paper. But the man who runs the door also runs the hoarding, so negotiation ensues and only ends when Cameraman thinks to hand the man what’s left of the bottle of rum we’d been sharing to stay warm.
His face breaks open into a smile. He takes the bottle, then leans back and yells into the air: “Rummity, rummity, rum!”
I’m taking notes in the chill, trying to write with gloves on, recording the whole process so I can tell you how a poster goes up on a plywood hoarding at Hastings and Main at one in the morning. You pour wallpaper paste into a paint tray, then apply it to the wall with a roller. Press the paper onto the wall, then roller more paste over top. Repeat, aligning each panel carefully with the one next to it as you build the larger image. A crowd will probably gather. People will stop and hem in. They’ll look over your shoulder. They’ll ask questions. Is it art? Is it political? They may critique or they may praise. One woman may even separate from the group and dance out into the street, her arms spread, twirling, twirling, crying out in a sing-song voice: “Keep up the good work, you beautiful, beautiful young artists.” And the hair will rise on the back of your neck as you hear these words echoing off the brick and the dumpsters. Beautiful, beautiful. In the mercury haze of an overhead street light, as a cop car glides past and into the night. As the aromas of the neighbourhood suddenly fill your nasal passages: sweat and urine, the floral ambiguity of garbage.
But none of that will prepare you for what happens when the poster is finished, as the last panel is pasted into place and the artists step away to reveal it whole for the first time, six feet wide by eight feet high. The upper part is a blown-up photograph of two gymnast figurines, plastic souvenirs from the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. They stand rigidly, one arm flourished overhead, awaiting the judges’ score cards.
The bottom part of the posters—in tall, bold letters—reads: Freedom is Slavery.
And a cheer goes up. Not from one throat or from a few. But from everyone at once. Cheering like a winning goal has just been scored. “Oh yeee-ah!” “Right on!” The doorman on his feet now, one arm outstretched, pointing.
“That is…” he sputters, almost dumbstruck but not quite. “That is black and white, brothers! Black. And. White.”
Take5 is a graffiti writer by reputation but he also puts up beautiful posters. I especially admire his stencil of an Indian chief’s head, which was inspired by the logo on a pneumatic chair used by train engineers. But I like all his work. In fact, I’ll acknowledge a middle-class collector’s impulse. When I see Take’s work, I want to buy some.
He obliged once, which is how we got to talking. We spoke about the history of graffiti, about hobo sign-post code and grease pen signatures, about hopping freights, something he still does with the help of friends even though he was injured doing it as a younger man and lost the use of his legs. But as we talked, I sensed his increasing awareness that he was doing something he didn’t typically do: giving an interview. And at a crucial moment in the conversation, Take5 suddenly told me how strongly he opposed geo-caching the locations of street art installations, a practice popularized by such websites as Flickr and GoogleMaps. Why did finding something beautiful mean you had to catalogue it all? The idea pissed him off.
“There needs to be mystery in life,” he told me. “There needs to be something we don’t know, something we don’t understand. We need myths and magic.”
He was staring at me intently. We were sitting in the space along Hastings Street known as the Red Gate, or sometimes the Rainbow Art Institute. A gallery, sort of. It’s also the home and office, the sphere and domain, of one Jim Carrico, who is as close to a street art curator as they come. A facilitator, an encourager. There are a half dozen artists living in the empty floors above us at any given time. Carrico introduced me to Take5. And all around us was the stacked evidence of the kind of artistic community that Carrico anchors. One wall, just to my left, was covered in dozens of ballpoint pen drawings of imaginary animals, each brilliantly individual on pages torn from an unused ledger book salvaged from a long-gone accounting firm, the pages tremoring silently in the dusty air. Evidence, I thought, of a frantic industry of creation, only the opposite of an industry in every sense. The opposite of the idea carried forward by so many artists from Warhol to Damien Hirst: the art factory. The Rainbow is the opposite of that idea because the work here seems to accumulate in response to no particular plan or demand. No market of which I’m aware.
But the production continues, driven by darker, hidden energies. Carrico himself has recently completed a stencil of riveting drama, intense beauty. The Titanic in fiery four-tone, sinking into the black below. It was hanging on the side of the Cambie Hotel for awhile. But I never saw a price tag on it. I have no idea if it’s even for sale.
We need mystery. We have it right here, I believe: why is this art being made at all?
Street art has two bibles. Maybe they answer the question. They shape a Manichean theology where meaning and emptiness swirl in balancing opposition. The first book is The Faith of Graffiti, published in 1974, which combines photography by Jon Naar and Mervyn Kurlansky with an essay written by Norman Mailer. The second is Shepard Fairey’s book Supply and Demand, published by the Los Angeles based street artist in 2006.
The Faith of Graffiti has photos that will stop you cold if you’ve never seen what the South Bronx looked like in the mid-seventies. The graffiti writers Mailer followed had just two objects in their artistic possession: a magic marker and their chosen street names. So they used the one to inscribe the other wherever and whenever possible. The photos show whole buses and train cars, entire bridges and blocks of apartment flats buried under these tags—Snake 1, Cay, Bama, Stitch—the objects grown-over as if with foliage, as if the city was being snatched back by an angry wilderness that had been held in check too long.
Why the name? Mailer asks CAY 161, a seventeen-year-old graffiti writer who, like Take5, has paid with his legs for an accident in the line of work. And CAY 161 answers: “The name is the faith of graffiti. The name is the faith.”
Mailer digs this, as would a writer who had already invoked the need for a savage response—possibly with violence—by the suppressed self onto a suppressing world. Graffiti wasn’t a knife or a gun, but an aesthetic strike using the written name as its holy sword. But we suspect that Shepard Fairey would not, or could not understand it this way. For Fairey, there is a gesture but there is no sword in the hand that makes it. There is no basis for faith.
The short version of Fairey’s near-legendary story is that in 1989, he began manufacturing a sticker bearing the likeness of Andre the Giant. Adopted by the skater community, the stickers spread across North America, morphing over time into the “Obey Giant” sticker campaign, which has since morphed into the “Obey Giant” brand of clothing, skateboards, CDs and memorabilia. Fairey hasn’t sold out. There was nothing to sell in the first place. He is ubiquitous and that is his point, which he defends with Marshall McLuhan, saying the medium is his message, but which is underscored more forcefully by his repeated references to Heidegger.
“One of the things I really liked about phenomenology,” Fairey writes in Supply and Demand, explaining his interest in the German philosopher and Nazi sympathizer, “was that it doesn’t have to attack anything specific.”
Fairey is unrivalled in his skill at representing opposition to consumer culture using its own language. His posters have the sheen of Madison Avenue and are adorned by motifs derived from American currency. But the representation is all. Fairey is past meaning anything. The act “in and of itself sends a message of defiance,” writes the man who now designs shopping bags for Macy’s.
“Manufacturing quality dissent since 1989,” echoes the tagline at his website. Although we understand him to mean not dissent, but Dissent©.
I have a Shepard Fairey poster in my office. It has all the hallmarks: the currency-inspired border and the political iconography, an image library silhouette of a Viet Cong soldier. When I look at it, however, I don’t find myself thinking about the work of Shepard Fairey. I find myself thinking about the work of JermIX whose hundreds of poetry and text banners have annotated Vancouver over the past several years. You can’t always get what you need, bannered onto the side of a dumpster. Or this one, near the sky train station where a teenaged kid was tragically stabbed: This is where it happened. Jerm’s work never fails to jolt me out of my routines and into the here and now, senses and self-awareness alive and piqued. But why think of this work when looking at a poster by Shepard Fairey? Because like hundreds of others, Jerm now puts up “Obey Giant”posters for the Fairey corporation at a dollar a throw. I’m not saying he’s sold out either. I’m saying JermIX is surviving. He’s paying for his own art, something all artistsmust do. And in doing so, he acts in the purest of faith that the effort is worth it, refilling with meaning what others have sought to empty.
Main Street, August 2010. Midnight. The air is warm. There are trains in the distance and I can smell the sea. I’m not alone but I can’t name names. The artist in question doesn’t want to be known. Let’s just say that he’s an individual and a group of individuals. Let’s call him Rabbit.
Rabbit is putting up a poster on the front of an abandoned building on Main Street, not far from Terminal. I’m watching and smiling, because I know this poster. I’ve written about it. That is, it’s written in the pages of my new novel. But I’ve never seen it in real life. Rabbit, who has so inspired me, who has shared with me his stories and the work of his hidden night, is doing me yet another favour by bringing it to life.
The poster bears a highly-pixelated image of a man in the middle of a scream. And underneath the anguished face, these words: FAITH WALL.
Do I know what it means? The answer, truthfully, is no. But as the traffic swirls behind us and the crowd spills out of the Cobalt Hotel, as a vehicle marked HazMat Emergency Response screams past us on the way to the waterfront, siren wailing, I believe it to have meaning. In the brush strokes, in the application of paste. In the slow rising of its many panels, I believe it to be full, spilling over, with drive, creativity, hope and human intent.
Rabbit, thank you.