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Outlaw Artists: Graffiti in Victoria

“I feel guilty half the time, but it feels like I have to do it. It’s a sign of being alive.” - Pesto, Victoria graffiti artist
Graffiti artist Pesto poses in front of a large-scale graffiti project in Odeon Alley that was only on view for a few days before the building’s owner painted over it in a wash of grey.

You see their work all around you. To some it inspires awe; to others, anger. They are a secretive collection who, although passionate about their art form, are wary of outsiders. After six months of gaining their trust, Monday columnist Simon Nattress was invited to a basement in Fernwood for a glimpse into the thriving graffiti culture hidden under the tags and burners covering Victoria’s rooftops and alleyways. Regardless of your opinion, Victoria’s urban underground is a vibrant and colourful scene. Here’s a rare peek beneath the hoodies and ballcaps at what makes these outlaw artists tick.

Monday: What makes Victoria’s graffiti scene unique?

Onion: I think compared to other cities, there’re a lot of spots and things that stay up for a long time. Graffiti is part of living in Victoria, and it has been for a long time. In other cities, just like here, they’re taking spots away, but it seems to still trickle in.

Pesto: The graffiti scene here was prominent way before the mainland and Calgary and Edmonton, even Vancouver — it was happening in Victoria before it was anywhere on the West Coast so it’s got a long history. It also started before the Internet, so everything was really raw and unique that way and it wasn’t influenced by any other cities.

Onion: And just quirky people, you know it’s not a real thug scene, it’s like, weirdos.

Pesto: Yeah. I think it’s different because there really is a strong community here. Besides their really talented art, they’re also really talented social beasts and they’re really individualistic, so it shows in their art.

Arok: Individualism and the fact that we’re in an island community means it’s insular. Hip-hop graffiti in the classical sense is coming from the States through Seattle/West Coast style and older crews, but there’s always been this folk culture on the Island, just weirder heads and our own flow that we’ve been vibing off of for a while.

Monday: How do you reconcile that scene with Victoria’s conservative reputation?

Arok: I think there’s a dichotomy — and this is not just for graf — where in everyday living here there’s a lot of kinda whack sort of WASPish qualities, but coinciding with that is this vibrant art weirdo culture that exists in every realm, whether it’s folk music, punk rock, every different subculture.

Pesto: I think, with that said, a lot of the reason why it’s totally different here is that the fun isn’t just laid out for you here like it is in the big cities, you actually have to go out there and make it for yourself. People who want to do it make it happen, and I think that maybe is what sets all the writers off here, too. It’s not out there to grab like in big cities — you kinda have to find it or make it yourself.

Onion: And it’s pretty easy to get recognition. If you do something downtown, it’s going to get noticed. It’s like you have to make your own shit go on, but it’s easy to do that in a way. It’s not laid out, but if you want to you can do a project, you can collaborate.

Monday: What is the relationship between public space and graffiti?

Pesto: Basically, everywhere in the public is our art gallery.

Arok: We live in a society that elevates property. I want to see the police defending people rather than property, and that’s always going to be part of the defiance of graffiti — forever. Art is about defiance and about freedom, and graffiti is a renegade example of that in action and it’s always going to be.

Pesto: I feel guilty half the time, but it feels like I have to do it. It’s a sign of being alive. If you look at the city around you as a garden — you can constantly pull out the weeds but they’re always going to come back. That’s like graffiti, you can buff it out all you want, but it’s always going to come back. At the end of the day there is guilt that comes along with having to do illegal stuff, but I think it’s because of the capitalism brainwash. Really, whoever built the building should feel guilty because there used to be a beautiful forest there, you know?

Onion: I think I do it because I want to show what can be done with someone’s initiative, like we don’t have to just sit idly in our cars looking out of the window, we can actually engage in our surroundings and change it. It’s like a form of magic, you can put your intention into something and everyone will see it and then that gets in their minds... We’re not robots, we don’t need grey walls, we need walls with colour on them to stimulate our eyes.

Monday: Why do you do graffiti?

Pesto: I don’t know, it’s just one of those things you can’t explain. Why do you do what you do? You’re passionate about it, you’re interested in it, you like the people that are involved in it and even if there’s no future in it for me I’m involved in something and it gives me a voice in the community.  It’s having fun with life instead of just living day to day.

Arok: I’ve always done art, but when I was a teenager graffiti was a place where art and skateboarding and being a kid came together. It’s just where visual art and being alive and young happened to meet. I continue to do a lot of above ground projects that aren’t specifically related to graffiti, but no matter what else I do graffiti is still a huge part of the catalyst that makes that real for me. I would still be an artist without it, but it just provides a fucking detonator.

Onion: I started on the whole street art thing like 10 years ago making political posters, I was in the punk scene and I sort of came from that angle. After I went to art school I started doing different street art, nailing paintings into telephone polls. I think going to a gallery art show is cool, but it’s kind of stale — it’s exclusive. I like the idea of someone just walking down the street and seeing a piece of art... It’s the first art form, it’s like painting a stencil of your hand with your own blood on a cave wall, that was the first graffiti, it’s thousands of years old. Graffiti is just human spirit. M