The broken windows theory is gospel among those who would coax order out of the natural chaos of urban life. It says that visual signs of disorder — broken windows, busted fences, graffiti — feed urban decay until cities are set ablaze by a torrent of gang violence and hooliganism. This is what some people see when they look at graffiti.
Others see artistic expression — urban life and personal struggle sprayed onto a wall for everyone to experience — and it’s these people who have embraced Victoria’s thriving graffiti scene for the past 30 years. “Graffiti in Victoria has always been a way for marginalized youth to have a voice, to co-opt visual space and the world around them,” says one local graffiti writer. “There’s not very many instances where you’ll have a group of young kids asking for a place to do their art and asking for space in the community to have their voice heard.” Tarnishing its hard-earned reputation as the City of Flowers, the capital’s graffiti scene is one of the oldest and well-respected in Canada, even managing to hold its own against massive urban centres like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Showcasing Victoria’s contribution to Canadian graffiti, Adam Melnyk’s new book — Visual Orgasm: The Early Years of Canadian Graffiti — catalogues some of the people who ushered in Victoria’s graffiti culture and paved the way for dozens of other local artists in the scattered but vibrant scene of the mid ’80s and ’90s. “Canadian graffiti is interesting in that it kinda happened in pockets across the country, so that’s why in the book we have features on different cities,” says Melnyk. “Those are really the cities where things happened.”
Despite Victoria’s relative status amongst mainland Canadians, official support for local writers has been sparse at best. “There were dozens of walls where graffiti was either legal or tolerated,” remembers one writer as we admire a piece at Wild Fire bakery, one of the last remaining mostly free walls in the city. With places like the Trackside Gallery long gone, local graffiti culture has been pushed back under bridges and into alleys, tucking away the art that could help define the capital. M
Check out the Visual Orgasm book launch Friday, Dec. 9, 7 to 9 p.m. at Higher Ground Clothing (760 Yates).