THE STREET ART OF VANCOUVER
Evan Dale // Mar 20, 2020
It feels as though Vancouver is home to its own color palette. Born of its natural surroundings and reaffirmed in its environmentally centric design, the city and its art breathe of pale blues, deep greens, and flashes of vibrant yellows, reds, blacks, and whites. In any other surroundings, its general feeling would exude a dream-state, evoke sleepiness. But in a city as perfectly designed; in a natural setting as awe-inspiring and inspirational as they come, the melancholy of Vancouver and British Columbia at large is a happy sort of glum one didn’t know was possible.
The streets are permanently wet. Even when it hasn’t rained or sleeted in days, the low-hanging clouds and stationary fog leave their mark on the pavement, the buildings, and the clothes on everyone enjoying the refreshingly damp air. After a few short hours outdoors, it’s easy to forget that everything one owns is, too, soaked through.
Amongst all the marks of wetness exist in equal strength marks of the times. Much of the city – especially what is seen in photos – gives the impression of North America’s most modern city. And to some extent – Vancouver’s downtown is exactly that. The product of environmentally focused design of the Pacific Northwest; the product of an Olympic thirst for density and mass transportation systems; the product of a fusion of diversity stemming from the rest of Canada, from oversees, from the US, and predominantly, from Vancouver’s own rich past as a First Nation settlement, leaves Vancouver a vibrant image of modernity done right on a continent that has largely missed the mark for a century or more.
And from that diversity, that modernity, that tradition, that urbanism, and that environment so too stems the art, coming to life with the same color palette of the city which itself is inspired by its surrounding natural systems. In that way, Vancouver’s street art is as close to a natural reflection and reaction to its environment – natural and human – as any other city on earth.
The first trend one notices is the influence that First Nations art has had on Vancouver’s artistic population. It’s not only the colors. It’s the patterns. Much of the street art begs to be touched. Gripped by the textural appearance of so many First Nations pattern work and attention to detail. Light fixtures, electric boxes, and traditional street art it itself all feel in some ways touched by totem, by canoe carvings, by the forest and its native population of peoples, plants, and wildlife.
From that foundation sprout murals covering the height of buildings, sharpie pen drawings barely filling the space of a single brick, and works of graffiti, frescoes, and commissioned pieces of every size in between. All of them feel related not to one another, but to the inescapable atmosphere and ambience of the city at large.
A stroll through and near Vancouver’s historic Gas Town neighborhood is probably the most vibrant and approachable exhibition of the city’s diverse street art. The neighborhood itself is also a more accurate depiction of the city than the purely modern, clean image so often placarded to tourism websites and Instagram feeds. In Gas Town and blocks off its main drag exist signs of history, of honesty, of struggle, of truth, and yet, through it all, marks of stark beauty and fluid creativity. Everything from the electric boxes and the alley walls to the light poles and the shopfronts melt into a neighborhood-wide mosaic. And in that mosaic exists stories of vibrant self-sufficiency, crushing gentrification, underrepresented communities, and simply art for its own sake.
In Gas Town, one will also find a number of galleries high art, street fashion, and everything in between. Of them, SixHundredFour is one of the more unique collectives bringing together the world of Vancouver’s wide-ranging creative scenes. The boutique shells shoes, clothing, and accessories all born of the work of local street artists – prints and originals of which the shop also sells. It is an incredible space not only to dive into Vancouver’s street art scene and the messages its artists are conveying, but to also see a confluence of creative ideology that could only exist in a city with the kind of artistic collaboration that Vancouver boasts.
Further South, removed from Vancouver’s urban center and from the markings of largely independent street artists, city walls comes to life through collaboration. Centered in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, The Vancouver Mural Festival, ‘through the creation of permanent large-scale public murals, provides a platform for Vancouver's diverse art scene to contribute to the city’s cultural legacy for years to come.’ Like so many international creative hubs, Vancouver’s art scene has embraced the role of street artists and muralists in their community, granting them the space and opportunity to make the statements they see fit for their city and its visitors. ‘[The] events and public art installations serve as catalysts for addressing many of the socio-cultural issues facing [the] city and artistic communities. These include, but are not limited to: public art policy, community building, environmental policy, reconciliation with First Nations, artistic censorship, diversity, cost of living, and the need for culturally sustainable development practices.’
Like any city, street art is about statement. And like any city, Vancouver’s statements are unique to the complexities of their situation. At the forefront of the conversation is Vancouver’s, British Columbia’s, and Canada’s ongoing reconciliation efforts with their indigenous population. Through the Vancouver Mural Festival, The Indigenous Youth Mural Arts Program is a shining example of not only how art can bring people together, but how it can influence conversation and even heal. ‘[W]ith the intention to provide a platform for Coast Salish people and Indigenous people living in Vancouver to tell their stories’ YMAP has resulted in dozens of murals big and small, but all making their necessary statements around the city.
Of them, perhaps most recognizable and all-encompassing is The Healing Quilt, a massive, building-height mural commemorating the loss of life from the ongoing fentanyl overdose crisis that peaked largely effecting indigenous populations in Vancouver in 2017. ‘The mural is intended as a site of meaning and beauty for the people who live in the DTES. It is both a memorial to those who have died during the ongoing crisis and a big beautiful bright gift for the folks who call the streets home.’
At the end of the day, we all call the streets home. It’s the main reason why street art, murals, and graffiti are so powerful. There is no museum, no gallery, and no fees to be paid. All that’s required to take in the art, digest it, and make meaning of it is to go from one place to another. And in Vancouver, one of the most uniquely artistic cities in the world, walking from one place to another yields a remarkable amount of artistic storytelling, opening the eyes of Vancouver’s locals and the city’s many visitors to the struggle, the culture, and the myriad, mosaic beauty that make Vancouver what it really is.