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Vancouver Mural Fest paints portrait of diversity

There are plenty of canvases for East Vancouver artists to work with, but they're not going to be found in your local supplies store. Instead, lift your eyes to the sky and look at the city around you.
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British artist David Shillinglaw working on his 5th Avenue mural, entitled “A crouton floating in a cosmic soup."


There are plenty of canvases for East Vancouver artists to work with, but they're not going to be found in your local supplies store. Instead, lift your eyes to the sky and look at the city around you. Whether it's an exposed brick building on the Main Street corridor, or a Mount Pleasant alleyway full of derelict, paint-peeled walls in need of a touch up, Vancouver Mural Fest co-founder David Vertesi sees plenty of untapped potential in the city. Last year, he helped co-ordinate a vibrant facelift for the city, inviting several dozen local artists to produce colourful creations on storefronts and structures across town. Billed as "the city's largest annual free public art celebration," the sophomore edition has over 50 more murals going up between Aug. 7 and 12.

"We're really trying to transform how art is seen in Vancouver," Vertesi tells the Westender shortly after meeting up outside of Gene coffee shop on Main, adding that this popular spot's slate grey outer coating will soon be revamped by a wraparound piece from Northwest Coast Indigenous artist Bracken Hanuse Corlett. Elsewhere, you'll be introduced to murals designed by comics illustrator Johnnie Christmas, painter Jeska Slater, graffiti tag-inspired artist Naks, and many more. "We have this insanely amazing, thriving arts and culture community," Vertesi notes of his local scene.

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The festival features more than 50 murals going up around East Vancouver. - Screengrab

Building off the foundation laid in 2016, the second annual Vancouver Mural Festival finds the non-profit Create Vancouver Society expanding its program, and addressing concerns over the inaugural event. Acknowledging that the fest takes place on contested land, Vertesi explains that they've focused on including more Indigenous artists this year to combat cultural erasure. This includes the Haida crest-inspired mural that Corey Bulpitt is scheduled to paint onto the DTES's iconic Pigeon Park Savings, as well as Corlett's mural on Gene: a cosmic canoe journey inspired by his Klahoose, Wuikinuxv and Kwakwaka’wakw ancestry, not to mention an interest in sci-fi. Corlett acknowledges in an artist statement that his work is going up on unceded Coast Salish territory, and as a visitor, he's respectfully "passing through with my paddles up."

"It's really interesting how it intersects with public issues," Vertesi adds of the broader social implications of the outdoor project, "and although we're primarily an arts advocacy kind of event, we really wanted to see where can we make positive impacts on some of those ideas."

An ensuing walking tour with Vertesi winds along the alleyway between Main and Quebec, from Broadway to Second – a key area for the festival, as a number of artists are set to coat businesses with a variety of back lot scenes. The large-form blanketing, exploring a number of artistic styles and cultural backgrounds, is Create Vancouver Society's attempt to make their party inclusive to all.

"You don't just have one mural and be like, 'We want this mural to represent the diversity of the community,’" Vertesi insists. "No, you have 10 murals by 10 different artists who have 10 different backgrounds. If they want to paint a pretty picture, they paint a pretty picture. If they want to do something a bit more intense, then they do that. That's diversity."

While including a large breadth of local talent, organizers have also invited artists from outside of BC to take part in Mural Fest, such as Spain's Cinta Vidal and Russia's Marat Morik. Austrian provocateur Nychos had been set to put up a piece behind the Fox Cabaret, but his proposed mural – an anatomically deconstructed fetus – proved to be too risqué a public art piece. A compromise could not be reached between the artist and organizers.

Though Vertesi applauds Nychos' technique, he explains: "I think it would have been a very difficult piece for people to get behind, even though I understood where he was coming from. He was trying to create something that was about life, because for him it represents life. He's all about looking inside, like, 'That's what we really are.’"

"You don't just have one mural and be like, 'We want this mural to represent the diversity of the community.’"

Despite this pre-launch disappointment, there's still plenty to see at Mural Fest this summer. Dovetailing with CVS's ongoing talks with the city to create legal, safe-space walls for graffiti artists, a Mount Pleasant Graffiti Jam being held on Aug. 12 will find 13 artists spray-painting a parking lot in honor of a Holden Courage, a local artist who passed away in 2015. In addition to the murals, a pop-up tattoo shop will take place at Burrard Arts Foundation on Aug. 12; a concert series has synth-pop project Operators, among other performers, hitting the Cobalt later that night; and members of the THRIVE Art Studio for women will hold a panel discussion at the Mural Fest headquarters on opening night.

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Vancouver Mural Festival artist Sandeep Johal with an older completed piece. - Dan Toulgoet photo

THRIVE member Sandeep Johal missed the application deadline for a mural in 2016, but managed to contribute an intricate and geometric chalk Mandala on a sidewalk at Main and 7th. This year, she's taking her art to the side wall of Broadway eatery Chutney Villa. Reflecting her South Asian heritage and working off past projects that dealt with gender inequity and violence, the mural will picture warrior goddess Durga riding a tiger.

"I'm interested in looking at women who are able to be powerful and do good things for other women, or for other people, despite maybe any kind of oppressive circumstances they've been in themselves," Johal explains during a phone call with the Westender.

Vancouver Mural Fest is looking to break down barriers by making art accessible to all. If silently strolling through an art gallery seems too stodgy for some, the Block Party's alleyway beer garden could act as a more relaxed area for an arts discussion. On the flip, you can likewise just wander the streets one day with your eyes aimed high, taking in all the colours and concepts at your own pace. Remember, the art exists to enjoy outside of the fest's summer timeline, too.

"I think it can be intimidating to just walk into a gallery and be like 'oh, what do I do?'" Johal says. "I think public art is great because it can engage so many different kinds of people – different ages, different ethnicities. It can get people really excited about the place that they live in. I live in Mount Pleasant, so every day I'm out with my son and I see these beautiful murals. My spirit lifts all the time."

• The Vancouver Mural Festival takes place between Aug. 7-12. Artist and tour info can be found here