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Vancouver now has its first legal 'graffiti wall' and more could be in the works

The 178 feet long alley lane serves as Vancouver's first legal canvas for graffiti artists.

Vancouver now has a designated spot for legal graffiti, and it could be the first of several. 

A large back alley lane stretching 178 feet long behind one of Vancouver Native Housing Society's buildings, The Pendera at 133 W Pender St, has been donated to Vancouver's graffiti artists as a large legal canvas.

The wall has brought together graffiti artists from all over the city, including well-known street artist Ken Foster. 

But it didn't happen overnight.

How and when did the legal graffiti wall happen? 

The story of the wall begins on Facebook.

Trey Helten and James Hardy, who also goes by Smokey Devil, have been advocating and working on graffiti street art initiatives within the city for many years. As part of their efforts to incorporate graffiti culture into the city, they started the Vancouver Coalition of Graffiti Writers Facebook page which serves as a contact point for people who want to encourage street art (such as businesses looking for artists to create art on their building).

When the manager of the Vancouver Native Housing Society building reached out to the group, Helten saw an opportunity to create something bigger. 

"The manager was having a lot of problems with ugly tagging in the alleyway and reached out to us [saying] that she'd like to have nice pieces [instead of] ugly tags," Helten tells Vancouver Is Awesome over the phone. The manager's initial request for a nice graffiti mural turned into a great opportunity, he adds. 

Who's behind Vancouver's sanctioned tagging wall? 

Helten has gathered a network of connections within the city through his many years of advocating for graffiti street art, and knew who to get in touch with to make the wall come to life. 

"Because I've been advocating for graffiti walls for the last three years, I have a lot of connections with the City of Vancouver to make legal murals happen, so I've already navigated through the system a little bit," Helten said, adding that this advantage has helped him go through the process of creating the legal graffiti wall a lot quicker. "Vancouver has been listening to me and Smokey whine at city council meetings about making a legal graffiti spot for the last three years and they agreed with us that this was a good thing."

Helten and Hardy's contributions at a city council meeting on June 7 resulted in the city allotting $20,000 for graffiti street art programs. 

Yet, the entire process of creating the legal graffiti wall was crowdfunded. 

Fundraiser for the legal graffiti wall

The fundraiser has raised a little over $1,200 which went towards preparing the wall and purchasing supplies for artists.

"We were able to buy a fresh coat of exterior paint, we hired community members who normally wouldn't be able to work or would be considered unemployable and we paid them a really good wage of 20 bucks an hour in cash to scrape old paint off the wall and to use a wire brush to get the moss off and then to roll it with a fresh coat of grey," Helten detailed over the phone. "We created employment opportunities for entrenched drug users, as well as [doing] everything ourselves."

The funding also went towards paints and meals for six Indigenous artists who were some of the first to touch the wall (there were 11 street artists in total to be the first to create on the legal space). 

48 hours since the wall was set up

The wall, though a designated space for legal graffiti art, has had a great impact on the community. 

"One of the artists that got on that wall became incredibly entrenched in drug addiction," Helten shares. "In the last seven months he hasn't painted any graffiti... We were able to find him on the Downtown Eastside [and] take him for lunch, buy him paints [and] encouraged him to go get up on the wall and paint. He felt very supported. And it was the first time he had human to human contact in the last seven months where he felt that he wasn't just an outcast of society anymore."

The wall had brought in young artists as well, including a youth who had came to see the wall after his dad had told him to paint in a place where graffiti is legal, said Helten. "We taught him how to paint, we taught him a little bit about graffiti culture and he came back the next day. He felt accepted and I think he felt supported and [that] he had a safe place to paint."

Plans for a second legal graffiti wall

Two days after the wall was set up, Helten had a meeting with city council to discuss how things went. 

As anticipated, according to Helten, graffiti had already starting spreading onto buildings neighbouring the legal graffiti wall. Still, council is open to improvements as well as a secondary location.

Helten told V.I.A. that plans to improve the space are already in the works, involving creating a designated sign regarding respectful behaviour in the alley and time restrictions for when the wall will be available. "People [are] playing loud music now while they paint. We don't want to disrupt the neighbours too much," he explains. 

The proposition of additional legal graffiti walls is also in the air, but it is up to Helten to organize it. 

"If there are any building owners in the City of Vancouver who own a large wall, preferably just a straight wall with no crazy obstructions or anything, and they're having problems with graffiti reach out to me, because the city wants to make another spot," he urges, suggesting anyone interested use Twitter, Facebook or the Vancouver Coalition of Graffiti Writers Facebook page to contact him.