The first half of this article comes off as a fluff piece on a clever but goofy young toy named Fish. But hidden in this story is an important policy issue that is highly problematic (We’ve bolded where the paragraph where it starts to get interesting). Edmonton police have begin erasing anything that they deem “graffiti,” regardless of whether or not the artist had permission. We’ve witnessed this issue closer to home, in Richmond CA, where the city policy declared war on an aesthetic. Aside from the right to free speech, it appears that this law is applied unevenly. Why stop on the outside of the property? Perhaps the Canadian government can create an aesthetic police that will barge into your house and inspect your canvases…
“Local police use the argument graffiti is a gateway drug of sorts, leading to more serious crimes.” This logic is inherently skewed. The gateway drug is the current abatement process which promotes blank walls over creativity. Murals are less likely to be vandalized than blank walls. Painting a wall blank repeated simply (particularly with the lax requirements that paint not match), is far more attractive to vandalism and far more damaging to property values than a mural. It is also contradictory that in a culture where private property is the law of the land, except when the property owner allows their wall to be painted in a specific aesthetic. How is a patchy blank wall legal and an commissioned aerosol style illegal?
EDMONTON – Out there in the city when no one’s looking works a good-natured, curious and ambitious technician.
His installations are colourful, cheerful things — goofy monster faces, oversized matches, plus a number of namesake pieces which, without signature, broadcast his identity. Anonymously, he unfurled a banner telling commuters snailing home across the High Level Bridge to “keep it real,” a tongue-in-cheek phrase arguably as fresh as Photoshopped billboard animals telling us which phones to buy, again.
“With that I was just trying to put a smile on someone’s face on the way to work,” says the graffiti-wheat-paster known simply as Fish. “I get asked a lot how I come up with the ideas. A lot of times it’s just stuff I see, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” says the artist. And yes, he is an artist — a person who creates art. “I’ve never purposefully gone out and been, ‘I’m just going to piss this group of people off.’ ”
I don’t know Fish’s real name, in fact making sure to know nothing much about him at all. Like everyone interviewed for this article, a few unquoted, it’s important to be cautious. I can tell you he’s in school, rides a skateboard and hangs out with other street artists.
Despite the city’s zero-tolerance policy for street art, there’s been an explosion in the last year of varying quality, an ambition unseen in the earlier eras of taggers Flur, Klame or the ubiquitous Listen.
But what I like about Fish isn’t his name or the demonstration of it, but his imagination, as well as a few of his contemporaries, including the beardo stickers of Hashtag Bernie and the wickedly twisted cartoons of Eightbit. Among a wide group, there’s sometimes conflict, confusion, perhaps the price of working in the shadows. But between them all, they’ve decorated our streets, sometimes even legally, with fusion animals, photos, puffy tags, 3-D google eyes, Facebook “Like” buttons, Nietzsche quotes and comments of the inevitable municipal grey-outs, “this doesn’t even match!”
I tried to make this column as much about Fish’s art itself as possible, so let’s talk about another one — again on the High Level. Fish, whose name sadly tributes someone he loved and lost, seems drawn to this spot. An early collaboration of his made a homeless person out of tape and blanket under its girders. Another was a notice which read, roughly, identify a problem, pretend to care, profit.
Asked for deeper meaning on this one, Fish laughs. “Usually, my art comes braindead at three in the morning asking, what would make your day better, what would be funny?” He lists off TOMS shoes and McDonald’s as corporations who advertise their charity work. “It makes you feel like you’re actually contributing something when you’re kind of not — there are better ways.”
Another of his works, at the north end of the bridge this time, was an enormous paper kitchen knife wheat-pasted onto a wall. It was like a drawing of a tattoo a kid might throw on the forearm of a post-apocalyptic gladiator, cartoon blood dripping off the end — a funhouse one-way sign with, OK, maybe just a little menace. People talked about it, Instagrammed it, and wondered what it meant — until someone removed it, as they always do. Either because they want it in their homes, or because it’s their job to.
Fish started tagging with a Jiffy marker, moving into label stickers, ever upping the scale of his pastes and sprays. The Internet has taken wall art to new levels of exposure, far beyond the traditional transmitter: travelling boxcars.
“You don’t put your work on other people’s stuff,” Fish says, hilariously, by which he means tagging on someone else’s work. But he gets the irony.
And then there are the laws, of which he’s fully conscious. “I’m aware that it’s illegal, just as everybody else is. But at the same time, it’s not that I don’t care, but I’m not going to stop.”
In June six police officers raided the Old Strathcona Paint Spot gallery and seized the work of local artist Daft Punk as part of a continuing investigation into street graffiti. He’s in court this week.
Art-friendly Sugar Bowl was recently forced to remove some consensual wheat-paste art, as well as the beginning of a spray-painted mural on its empty-for-years roof billboard. According to Edmonton’s Community bylaw, owners and tenants must eradicate “any graffiti displayed on the building that is visible from any surrounding property.”
The coffee shop’s general manager Lisa Vandermeullen was fond of the work outside, saying, “It’s a legitimate art form. If it’s Sugar Bowl property then it should be up to Sugar Bowl. Ultimately it’s a matter of taste and art.”
Vivid Print recently Twitter-teased tilers who’d hit them to be more careful, Fish admitting he was involved with the stunt. “They gave us a whole bunch of tips and it really scared us. I apologized right away.” Vivid owner Mark Wilson notes with a laugh that a pair of drunks who were fighting took out his window soon after.
Local police use the argument graffiti is a gateway drug of sorts, leading to more serious crimes by permitting chaos, though what of Montreal, easily the street art capital of the nation, a city with a substantially lower crime rate than Edmonton, according to Statistics Canada?
None of this is meant to antagonize anyone, just talk. The relationship between street artists and an organization like Capital City Cleanup is obviously adversarial at times, especially when the line between expression and property damage is clearly broken.
But what happens when next-level art appears? Under our bylaws, if a still-alive Basquiat or Banksy dropped work on a warehouse wall and the owner wanted to keep it, sorry about their luck — grey city rollers. But even ultra-posh Park City, Utah, had the sense to keep its Banksys, while the most famous street artist’s work is now preserved in London. And Montreal’s shifting street galleries are tourist attractions, birthing a collaborative group like En Masse, who appeared at the Works this year.
“When I think about the future,” Fish says, “I see something artistic. Even running a print shop or a café, a place that houses artistic thoughts.
“I’m not going to be Fish for very much longer,” he says. “I’m going to become something else. Too much heat lately.”