The problem with Montreal’s murals

One of MU's murals in the Plateau borough of Montreal.

One of MU’s murals in the Plateau borough of Montreal.

See it on OpenFile Montreal’s website HERE

It’s rush hour chaos at the corner of Berri and Cherrier. Cars edge forward at a red light as bikes weave in and out of traffic. Pedestrians scurry across the street through swirls of dust sent up by a construction crew replacing a sidewalk.

There is however an oasis in this urban bustle.

On the side of an apartment building, a mural of bright oranges, blues and reds depicts the shadow of a man in a sea of swirling colour. The painting takes up an entire 33 x 44 foot wall.

“It’s one of the biggest corners in the city and it used to look like crap. Now it’s got new life,” said Emmanuelle Hébert, pointing to the well-tended green space beneath the mural.

Hébert is co-founder of MU, a collective designed to promote and generate street art in Montreal. Last year MU commissioned ten murals with another ten to be completed this year.

“We’ve seen that murals change people’s behaviour,” said Hébert. “When we inject something beautiful into the community people will stop littering in front of it, the city will come and change the benches and the owner of the building will redo the masonry.”

“We’ve seen it with every single mural project. People take pride in it.”

But the problem, said Hébert, is that the City of Montreal has not backed up its 2004 policy (page 11-12) acknowledging the importance of public street art with a definite plan or budget to commission murals and ensure spaces for mural artists to work.

It’s a sentiment echoed by at least one local artist.

“The city will not come to see you and tell you we have money for you, we want your mural,” said PHLASH (pseudonym), a local street artist whose work also adorns walls in Miami and New York. “If you really want to do a nice project you have to build it yourself.”

City spokeswoman Valérie De Gagné says the City of Montreal recognizes the importance of murals and has been encouraging this type of artwork for several years.

“Murals make a neighbourhood more attractive… and add a sense of security,” De Gagné said in an email. “Murals show the city is dynamic and highlights creativity, art, culture and the talent of its artists.”

De Gagné points out the city has contributed to the creation of 15 murals since 2006, including six in 2011, by helping finance organizations like MU. She said projections for 2012 won’t be known until the budget is unveiled in November.

But Hébert says because funding for murals is decided year-to-year, long-term planning is very difficult. What she wants is for the city to have a “vision” for street art. The payoff would be huge, she argues. “(What) we’d like is for the city to decide ‘this year we’ll commission five or ten murals’ and then in five years suddenly you have 25 new murals.”

Raymond Viger, director of Café Graffiti, agrees. The Hochelaga-Maisonneuve centre for marginalized youth provides a space and workshops to help graffiti and mural artists hone their skills – and channel their efforts away from tagging.

Viger says one problem is that the merger of the island of Montreal created a clash of visions for urban art. “Now it’s not just one borough we deal with, it’s a committee of 23 mayors who all have different visions,” he said. “Each borough can ignore what the central city decides.”

In early August, the police threatened to take down a mural in Cote-des-Neiges despite being financed by a community group. The police claimed that gang references were depicted. The mural entitled ‘Uptown Unity’ was changed and allowed to remain but it’s these kind of disputes that Viger says makes it even more difficult to promote the benefits of murals.

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