Vancouver graffiti gone wild

An artist warns that the death of Vancouver's graffiti program will lead to harder times for kids in need of a second chance.

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      Vince Dumoulin was once a self-described criminal. He spent his early 20s jumping freight trains. He’d start in Montreal and make stops in Toronto and Calgary before arriving at the end of the line: Vancouver. He says he was a drifter with shoplifting and petty theft as his only means of income.

      Along the way, Dumoulin slowly gained a rap sheet that inevitably caught up with him. By 2004, he’d been charged with theft and was routinely failing to appear in court. Run-ins with the police were almost daily, Dumoulin told the Straight.

      “I was at a point where I had to make a choice,” he said in his apartment in the Downtown Eastside. “It wasn’t going to keep being petty crime. It was a decision of whether or not to get more hard-core and really dive into the criminal’s do-or-die mentality.”

      Then, when he was in a rundown Vancouver apartment late one night, the police came by to check in on a friend of Dumoulin’s. One officer with an interest in art recognized Dumoulin and noticed a few of his drawings lying around the place. That chance encounter was the excuse Dumoulin had been waiting for. With his girlfriend’s help and the faith of a cop, he got out of the life.

      Dumoulin will be spending the next few weekends working on a mural on Beatty Street between Dunsmuir and Georgia streets. If you were to head down there and spend some time with the artist, you’d never guess that anything sordid lies in the young man’s past.

      Now 28 years old, Dumoulin has been working with the City of Vancouver for the past seven years. When anti-Olympic graffiti appeared around sports venues just weeks before the start of the 2010 Winter Olympics, city hall called Dumoulin. And despite the fact that the city had just painted over a large mural that the artist admired, he quickly agreed to lend a hand.

      Dumoulin buffed out the illegally painted message, “With glowing hearts we kill the arts,” and replaced it with “Beatty Street mural coming soon”—words that Vancouver’s taggers have heeded. (The wall has remained graffiti-free ever since.)

      “Pissing off graffiti writers is always dangerous because you never know how they are going to retaliate,” Dumoulin remarked on the incident, laughing. “If you are going to start pissing off the artists, then you’re making every wall out there a sitting duck for vandalism.”

      And so in the coming weeks (dates depend on weather and funding), it’s Dumoulin you’ll find overseeing a small team of artists painting a mural that stretches an entire city block.

      He said that the plan is for a festive atmosphere with local artists hard at work, photographers such as Vancouver’s ubiquitous Kris Krug documenting the mural’s creation, and what Dumoulin hopes will be hundreds of people coming by to see what’s going on and just hang out.

      So how did a man once seemingly dead set on going nowhere end up as the city’s go-to guy for public murals and graffiti crisis management?

      A big part of the answer lies in a program for which city council recently voted to withdraw its support. What’s more, those budget cuts—decided on in December—eliminated the city’s entire graffiti-management program, with its array of tools long used to support public art and keep Vancouver’s graffiti problem at bay.

      City hall is quick to point out that it is strapped for cash and that cutting the park board’s graffiti-management program is saving more than $300,000 a year. But a range of critics argue that in the long term, the cuts could end up costing the city more than it saves. What’s more, it’s not just money that is at stake.

      Dumoulin says that what really helped him escape a life of crime and illegal graffiti was finding an alternative, legitimate outlet for his artwork. That was Restart, a restorative-justice program started in 2004 by Vancouver Police Department officers Valerie Spicer and Elizabeth Miller and since run by volunteers.

      “The [graffiti-management program’s] mural program was just starting back then,” Dumoulin said. “And she [Spicer] gave me an opportunity to transfer my community-service hours from doing something totally irrelevant, like working in some thrift store or something, into being a mentor for the Restart program. So I jumped on it.”

      Essentially, what Restart does is take kids caught tagging, supply them with paint, and let them create a mural in a public place.

      Kristina Copeland, who sits on Restart’s steering committee, conceded that on the surface the program can sound a bit strange. But she was quick to explain that there’s a lot more to Restart than just giving taggers free paint.

      “We bring the youths who have been doing the graffiti together with members of the community,” she said in a telephone interview. “Somebody from the police department, the property owner”¦as well as volunteers and artists that are mentoring.”

      A Restart program is four days long. The first three consist of evening sessions that focus on mediation. The kids hear from the communities where they were tagging and are made to understand that vandalism has victims. At the same time, residents and business owners meet the individuals who tagged their property and learn that such kids are rarely dangerous gang members but are often aspiring artists simply in need of guidance.

      “We can build a relationship with these youths, build trust with them, give them an opportunity to share their experiences, share their perspectives on graffiti, to speak openly in a safe environment,” Copeland said, “and then, at the same time, hear the perspectives of other people in their community.”

      Milan Basic, a onetime tagger and former mentor for Restart, told the Straight that those evening sessions also have the kids working with veteran artists like him to plan a mural that’s painted on the fourth day of the program.

      “We plan it together so everyone gets input,” Basic said. “The mural is based on everybody’s ideas.”

      Dumoulin, a long-time painting partner of Basic’s, described what happens next. “It’s just kids hanging out,” he said. Everybody shows up at a wall in the morning, coffee and doughnuts are laid out, and everybody gets to work on the mural.

      “Those kids—even if they have to pretend they don’t like it, they love it,” Dumoulin continued. “I would have dreamed to do stuff like that when I was a kid: to get caught doing graffiti and to be rewarded!”

      He explained that youths going through Restart are always under pressure to stick with the “stop snitching” mentality of the graffiti world. That’s why mentors like Basic and him—artists who came from illegal graffiti but who have since found ways to paint legitimately—are vital to the program.

      Vince Dumoulin says art helped turn his life around.
      Kris Krug

      “They hit a brick wall,” Dumoulin stated. “They can’t say, ”˜You don’t know me.’”¦So they think, ”˜I’m never going to be as hard as this guy, so I might as well listen to what he has to say.’ ”

      Before the graffiti-management program was cut from the city’s budget, Gurdeesh Dhaliwal was Vancouver’s graffiti-mural coordinator. He explained how important the city’s support for Restart was.

      “The city would supply all of the paint, take care of the permits, make sure that the site was safe, and then act as a resource for the program itself,” he said in a telephone interview. “It was a great program, getting kids that were out doing tagging in the middle of the night to say, ”˜Hey, maybe there is another option here to do some art and maybe do it legally.’ ”

      Dhaliwal noted that while the city was supporting Restart’s projects financially, its absence is really going to be felt in facilitation.

      “That is a major hit,” he said. “Getting that licence or permit for the mural to occur on a particular wall, that is going to be a little bit more tough.”

      Copeland said the same thing. The city’s financial contributions were helpful, but the real reason Restart is going to have a hard time moving forward is that it no longer has a person inside City Hall who can coordinate projects and cut through red tape.

      “When we worked on city property and we had a city staff person overseeing the project, we didn’t have to go through a development permit to do a mural,” she explained.

      The consequences of that loss extend far beyond extra bureaucratic hurdles for a Restart volunteer.

      “We used to design the mural with the entire group over those three nights and paint it on Saturday morning,” Copeland said, “which was team-building, skill-building, and all of that. Now we have to have that permit signed, sealed, and delivered before we start the workshop.”

      Although crucial, the city’s support for Restart was just one small piece of a larger strategy to combat graffiti.

      The city’s efforts fell under the jurisdiction of the park board. Assistance to Restart came from a mural program, which ran alongside a community “paint out” program and a “free paint” program for private-property owners. While the latter two initiatives essentially consisted of providing paint and supplies to cover existing graffiti, the mural program was more preemptive.

      Dhaliwal said that in addition to beautifying a neighbourhood, public murals can actually be credited with deterring graffiti. He explained that taggers have shown they respect the work of other artists and generally won’t tag a mural or walls close by.

      There are numbers that back up Dhaliwal’s claims.

      Great Beginnings is a provincial mural program that funds paintings in some of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods (mainly focusing on the Downtown Eastside). Surveys of illegal graffiti in the area where Great Beginnings operates indicate that murals can dramatically decrease the amount of tagging going on.

      According to data supplied by Copeland, in November 2008, 215 building fronts were tagged with more than 750 pieces of graffiti. The alleys were worse, with 358 building backs covered by more than 2,500 tags.

      Then Great Beginnings made a push to educate residents on how they could help minimize graffiti and began funding sanctioned murals. By November 2009, the number of building fronts with graffiti had decreased to 93 with 196 tags, and the number of building backs with graffiti had fallen to 163 with just 706 tags.

      According to Dhaliwal, between 2002 and 2010 the city’s mural program oversaw 240 paintings around the city (more than a dozen of those being Restart murals). The majority still exist. The now-defunct program’s Web site states, “Murals are”¦an effective graffiti deterrent.”

      But that’s all over now. Bryan Newson, public-art program manager for the City of Vancouver, said the Beatty Street mural will likely be the last such project funded by the city.

      Dumoulin praised the city’s dedication to the Beatty wall. But he didn’t hold back when giving his opinion on the budget cuts. “The mural program was the only thing preventing everything from going to shit,” he said. “Is the city an ostrich with its head in the sand, really not seeing the public outcry?”

      Neal Carley, an assistant engineer with the City of Vancouver, said that city hall is aware that people appreciated the graffiti-management program. He explained that when the 2010 budget was prepared, the city conducted a ranking exercise. Every service and program the city funds was listed in order of priority, and a line was drawn at the point where funding would end. The park board’s graffiti-management program simply didn’t make the cut.

      Dumoulin believes the result is going to be an explosion of illegal tagging. What’s more, with Restart now struggling on its own, Vancouver kids at risk of falling into a life of crime are going to have a harder time finding the path to a second chance than he did.

      Copeland is slightly more optimistic. She noted that Restart still exists and is actually working with the Grandview-Woodlands community policing centre right now, trying to get a program ready for June. “It is just a lot tougher,” she said.

      Dumoulin emphasized that Restart works because it focuses on the source of illegal graffiti. “It goes to the 13- and 14-year-old kids who are going to be the bad-asses, who are going to tag those walls 50 times,” he said.

      For Dumoulin and many supporters of public art in Vancouver, the bottom line is that the city has ceased to support a program that, for years, has proven itself invaluable.

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      P. H. Finch

      May 20, 2010 at 5:41pm

      One of the tragedies of losing the gaffiti management program is that the targets for this sort of vandalism are often community projects or other work done by volunteers.

      In a way, it is understandible that graffiti "artists" [SOME of them are artists!] target things they perceive to represent "the establishment"--but all too often, they are causing volunteers a lot of time, effort and money.
      Recently, a string of historic railway cars were defaced by one of these miguided thugs: this sort of thing makes people angry and more likely to retalliate in a manner equally inappropriate to the original crime.

      How the City of Vancouver sees a saving in cutting such a program is beyond me. Does anybody at City Hall really think that enforcement will be cheaper than prevention? Which is more worthwhile--redirecting creative genius, or creating a career petty criminal?


      May 20, 2010 at 11:43pm

      What a great program, and sad to see it cut.

      This touches more than those involved in the program. Seeing this artwork around the city has an affect on kids who might not be in the same position as those in the program, but could be heading there. It gives hope that there are programs (or were) like it out there.

      And having positive messages around the streets is never a bad thing. Because when you read the ''Restart'' and see the art (that so much of is inspiring)...and are reminded why it's there, well it leaves a positive feeling with me, and I'm sure many.

      And I believe that's contagious.


      May 21, 2010 at 9:35am

      the graffitti is heavy in Vancouver, and everytime I see an ugly, blunt peice of grey paint over an area, it pisses me off.
      However, this new movement to let graffitti ARTISTS do their work, I am not sure...It kinds misses the whole point of graffitti, at least the style..I just can't stand it when I see a mural that is obviously by a graffitti artist and they had to make it look more like a "mural" just so it's not GRAFFITTI...


      May 21, 2010 at 1:07pm

      "City hall is quick to point out that it is strapped for cash"

      Right, other than the $25 million they just "found" for bike lanes, or the $34,000 party City Hall threw for themselves in April, for which they felt it necessary to hire an outside party planner consultant for $15,000.


      May 21, 2010 at 4:30pm


      "Right, other than the $25 million they just "found" for bike lanes, or the $34,000 party City Hall threw for themselves in April, for which they felt it necessary to hire an outside party planner consultant for $15,000."

      You forgot about plans to build a $20,000 chicken homeless shelter. Barely anyone even uses the bike lanes, I only ever see 5 people at most on them.

      Alex Rain

      May 22, 2010 at 11:34am

      Just for the record, I know a LOT of graffiti artists in Vancouver, and none of them would involve themselves with this program. They also particularly dislike the two officers mentioned (especially Spicer). Doing this kind of graffiti is seen as selling out, and is not respected by the real street-level artists.


      May 22, 2010 at 11:36am

      This program shouldn't be cut - it should be expanded. I would love to see every blank wall on the eastside turned into a work of art.

      Front Street Pictures

      May 25, 2010 at 9:15am

      We have a need for graffiti artists on a film I'm currently working on - can you please send a contact email or phone number? Thanks


      May 27, 2010 at 10:28am

      Funny how "artist's" think everyone wants to see their "art". Quit putting your stamp on public property.


      Oct 14, 2010 at 11:08pm

      looking for some hotcakes work on line