Smokey Devil: Underworld Street Reporter follows the untold story of Vancouver graffiti artist

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      Nathaniel Canuel—known to his friends as Nat—wears many hats: filmmaker, OPS worker, skateboarder, social activist, digital media producer with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. 

      When we meet in the Downtown Eastside, he’s just finished his shift at the Overdose Prevention Society’s safe consumption site. Together, we walk around the neighbourhood, spotting walls adorned with Smokey Devil’s artwork. 

      Smokey Devil—also known as Smokey D and Jamie Hardy—has been Canuel’s favourite artist since he was a teenager growing up in Vancouver. 

      “The documentary is a graffiti movie, but it’s also about my favourite artist,” Canuel said.

      A triptych of Smokey Devil's characters.
      V. S. Wells

      When Canuel returned to the city after years away, he happened to meet Smokey on his first day volunteering at the OPS. He decided to put his filmmaking skills to use and shoot a documentary about one of the city’s most famous street artists. 

      “I’m very lucky that he let me into his life. And I followed him around for two years with a camera. He was very generous and candid with me about his past and his life,” Canuel said. 

      The result is Smokey Devil: Underworld Street Reporter, a 50-minute documentary following Smokey as he paints across downtown, and Canuel’s debut doc feature.

      Once you know what to look for, Smokey’s style is easy to recognize: graphic characters, paired with important messages. He raises awareness of murdered and missing women and girls; spreads news of tainted drugs; memorializes people who have died from toxic unregulated drugs. 

      “He’s the newspaper for the Downtown Eastside,” Canuel said. “A lot of people don’t have access to phones, cable, newspapers. So a lot of people get their information from Smokey, right? He talks about everything—he talks about missing people, people who’ve passed away, bad dope, his girlfriends, heartache, loneliness—the human condition, basically.”

      One wall has a message of solidarity to women in Iran, painted after Mahsa Amini’s death sparked huge protests in the country. 

      Smokey Devil's tribute to Mahsa Amini.
      V. S. Wells

      Before the annual Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women’s March on February 14, he painted striking memorial messages. 



      The local community has also been pushing the city to recognize Smokey on March 11, his birthday.

      That’s not to say everyone is universally thrilled with graffiti. By its nature, street art covers private property: walls, doors, windows. Edifices are canvases, but there’s only one wall in Vancouver where graffiti is legal—which Smokey helped set up. Anywhere else, there’s always a risk of city staff coming to clean up artwork. 

      Smokey Devil and fellow graffiti writer Ashtrey helped set up Vancouver's first legally sanctioned graffiti wall.
      V. S. Wells

      When ABC swept the municipal elections in November, the local graffiti writer community was worried. Its Facebook page, which Canuel wryly calls “a catalogue of crime,” got taken down over fears that Mayor Ken Sim’s pro-police rhetoric would lead to an increase of arrests for graffiti writers. 

      Although graffiti remains against the law—and Canuel wondered if the illegal subject matter may have discouraged potential arts grants to help with the film’s funding—he emphasized that the point of the doc was to shine a light on Smokey’s contribution to the neighbourhood and the community. 

      “What it shows is the incredible people that we have on the Eastside. There are really wonderful humans that exist that are doing really incredible stuff to help the community and to give back to the community,” Canuel said. “The Eastside is most often like the punching bag for journalism… I feel like I have a responsibility to try and counter some of that stuff.” 

      Canuel said the film was a very collaborative process, with him and Smokey bouncing ideas back and forth. They especially bonded over the music selection.

      “We shared a lot of ideas about the music we put on,” he said. “I’ve got an office just up there at SFU, and so he would come to my office, and we’d sit there and listen to music and figure out what to put in.”

      Smokey often uses his art to raise awareness of missing people.
      V. S. Wells

      Since filming wrapped and the post-production finished, Canuel has been trying to get the film into various local festivals. He’s not able to screen the film until he knows if it will be released more widely, but he’s had a small private screening in OPS for some community members.

      “That was so awesome to have the community members there watching it and supporting us, and the reception was really good. That felt great because I've spent a lot of sleepless nights, wondering how this is gonna go and if people are gonna like it,” Canuel said. 

      “If it gets into the documentary, film festivals, great. If it doesn't, we're still just going to, you know, have bigger screenings and invite more people and just try and make a bigger splash.” 

      Watch the trailer for Smokey Devil: Underworld Street Reporter here.