Interviews

Making It, and Not, in Montreal’s Street Art Scene

Mural by Pixel Pancho in Montreal
Mural by Pixel Pancho in Montreal (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Few North American cities wear their street art so prominently on their sleeve as Montreal. The blighted area immediately east of downtown is full of murals, tags, and wheatpastes. Saint-Laurent Boulevard, also known as “The Main,” is speckled with enormous murals, many of them made under the auspices of the annual Mural Festival, and its back alleys are lined with smaller works by local and visiting artists. This exceptionally vibrant community is the focus of the documentary Bienvenue / Welcome, for which director Maxime Charron is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign. In addition to showcasing the work of its cast of Montreal-based and international artists, the film aims to demistify the economics of street art — namely, how do artists known for ephemeral outdoor works, for which they’re paid very little or nothing at all, make a living?

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Mural by Other in Montreal
Mural by Other in Montreal

Benjamin Sutton: Of the artists you’ve been interviewing for the film, are most of them make a living off their art, or is their art more like their passion project?

Maxime Charron: Most of the artists “live” from their art. But there are differences in the income levels of each. They all have different trajectories and goals, but they all say that passion and integrity drive their practices. As OMEN put it at one point in our interview: “Do it for the love, if you do it for the love … you can’t fuck up.” Montreal remains a city where art is not a commodity, where collectors and patrons are not as numerous as in New York or London, for instance.

Montreal is made up of francophone and anglophone populations. The culture of private patronage is much more prevalent on the anglophone side; I’d even go so far as to say that this distinction is rooted in cultural and historical differences. Newly rich francophones are starting to turn to patronage more and more, but we (francophones) have a long way to go. For francophone Quebecois, culture is of the utmost importance. Language, music, literature, and art are components of our shared identity that ought to belong to everyone; a more commercially driven approach to culture always causes discontent.

BS: The artists featured in the video on your Kickstarter page bring up the economics of street art, which is something people don’t often discuss; what attracted you to this subject?

MC: Urban art, street art, graffiti, or whatever label you want to use, is a new market that has attracted the interest of many in Montreal over the last three or four years. There are new galleries, new promoters, and it is increasingly integrated into larger art events and performances. The dichotomy between art and money has always existed, and it reemerges here and there to throw things into disarray. The scene in Montreal is very young and to already be asking these questions about its financial sustainability is healthy.

A festival like Mural quickly increased the interest of the public and the media, and opened the eyes of some to the economic potential of street art. Mural is a very positive influence here, and the organization that runs it, LNDMRK, is made up of locals who have traveled the world to understand what is being done elsewhere in order to do it better here. They have a very good standing among certain key players at the international level, and they’re not the only ones. MU, which has a more social approach to art, is noteworthy, as is Under Pressure, which is one of the oldest graffiti festivals in North America. But the arrival of Mural has changed things.

I first thought of doing this documentary at the time of Mural’s first year, in 2013, but I opted to wait until 2014 to see how the Montreal community would respond. The evolution took place very rapidly, and the market developed quickly during that year. My documentary isn’t only about the festival, but it does portray it as the principal agent of change. There’s Montreal before Mural, and Montreal after Mural.

A mural by Jason Botkin in Montreal
A mural by Jason Botkin in Montreal

BS: There have always been a lot of local street artists working in Montreal, but the Mural Festival has brought in a lot of international artists as well; how are the relations between those communities?

MC: The relations are pretty good. Local artists are sometimes disappointed to not be selected for Mural, but with only about 20 new walls each year divided between international and local artists, you have to be reasonable and understand the situation. There isn’t room for everyone. The artists just need to be patient and proactive to prove that they deserve a space. That said, the organizers are sure to balance the number of local and international artists. Montreal has an abundance of talented artists, and this festival is one of the best occasions to prove it.

BS: How have Montreal’s police and municipal government responded to the city’s booming street art scene? Are they supportive, or do they try to control it?

MC: Municipal and legal questions happen to be the subjects that will be covered in the last round of interviews we’ll be shooting, in February 2015. We will interview the authorities as well as the aid and support programs that have been put in place. We will of course address the repression that is taking place, but I’ll devote more attention to the solutions than the problems.

We’ll also look at certain legal cases relating to the use of murals and specific works by companies, like the rights of artists with regards to their public works, or works in public spaces, which are used by brands and companies in advertising campaigns. We have our own conflicts à la AholSniffsGlue vs. American Eagle.

Mural by Escif in Montreal
Mural by Escif in Montreal

BS: How much of the project have you completed, and how much more shooting do you plan to do?

MC: The project began in June 2014, and I will shoot until April or May 2015. I need to hand in a finalized version for Mural 2015, where we’ll have the world premiere. We still have a group of interviews to film in February, as I mentioned earlier, and I need to shoot some B-roll of murals being created, for which I have a few interesting mise-en-scène ideas.

The Kickstarter campaign for Bienvenue / Welcome continues through December 22.

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