Street Art in Montreal: Thoughts on Muralfest

If you live on the island of Montreal, why would you ever put up with a single road closure, pylon or scaffold that wasn’t absolutely necessary? The reason is simple – murals.  Every summer for the past five years, Montreal has hosted Muralfest, a celebration of street art that allows local and international artists to have at it on the sides of banks, restaurants, stores, alleys, supermarkets and apartment buildings. Anyone who groans when they learn that Saint-Laurent is closed between Pine and Mount-Royal for eleven days in June needs to be clued in to what they’re missing.

The fact is that visual, outdoor art, like what is most prominently on display during Muralfest, makes our urban spaces more interesting and pleasant to be in, in addition to offering social and political commentary that originated with the art form itself close to one hundred years ago. Why is this necessary? It’s not. Sponsors are under no obligation to provide funding for street art, and artists are not in any way compelled to express their thoughts, ideas and social critiques in a public space. But when these things do happen, the result is a shared environment where everyone who passes through can not only appreciate what they see on the walls, but consider their artistic and social merit in a critical manner. And, of course, the murals are not on display for eleven days only – long after Muralfest is over, these enormous, colourful images and slogans are on display year-round, resulting in a community experience that is never unimportant just because it isn’t necessary.

More residential Montreal areas such as Saint-Leonard, Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Montreal-North and Rivières-des-Prairies are largely devoid of murals, which is not surprising since very few people would be okay with some kind of psychedelic modern art being spray painted onto the side of their house. You are much more likely to spend your free time – as a city resident, and especially as a tourist or visitor – on Saint-Denis, Saint-Laurent, Saint-Viateur, or Notre-Dame, where there are more parks, restaurants, cafes and community spaces than in the East End or in the West Island. In other words, the closer you get to the hub of the city, the more likely it is that a mural will be your backdrop on a terrace, a discussion point for your anxiety-ridden first date, or a colourful blur as you pass through. Besides being a form of visual tourism, murals in Montreal contribute to the character of the city and remind us that the public places we frequent do not have to fill the same tangible purpose as a post office, bank, or grocery store to be an important part of how experience our home. Anyone who passes through Montreal’s most happening and entertaining neighbourhoods will remember that the proverbial writing on the wall can be beautiful, powerful, and thought-provoking. Maybe they’ll stop and think about it. Maybe it’ll make them smile. Maybe they’ll take a photo.

It’s common knowledge by now that social media is a revolutionary platform for individuals to consume, appreciate and share art. No one is going to post a photo of a blank wall on their Instagram. But if they post a photo of a wall covered in painted cakes (like in the Gay Village) or a skull (Saint Henri) or an astronaut in a purple sky (the Plateau) any and all of their followers can see it, like it, notice where it’s located, and otherwise consume artwork without being physically present at its exposition site. Social media and technology have radically affected art and the way we consume it. And taking a selfie in front of a mural is different than taking one, say, in front of a monument or other city attraction, because murals and graffiti are works of public visual art in a way that buildings and statues are not. Montreal’s murals and the people who see and advertise their existence are implicated in an artistic process that has its roots in political and social commentary –graffiti has traditionally been a form of protest in metropolitan cities – like Berlin, Toronto and New York – during historical moments of upheaval. To dismiss these origins is to mindlessly take photos of murals without remembering where they come from, which so many people do. A modern and government-subsidized element of this artistic phenomenon, Montreal’s Muralfest was founded to give street artists a structured and publically-funded platform to express themselves and promote their art – a palatable, profitable and touristic alternative to tagging and gang-related graffiti that so many public officials have decried in neighborhoods like NDG and Montreal North.

Of course, the unfortunate result (besides, of course, issues of credit and recognition) is that very often, a mural or piece of street art plays a more important role in someone’s Snap story than in that person’s mind – they no longer see the art for what it is, or think about it and what it might mean in a social or political context. It has simply become a tool for the online personality that they’ve been curating since they got an iPhone when they were fourteen. This kind of self-awareness is not important to the teenager just trying to get more likes. But for those of us struggling to be in the moment, resisting the urge to document, and working to be mindful, appreciating art for what it is without using it as a tool on social media is an important exercise in truly being where we are and appreciating what’s in front of us.

Street art’s antiestablishment roots are in danger of being obscured by the patron that is Muralfest and its sponsors, and the art form itself has become vulnerable to corporate interests in spite of Muralfest’s mandate of keeping murals free and in the public eye. Street art has thus evolved from an illegal and antiestablishment focussed practice to an art form that is achieving more and more international recognition, especially in Montreal. What this implies for an art form that began as independent and underground remains to be seen. Artists need to eat, but how corporate is too corporate? Murals remain one of the best ways to celebrate local and international artists, to remind our visitors that they chose the right destination, and to add flavour and character to a city that celebrates culture and diversity.  The issue remains one of remembering where this artwork comes from and what it is for, a crucial element that threatens to be lost in an increasingly appealing public and corporate domain, where socio-political slogans are drowned out by the click and flash of iPhone cameras.

Liana Cusmano is a Montreal based writer