words & photography: Rafael Figueroa

The archetypal image of the struggling-yet-fervently devoted-to-their-craft artist is a common sight in Montreal’s urban jungle. Yet, to the observant local or the curious tourist, it becomes apparent that one particular sub-group has grown rapidly in recent years, adorning the cityscape with eye-catching works and boosting Montreal’s reputation as a North American hub for fine art. These are Montreal’s urban street artists and muralists, and their success comes at a time when digital media is quickly transforming the public’s traditional perceptions of art.

Adam Vieira, 35, is a street artist familiar with the problems his peers face early in their careers. The Montreal native has been indefatigable in his contributions to the local scene and under the whatisadam banner, his artwork has been showcased worldwide. Since 2013 he’s been the artistic co-director of Station 16, an urban art gallery on Saint-Laurent Blvd. which showcases street and graffiti art from local and international artists. Since committing full-time to his craft eight years ago, he has built a strong reputation within the Montreal street art scene and cultivated a long list of clients who now reach out to him directly, looking to commission original whatisadam pieces.

Among street art connoisseurs, Vieira’s work is instantly recognizable. His two primary themes are Montreal and Canada. Blending a pop-art Warholian style with a vintage comic-book look, he doesn’t shy away from embracing long-standing Canadian iconography like maple syrup, hockey, and the RCMP.

Part of his ‘ChaletLife’ series released in the spring of 2018, this piece appeared in Vieira’s first solo show at the Station 16 Gallery and combines many of the best-known whatisadam artistic elements.

Vieira’s first ‘legal’ mural remains his proudest outdoor oeuvre. Entitled “Montréal Mon Amour,” the four-storey work in Mile End depicts a tatted-up young woman holding a large gold coin. Inscribed on the medallion is “MTL no 1” along with “WIA,” Vieira’s artist shorthand. The words “MONT-REAL” and “amour” also command the viewer’s attention while the watermelon-pink flowers sprinkled throughout add sentiment to the piece. “It has become an image that since got me a lot of attention,” Vieira said. “It was kind of an ode to the city. I wanted to do something that really celebrated Montreal but still was something almost anybody could appreciate.”

The work went through various phases on his iPad Pro before coming together in the summer of 2017. Practice, he says, makes perfect. “When I create an original piece I’ll create it twice or three times with different backgrounds or colours. I like to see variations of the same image. Some artists will create something different every single time. I will bring back imagery very often because I think it helps you identify my work better.”

Once he had a foundation for “Montréal Mon Amour,” Vieira sat down with the building owner to discuss colour schemes and to toss ideas back and forth.

A History of Social Justice

The urban street art and graffiti movement can be traced to the New York hip-hop culture of the 1970s and ’80s, where it played an important role in giving voices to marginalized groups. Activism remains a central theme in the work of many contemporary artists.

These are concepts Prof. Lindsay Balfour invites her Concordia University students to explore in her Communications course on urban street art. According to Balfour, Montreal presents the ideal setting for this kind of course because of its unique cultural social justice history. “So much of the art produced here is not only produced by local artists but deals with local concerns,” said Balfour. “It deals with things that Montreal is contending with – things around homelessness, gender, Quebec sovereignty and language issues.”

She also pointed out the prominence of gender and indigeneity issues in the scene as reflected in the pioneering efforts of Montreal artists like MissMe. Dubbed the “artful vandal,” MissMe’s work centres on women’s rights and has unapologetically challenged issues of race, gender and class. Well-known for her large-scale wheat paste productions, MissMe has used her own body in certain works in an effort to reclaim a history of sexual violence.

Unveiled in 2014 and painted by artists Fanny Aisha, GUKO, and Monk-e, this mural is located on Saint-Laurent boulevard and serves to honour all Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women whose cases remain unsolved across Canada.

MURAL Festival: Bringing Legitimacy to the Craft

Vieira’s personal business ventures have made important strides in recognizing the value of urban street art as a whole. However, the shift from fringe art to cultural cornerstone did not occur in a vacuum.

The MURAL Festival has played an integral role in reshaping public perception. Today, it’s a successful international urban art festival held annually in Montreal that attracts thousands of visitors. One of its organizers, Glenn Castanheira, was named Executive Director of the Société de Développement du Boulevard Saint-Laurent (SDBSL) in 2013 and given the mandate to revamp Saint-Laurent and bring business back to the area.

Castanheira’s campaign brought him in contact with several local promoters. “That is when I met with LNDMRK, the agency behind MURAL. They had a project for a small street art bloc party,” said Castanheira, 32. “I took that idea and told them, ‘Great! We’ll support you financially, but we want to make it a whole street festival.'”

It was an ambitious project for its time, and local politicians did not share in the enthusiasm. “Everybody expected it to fail,” Castanheira said. “I’ll always remember the words of Luc Ferrandez, mayor of the Plateau, saying. ‘C’est un beau risque,’ meaning ‘It’s cute, good luck, but it’s not going to work.”

Yet after just its first edition, MURAL was awarded the Grand Prix du tourisme québécois for the Montreal region in the category of festivals and events with a budget between $300,000 and $1,000,000. More importantly, it served as a springboard for many artists to begin their ascent into the mainstream cultural zeitgeist of Montreal.

Mural painted by American artist Ron English. Produced as part of the 2017 edition of the MURAL Festival.

Balancing Authenticity and Success

As Montreal artists have become more successful, tensions have arisen between maintaining the messages that underpin the history of street art versus the intense commercialization of the events themselves. A glance at MURAL Fest’s website reveals that logos, brands, and sponsorships abound. According to Balfour, there is a fascinating tension in events like MURAL where the art on display has perhaps become a backdrop to the rest of the event. She believes a particular dynamic is at play at these events between the viewer, the artist, and the sponsor. “You’re supposed to go and enjoy the art, but the expectation is you go post it on social media and then you hashtag it with the sponsor,” she said. “To me, that’s an interesting retooling of what was street art’s original purpose which was to expose what was previously hidden.”

When an artist’s careers begins taking off, terms like ‘selling out’ and ‘going mainstream’ are often followed by accusations of pandering to the masses for a paycheque. However, members of the community have been quick to offer a rebuttal.

Emily Robertson is Vieira’s co-director at the gallery, and she claims that a certain hypocrisy exists between the artistic world and everyone else. “You come to the art world where suddenly being passionate about something or even joining forces with different sponsors is frowned upon,” she lamented. “[Brands] right now are wanting to be associated with the art community, how amazing! They could choose to be associated with anything. To complain about that… I feel very over it and I feel everyone else needs to be over it as well.”

And while academics like Balfour encourage students to tackle these issues in the classroom, she does not disagree with Robertson’s stance. “Yes, the roots of [the scene] are largely critical of the mainstream,” she said. “At the same time, we forget that it is not always a bad thing to make money. It is about the systems of power that are operating around [art] that commodifies it. Street art has always been about critiquing power relations. But it has also been about success and notoriety. Those things can coexist.”

For Vieira, it simply comes down to doing business responsibly. In the past, he has collaborated with brands like Roots Canada and he says the decision could not have been easier. “For me, it was an easy collaboration because all of the work I do embraces Canada and their whole brand is about embracing Canada. As an artist, I think if you can find brands that are a good fit for you, it isn’t complicated. And it shouldn’t be seen as selling out.”

Looking to the future, Vieira and Robinson hope to begin reaching a new base by appealing to a younger demographic of urban art collectors. “This contemporary scene has opened the doors to a lot of younger people who like the idea of collecting this art, following these artists, and being able to see their work on the side of buildings,” Vieira said. “There’s something about it that’s more engaging for people that are super hooked to their phones. This world of art melds well with that world.”