by Ellen Johnston | How do we choose what to depict in public art? Should it be the reality of the present, the legacy of what came before, or an idealized vision of what we want these spaces to look like in times to come? Whatever the case, the choice of subject matter for public art – especially for that of murals – can rarely be said to be purely aesthetic. In the context of the often harsh realities of urban life, art for art’s sake is a luxury few can afford, especially since our city streets provide contexts that simply cannot be ignored (unlike within the confines of a gallery).
One need only examine some of the most famous public art in the world to see that this is the case. In Mexico, the murals of Diego Rivera ask questions about their country’s history, and what it means to live in a Mestizo nation. In Philadelphia, where the Mural Arts Program has produced over three thousand murals, public art adorns decrepit and abandoned buildings, depicting messages of hope in some of the city’s most blighted neighbourhoods. In Derry, where some of the greatest atrocities of the Catholic-Protestant struggles of Northern Ireland occurred, political murals dedicated to the Republican cause stand side by side with ones depicting the innocent victims of The Troubles, and a dove, the symbol of Peace. And this is also the case in Vancouver, where our struggles are fewer and our mural culture is less developed. But there are still many gems that can be found throughout our city, and they can tell us a lot about where we came from, where we are at present, and where we aspire to be in the future.
It is hardly surprising that a high percentage of Vancouver’s murals are found in the vicinity of the Downtown Eastside. Not only is this one of the city’s most historic areas, but it is also a place in which some of our city’s greatest struggles have been fought, and are still being fought today. While most of the murals found hereabouts and in the surrounding areas were created individually, they have now been incorporated into a City of Vancouver program known as “The Great Beginnings Program”, which, according to their website, “supports this initiative through an investment of $10 million over three years to celebrate the history, heritage, and culture of Vancouver’s first urban areas, including the neighbourhoods of Gastown, Chinatown, Japantown, and Strathcona.” The city has now also produced an interactive map of these murals, which can be found at www.MuralsVancouver.ca. Suggested mural walking tours can found on the website, and information about each mural is listed.
As you can see, Multiculturalism is one of the most common themes addressed by our murals. Some highlight the mosaic-like nature of our city and collective efforts to get along, while others draw attention to the struggles of specific communities to find their place in the whole. On the corner of Columbia and Pender, for example, a three-paneled mural called “Snapshots of History” depicts the early lives of Chinese immigrants. On one of the panels, the Goon family is shown. The father went on to become the city editor of the Chinese Times, established in 1914 to chronicle the story of the Chinese in Canada and abroad, while the mother ran a fish shop. Their son, Hung Get Goon, dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but did not succeed due to discrimination. At the mural’s inauguration, Goon’s son said “It’s in memory of our ancestors and how they came out here and how hard it was for them to begin life here in Canada. There was so much discrimination. It was really hard for them to get by — but they survived, they survived.” Just a block and a half away from Vancouver most notorious intersection, Main & Hastings, this mural speaks true in more ways than one, because the continued success of Chinatown is a testament to survival amid so much poverty and addiction. It feels like a world away from Main & Hastings, and yet it is just around the corner.
Other cultures depicted in various murals include the Japanese, Russian, Italian-Canadian and Aboriginal communities, as well as the residents of Vancouver’s oft forgotten first and only black neighbourhood, Hogan’s Alley. Largely razed during the construction of the Georgia Viaduct, this neighbourhood’s most famous denizen was the famous musician Jimi Hendrix, who lived a few blocks east off and on with his grandmother, Nora. A mural depicting Jimi can be found at 1030 East Cordova. Equally unique is the Jimi Hendrix Shrine, located near the corner of Main and Union streets. While it is not officially sanctioned public art in the traditional sense of the term, it contains many pieces both inside and out that are free to the public and visible from a fair distance away. While the Shrine lacks the professional touch of the official Jimi Hendrix mural, its simple vision to commemorate a son of our city is nevertheless commendable.
This is true of several other unsanctioned pieces in and around the Downtown Eastside, whether they be graffiti or postering or words scrawled on a wall. They remind us that Public Art does not have to come from an official source. While some sort of community consensus might be generally preferred for such projects, sometimes an individual’s touch is all that is needed to ask the questions art so often needs to ask. One particular work on the DTES that cannot found on the City of Vancouver’s website states: “Food, home, health + education. Not greed”. It seemed such a simple equation, and yet only two blocks away, a street was blocked off because a TV show called “The Killing” was in the midst of shooting. Cops were telling pedestrians and bikers that they simply had to wait, because the almighty dollar has paid for this street to not be their street anymore, and nevermind the fact that one of the saddest shows on earth was streaming live, mere meters away.
Ellen Johnston considers herself a wanderer, whether tramping through the rain-soaked streets of Vancouver and attempting to pry loose the layers of our urban fabric, couch-surfing across America, or getting lost in the souks of Marrakech. Since that is not a full time gig, she fills her days with the study of African dance and drumming, writing, piano, and running her own cookie company, Cookie Elf. She grew up in Vancouver, studied in Philly and London, and hopes to see even more of this great big world in the future.