Every morning, as I walk to the metro, I pass by a garage door next to my apartment. Like much of this section of the Plateau, this door is covered in graffiti, but one lyrical expression seems to stick out, written in giant letters: “Nique ta mere, par l’avant comme par l’arriere”. Poetry, to be sure, but one gets the sense that the neighbourhood is not exactly better off for it.
Yet how do we decide what is good graffiti? Why does some graffiti cause anger in the general, non-tagging public, while other graffiti is tolerated and even appreciated? And why, sometimes, does a street artist like Montreal’s Roadsworth have such a groundswell of public support that municipal authorities are swayed to overlook the law? I sat down this week with Roadsworth and Alan Kohl, the director of the new NFB documentary, “Roadsworth: Crossing the Line”, to talk about public art in Montreal.
Roadsworth chose the innocuous Café Italia in Little Italy for our interview, which seemed consistent with the Roadsworth we are introduced to in the documentary: a likeable, unpretentious guy who seems a bit bemused by all the attention he has received. In the film, he admits that he’s “never read Kant”, and his self-deprecating perspectives on whether he’s a capital “A” Artist is refreshing. During our interview, we discuss the influence of graffiti artists on his work, and he admits that he has only ever been tangentially connected to the community. He never even knew who Banksy was when he started, he admits to me, as if I knew anything about graffiti art. I admit to him I have never heard of Banksy (Turns out Banksy is a world renowned street artist whose stencil work is closer to Roadsworth’s pieces than your run-of-the-mill grafitti tags).
But during our interview Roadsworth stressed that there is no real difference between so-called graffiti and public art, only a difference in techniques and styles. He rejects the idea that his work itself is any more legitimate than a graffiti artist’s, but he will admit that the spaces these artists use may hurt the legitimacy of their art. Roadsworth only uses public spaces, and ignored/dilapidated ones at that. Graffiti artists using private spaces are crossing a line that Roadsworth isn’t. More orthodox street artists might disagree with Roadsworth, pointing out that the ethos of street art is political and any graffiti that is bound by property rules is no longer challenging society. I for one am glad that Roadsworth doesn’t worry about appeasing these people- in the film he mulls over the question of whether or not he has sold out by doing commissioned public works for the city, and concludes that he both has and hasn’t, with little consequence either way. His work is still thought provoking, and still challenges our understanding of the urban environment.
Roadsworth himself admits he’s not a martyr ready to go to jail to defend his art. To me, he just looks like a guy who likes what he does and wants other people to enjoy it too. Roadsworth even humbly explains that his arrest by the Amsterdam police, as shown in the film, was less an act of defiant courage and more of a failure to hear the yells from an irate Dutch woman warning him she was calling the police. This is not a guy who feels the need to show off his street cred.
But that doesn’t mean that Roadsworth has taken the easy route. The cost of making his art was an arrest and fifty-plus charges from the Montreal police, an ordeal which the film documents well. And despite positive public reactions to his work, there is no guarantee that he won’t be arrested in the future. As of now, he manages to co-operate well with Montreal authorities, but he refused to take the bait when I suggested his work could only happen in Montreal. Montreal is indeed a more tolerant atmosphere than many cities, Roadsworth says, but he found that cities like Berlin and Barcelona have a similar openness. He could have easily given me the line I wanted to hear, “There’s no place like Montreal”, but Roadsworth is not someone who likes the easy answer or cliché- he does not see his desire to make public art as a David vs. Goliath battle, and he rejects attempts to rigidly define nebulous concepts like “street art”. This is a guy, after all, who only a few years ago was a waiter by day and a guerilla artist by night. He is, if anything, a pragmatist unable to contain a desire to create and provoke. And, unlike guys writing “Nique ta mere…”, what he creates happens to be really good art. No one seems to be able to figure out where exactly that line begins and ends, but at least there’s agreement that Roadsworth is on the right side of it.
“Roadsworth: Crossing the Line” is playing November 21st and 22nd as part of the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM)
(This piece was originally posted on midnightpoutine.ca)