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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Is the city a sketchbook? JJ Steeves tackles our ideas about graffiti

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HALIFAX – Councillor Linda Mosher’s recent comparison of street art to vandalism and graffiti has brought a variety of reactions. One of the most extreme counterarguments? That all street art is legitimate, and that the city itself is a sketchbook.

We wanted to ask a street artist how they felt about the recent attack on graffiti art.  Jei Jei Steeves is both within and staunchly unique from the Halifax urban art milieu. She’s a Halifax artist whose stickers of stray kittens have been popping around the city’s streets to say things like “Your lopsided breasts are really beautiful,” “I support the troops but I don’t support the war,” and “I don’t like the way you’re looking at my tits.”

Steeves, who started stickering as a response to her own social anxieties, has a lot invested in this debate. “I don’t say what I need to say to people when I need to say it,” she has said. “And I was in a few instances in the past couple years where I didn’t stick up for a friend. I really felt like I should have should have stood up and said something in public.

“So this was a step: start saying things. Then it became sort of a diary. And now it’s a soapbox.”

Steeves doesn’t use paint, and she doesn’t tag, but she prefers to stand in solidarity with her fellow graffiti-ers, rather than disparage them. “All street art,” says Steeves, “is a voice.”

KT: What was your reaction to Linda Mosher’s statement that the bubble letters being created at the hopscotch festival shouldn’t be permitted because it looked “too much like graffiti”?

JJ: Oh gosh. Well, with this topic I can either go on forever, or keep it ruthlessly short. I’ll go with short: That seems awfully small-minded of her, doesn’t it? I mean, “graffiti” is a global phenomenon. Even the flippant “Art World” is dropping millions of dollars on canvasses with tags. It’s hilarious and beautiful and brilliant. No one will ever be able to stop “graffiti” now. These are our cities, and there are too many of us.

KT: How did you feel about Mosher’s comparison between street art and illegal drug use?

JJ: Really? These are kids, adolescents, young adults, creative veterans working out there to improve their hand-eye coordination, colour usage, and focus. Constantly working to gain new insight into visual art as a mode of expression. Constantly working to dialogue with one’s community members, those who share the streets. The likelihood of said artist going to school, or having a full-time job, maybe a child or children is also pretty high. Not many folks, be they young or old, are capable of juggling drug abuse and that kind of artistic devotion. It just takes too much out of you. Therefore the comparison between street art and illegal drug use seems wildly simplistic, and disparagingly ignorant to me.

KT: Do you think tagging is a legitimate form of street art? why or why not?

JJ: Tagging is tricky. To be honest, I don’t know much about it. I personally have no problem with it, but I probably shouldn’t dialogue about it too much.

KT: What about spray painting dicks?

JJ: Cock and balls! Yes! … I think it’s absolutely hilarious. I point them out to my friends whenever I spy one. Maybe it’s the slap-stick of street art. No one wants to legitimize cock and balls, but we all bust a gut when we see them. In such a hard world, can’t we just have a few silly jokes hanging around? That is what they symbolize to me, anyway.

KT: What did you think about the current comparison of graffiti art to tagging and vandalism?

JJ: Oh gosh. People always get so up in arms regarding “graffiti” vs “street art” vs “writing” vs “tagging”. To be completely fair, and to provide full disclosure, I’m not much a part of that scene. I make little drawings with speech bubbles speaking my (often angry) mind. And it’s on sticker paper. Easily removable. I couldn’t spray paint the broad side of a barn if my life depended on it. I’ve done a few stencils, but that was a long, long, long time ago.

From my perspective, no matter what it says, no matter how unkind, how distasteful, how immature or how poorly executed, all street art is a voice. Anything that is put intentionally on a city’s walls by its occupants is a voice. That makes it valid, and in order to get the great artists, we need a lot of young, beginner artists. So you get some shitty art. Relax.

People are trying to find ways to communicate. We cannot all paint on canvases and sell in galleries. We don’t all desire government art grants. We don’t all want to photograph weddings. We don’t all believe in artist statements. Everyone works on different surfaces for different reasons. Street art, for me, is about having a dialogue with the people who walk on the street. That’s it. I can’t say these things in public, so I say them with street art. Simple really. I can’t speak for everyone else.

I defend any form of urban art. Even the crummy stuff, because you need the bad in order to get the good. I think Mosher is wildly over-reacting, and should be directing her fervent energies toward a more critical HRM issue, for instance, the distressing state of sidewalks in the North End of Halifax, which in many places are so unkempt that they are impassable by those locals who use wheelchairs. That seems like a much more pressing issue to me, but then again, I’m not an HRM councilor am I?

Katie Toth is a journalist and art lover with feet flakily planted in both Halifax and Toronto. (She has big legs.) You can follow her on twitter, or catch her writing about sex, politics, and religion at

Photos from JJ Steeves‘ blog Stray Kitties.


One comment

  1. great article! 
    i love the idea of a city being a sketch book.. as opposed to a canvas.

    i really like how cool and collected jei jei sounds when responding to mosher’s comments.
    when i read mosher’s comments it makes my brain hurt.
    and i feel like screaming.

    i want to rant about commercial advertising covering every available (and rentable) surface imaginable and how that’s “OK”.. even when the ads are blatantly offensive. 

    it’s really upsetting that the person chairing the “graffiti task force” has a one sided opinion. 

    i’ve been deleting and rewriting this again and again so i’m gonna stop. 
    i hate straight up “tagging”. but i love street art. 
    mosher is small minded and reactionary and plays right into the fears of other small minded people who believe everything shoved down their throats by the powers that be.