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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Modest Rebel: Roadsworth @ Montreal Documentary Fest

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roadsworthzipper1.jpgEvery 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.

roadsworthdaffodilsparking1.jpgRoadsworth 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.

roadsworthbullets1.jpgBut 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



  1. This is a nice article. As it is probably known by many of the commenters of this blog, I am one of those people that normally rejects any kind of illegal defacing, but on the other hand (and I am a little ashamed to admit this) I do like the work of some artists like Banksy and Roadsworth, regardless of its legality, and I wish there was more art like theirs in Montreal (notice that much less than 1% of Montreal’s graffiti is stencil, unlike other cities like London or Melbourne), instead of those incomprehensible “tags” or those eyaculating penises that only make me wonder what is the mental age of their creators or what essential nutrients they are missing in their diets.

    In any case, I think that “line” is pretty clear for most people (though it is very variable among different people). I believe most people would define that line in their minds according to one or more of these options:

    1) Whether the work is legal or not.

    2) Whether it is made on public or private property.

    3) Whether it is made on used or abandoned/unused/ignored property.

    4) Whether it is made on what most people would consider unvaluable architecture or on the “valuable” one.

    5) Whether it is on personal or commercial property.

    6) Whether it is permanent (it requires replacement, like scratchitti or etch graffiti) or not.

    7) Whether the author had an artistic motivation or he/she just wanted to deface the “canvas” or simply to promote his name (you have to admit this is pretty easy to know).

    8) Whether it gives a clear political/social message or not.

    9) Whether it uses some particular technique (stencil for example) or not.

    10) Whether it is offensive or not.

    11) None of it is good.

    12) All of it is good.

    Anyone who doesn’t judge that line according to one or more of those possibilities, is probably thinking too much.

    On the other hand, I think all of the graffiti “tags” in Montreal are pretty sucky, so I am glad if people like Roadsworth influence others here to use better looking techniques an better suited canvases.

  2. This is really interesting. I too have observed that much less than 1% of all Montreal graffiti is non-stencil.

  3. The film will also be released theatrically as of November 22nd @ Cinéma Du Parc!

  4. Yes, I quite like this kind of work. Very imaginative! I am hard-pressed to think of it as ‘graffiti’ – it’s simply public art. I also have no objection to any kind of graffiti which expresses some kind of coherent idea about political or social issues, i.e., addressing public affairs.
    But I deeply object to mindless ‘tagging’. WTF is that? It is as worthy as a dog urinating on a firehydrant. Moreoever it is executed in a way that it is unreadable to the general public, only their friends can understand who made their mark on a space. Any taggers reading this would say ” well DUH,” but I’ve always believed that the ability to communicate at the level we do is something of a miracle. To limit your so-called communication to a select little group is inherently anti-social. In essence that is the exact opposite of Roadsworth’s work, which is clearly something being shared with the rest of us.

  5. Hey Olivier,

    Any idea if, when and where this film, in addition to les Memoires des Anges will be available for purchase? Does NFB put their products up for public sale?

    Nice article, great writing.


  6. I’m impressed. Both by the article and by Roadsworth.
    Plus now I want to go see the documentary.

  7. This film was poorly made. The director seems to be an opportunist riding on the wave of a storm that belongs to another.

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