But is it art?

Mrs. Tiggy Winkle’s wall is adorned with babushkas of various sizes.

By Rafal Pomian

The word graffiti evokes conflicting images of vulgar, even obscene, scribbles in public places but also some amazing paintings on walls of buildings and underpasses. The vulgar variety can be offensive but can also be very pointed and startling. “Tom and Jane were here,” is common enough graffi ti but if it’s seen on top of a double-decker bus as it comes to your bus stop you can’t but marvel at how it got up there. And what about the ubiquitous scribble seen in all the paid toilets of the world, “Here I sit broken hearted, paid a dime and only farted.” The currency changes with the country. Crude, of course, but try and express the sentiment in any other way that is equally succinct, relevant and funny. And that’s the whole point of good graffiti – it makes you smile and your day better. Parking is a big problem in the Glebe, especially on Redblacks game days with boisterous and very noisy fans crowding the streets. Many residents offer their driveways for parking. One day I saw a sign, “More Parking Next Door.” Some wag changed the “P” to a “B.” Oh, the impoliteness of some Glebites.

The mural on the side of Nicastro’s of a bison and a child reading is the work of a
Colombian art collective Vertigo Graffiti.

GRAFFITI BECOMING HIGH-END ART But it is the graffiti art that has seen the greatest change evolving from obscure, often offensive, images to modern high-end art. There are art museums everywhere exhibiting “pictures” that were once considered graffiti with poor or no taste at all. Andy Warhol’s works in a Pittsburgh museum now fetch astronomical prices, but it was the one with a big stack of Campbell soup cans that made his name famous. The beauty of such art is, as always, in the eye of the beholder. I once read about an expensive modern art sculpture put out proudly in front of the house only to suffer an ignominious fate. It was summarily removed at first garbage pick-up.


With graffiti art now becoming respectable, it is found everywhere here in the Glebe. An eye-grabbing painting on the wall of the Nicastro building on Third Avenue depicts a huge bison looming over a child reading a book. The painting is the work of a Colombian collective Vertigo Graffiti and symbolizes friendship between Colombia (child) and Canada (bison). The Glebe mural by this group is a first of its kind in Canada.

On the other side of the street is a painting of a pretty young girl gazing on the scene with unconcealed curiosity. On the wall of Bridgehead on Second Avenue, the blue morning glories make a striking statement especially in the glow of the afternoon sun. Likewise a bunch of spring flowers that adorn the wall of the Wild Oat make one think of brighter days ahead. Not to be outdone, the nearby Mrs. Tiggy Winkle’s wall is adorned with babushkas of various sizes, one for every age one assumes.

If this trend catches on we will have a veritable graffiti art gallery on the walls of the Glebe. Even in the murky tunnel under the Queensway on Bank, the whimsical fi gures and landscapes painted on the walls depicting people at play brighten up the area and perk up one’s interest.


A few years back, the city used to fight the blight of graffiti on these walls by painting them over with drab gray paint. It was and still is illegal to do graffi ti on public or private property unless it’s sanctioned by the city. Fortunately, the city realized it had a losing battle on its hands – new graffiti immediately reappeared – so they changed tack and commissioned artists to make “urban art,” which proved to be a win-win strategy. Vulgar images and scribbles were replaced by works of art, especially on Queensway underpasses.

But the most striking mural in Ottawa is on the corner of Rideau Street and Wurtenburg where a highrise has a nine-storey wall covered with a multi-thematic painting. It celebrates Ottawa’s diversity and is known as the Welcoming Ottawa mural, underscoring Canada’s welcoming attitude to newcomers. The city is encouraging local business organizations to do this “art-scaping” and has commissioned local artists to do murals in underpasses. Artists interested in participating in city-sponsored mural art projects can get more information from mural@ottawa.ca. Ottawa is only now beginning to catch up with Montreal where murals are decorating the city everywhere.

In Eastern Europe and in many of the Communist countries during the Communist era, many towns and subdivisions built rows of gray, ugly-looking housing blocks constructed cheaply with no consideration of aesthetic appearance. The government bureaucracy ensured uniform drabness. After the collapse of Communism in the ’90s, local enterprises gave rein to their planning imagination. The blocks got a new look with imaginative, colourful wall paintings that brightened up the ambiance of the area remarkably. The creativity of artists knows no bounds.

So is graffiti painting a genuine art form? Does it matter? If it brightens the ambiance of our surroundings, I for one can’t wait to see more of it.

Rafal Pomian is a Glebite with a love of travel, trains and good art.

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