Adrenaline surging, I pedal down a syringe-dotted alley, trying to keep up with a notorious artists–or criminal, depending on your point of view–whose real name you'll probably never know
A tall, slim young man wearing khaki coveralls with “Public Service” stencilled across the back, he swings right on Columbia Street and stops at his third and final target of the night: the wall of a pawnshop in the heart of the Downtown Eastside. A VPD patrol car speeds by, its red strobes briefly casting a ghoulish light on at least a dozen emaciated junkies—including one lying on the pavement in the fetal position—and a couple of beefy men in leather jackets. From a crate attached to the rear of his bike, the 26-year-old takes a bucket of homemade flour-and-water paste. Deftly he affixes to the wall a black-and-white poster of a battered-looking teddy bear, signed “wh.” A ghostly-pale woman looks in the direction of the poster, but her glassy-eyed stare appears not to register the crime she’s just witnessed. Thanks to an anti-graffiti bylaw enacted in 1994, and ramped up in 2002 with the formation of the city’s graffiti-management program, the guerrilla artist, who calls himself weakhand, could be fined up to $2,000 per poster and criminally charged with mischief for his roughly 70 previous offences, including his biggest hit to date: a giant Main Street billboard advertising Lotto 6/49, which he covered with his own portrait of a woman blowing a kiss. Why take the risk? “I treat it like a job,” he says, after we’ve found a park bench. “I care about Vancouver, especially the Downtown Eastside. It seems to get worse down there every day.” A lifelong resident of the city, weakhand dedicates much of his free time (he works full-time, but won’t say where or doing what) and his impressive airbrush skills to creating one-of-a-kind posters and installing them on our streets. Like other notable Vancouver street artists—including Office Supplies Incorporated, Champ, Ninja9ine, the dark, and cameraman—weakhand uses public spaces as both outdoor canvas and corkboard. Sometimes the goal is to inject beauty and whimsy into homogeneous or decrepit spaces; other times it’s to critique consumerism, homelessness, drug addiction, the impending Olympics, or the city’s crackdown on street art. “So much visual garbage is crammed down our throats every day,” he says. “The sheer amount of corporate billboards is totally sickening.” Street artists’ posters, paint stencils, stickers, and graffiti are typically removed within weeks, if not days, but photos survive on websites like Flickr.com’s Vancouver Graffiti Pool and on international sites like the New York–based Wooster Collective, which recently featured weakhand in its best-of category. The notoriety is flattering, says weakhand, but the ultimate rush is in connecting with other citizens, uncensored. “I believe many of the people who hold power contribute nothing to the community and use their power in the wrong ways,” says the third-generation visual artist, who takes his images mostly from Internet stock photos. His stylish posters are sometimes contextualized with phrases like “Talk less, do more” and resemble slick ads, but they’re properly “subvertising” because there’s no product for sale and they challenge viewers to contemplate their environment more deeply. “The more good quality work out there, the better this city will be,” he says. “A city without writing and drawings on the walls isn’t a healthy city. Going back to the cave man, we’ve always painted on walls.” The act of adorning public spaces has been a political phenomenon since Roman gladiators tagged the Colosseum. U.S. activists in the 1970s reclaimed the streets with phrases like “Dick Nixon before he dicks you,” and punk rockers, street gangs, and citizens searching for lost cats use stickers, posters, paint, sidewalk chalk, and Sharpie scrawls as cheap advertising. Nowadays, some guerrilla artists have attained rock-star status, like L.A.–based Shepard Fairey and prolific U.K. stencil artist Banksy, whose provocative works can sell for six figures, even as the authorities scurry to erase him from public spaces. “What does it say about our governments that they’re not just ignoring the writing on the walls, they’re going out of their way to destroy it?” asks weakhand, before heading home for the night. “We’ve been beaten back by the city. But I’m an optimist. And when I don’t do it, I don’t feel right. I feel pissed off at myself.” Daniel Paquin, a 52-year-old Quebec native and former parking enforcer, is Vancouver’s anti-graffiti coordinator. “It’s the beginning of a crime career for many kids,” he claims. We’re in his sparsely decorated office on West 12th Avenue; a calendar promoting the city’s public “paint-out” events is the only adornment on the beige walls. With an annual budget of $600,000, Vancouver provides a legal outlet for “graffitists” with these mural competitions. Many street artists steer clear, though, because political content is forbidden and participants must provide ID, allowing the VPD’s Anti-Graffiti Unit to collect intel on styles and techniques. Paquin appreciates the artistry of some illegal posters and murals, he says, “but if you give this much, human nature shows that they’ll take this much more. Same with garage-sale signs and lost-cat posters. Who removes them? City crews. If there were no rules, the entire city would be like a garbage dump.” Private businesses are responsible for graffiti removal on their property, and if they don’t clean it themselves within 10 days the city will take the initiative and bill them as much as $1,200. “Leave it there and your neighbour will get it next,” says Paquin. “Unfortunately, our bylaw isn’t strict enough and we’re short-staffed,” he adds, noting that the city’s sole graffiti inspector has a backlog of 200 tagged locations. Paquin is hoping for a bylaw change that will allow the city to buff graffiti without the 10-day wait. The anti-graffiti budget has been cut in half over the past five years; meanwhile, Paquin anticipates higher costs down the road. “Otherwise, we’re going to get bombed like crazy for the Olympics.” Vancouver was the first Canadian city to create anti-graffiti bylaws; we pay private contractor Goodbye Graffiti $191,000 yearly to maintain a buffed city. Its mandate is to remove guerrilla art promptly, particularly if it’s hateful, overtly political, anti-police, or on a civic cynosure like the Olympic clock. Since 1997, when it started up, the company has launched 17 Canadian franchises, including two just opened in Montreal. Its squad of 12 buffers hits our streets daily, on scooters and in “paint trucks” equipped with power washers, a mind-boggling selection of beige and grey paints, and a host of graffiti-removing chemicals, some more eco-friendly than others. “We have an arsenal of weapons,” confirms Clevens Louis, Goodbye Graffiti’s manager, as we set off with 25-year-old “graffiti removal technician” Kyle Hazlewood. Our first stop is a Commercial Drive video store. Someone has put a small silver “SDS” tag on the brick wall. Hazlewood dons a respirator, applies a stinky gel to the brick, and, before power-washing, builds a little makeshift dam to trap and suction the water. Removing the tag takes about 20 minutes of labour and 10 litres of water, much of which ends up coursing down the sidewalk anyway. “I could spray that wall for an hour,” he says, “and it’d just keep foaming.” These days, “Riot 2010” is by far the most popular tag scrawled on walls, snazzy bus shelters, billboards, and hydro boxes. BC Hydro uses in-house buffers (with a $100,000 annual tab), as does BC Transit, though only a fraction of its million-dollar vandalism-cleaning bill goes to buffing. The parks board devotes another $175,000 each year to fighting this ongoing war against ink, paint, and sidewalk chalk. By lunch, Hazlewood has buffed four high-priority tags. None would qualify as street art or true graffiti. There are no ornate, multihued “throw-ups” or large murals known as “masterpieces,” just crude tags: “fuck da police,” the word “penis,” “shady chink” (probably a tagger’s name, not a racist sentiment), and felt-pen messages at a West End sleeping spot for homeless people, including phone numbers and “Get well soon Mommy” in a heart. “It’s satisfying,” says Hazlewood, who grew up in Hope, the son of an RCMP officer. “I’m doing my job, making businesses happy.” When I mention that street artists like weakhand also consider themselves civic workers, he says, “That doesn’t impress me. It’s a crime.” Clevens Louis, the Goodbye Graffiti manager, who did some tagging as a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, occasionally finds the job more ethically complicated. “Sometimes I feel bad,” he admits. “It’s a fascinating form of communication.” When he’s called down for buffing, he says, “I tell them, ‘Hey, I’m just giving you a clean canvas.’ ” If he comes across work he likes, he takes a photo of it before it’s erased. His favourites he uses as screen savers.