Vancouver art comes in off the streets at Hot Art Wet City

Vancouver's Hot Art Wet City is known for its irreverent attitude and its celebration of lowbrow art. For lovers of street art, it’s a natural draw.

Gallery's latest show, Antisocial Media, opens this weekend

Inside Hot Art Wet City. (Hot Art Wet City)

It's tough to be a street artist in Vancouver. At least so says Chris Bentzen, owner of Hot Art Wet City. His three-year-old gallery is known for its irreverent attitude and its celebration of lowbrow art. For lovers of street art, it's a natural draw.

"I get a lot of tourists who come in here and ask where the street art is but it's hard to find in this city," he says.

"It seems like the city doesn't really have any leeway for street art, at least for people who are doing it illegally," he says. "It gets covered up quite quickly."

It seems like the city doesn't really have any leeway for street art, at least for people who are doing it illegally. It gets covered up quite quickly.- Chris Bentzen

Bentzen himself is constantly on the lookout for street art. He says murals, paste-ups and stencil work — even, sometimes, the oft-hated graffiti tags — add texture and depth to a city. He does what he can to support the craft by curating gallery shows of street artists' work. The latest, called Antisocial Media, opens this weekend.

A work by MW Bowen. (MW Bowen)

He notes that there's a strange incongruity in exhibiting street art.

"You change the context of it by putting it into a gallery. Just the fact that I have it on these walls means it's not street art anymore," he says.

Nonetheless, he says, the exhibitions give Vancouverites a chance to see art that they might not get a chance to see out in the world.

This month's show is the second to feature the artist known as iHeart. He's back, Bentzen says, by popular demand. iHeart's work attracted international attention after his piece "Nobody Likes Me" was featured on Banksy's Facebook page in 2014.

iHeart's work never lasts long in the wild, says Bentzen. The artist created a stunning, unsanctioned "solo exhibition" called #asignofthetimes on the walls of a pedestrian underpass near Granville Island last summer. It explored society's preoccupation with social media in a series of stencilled images of people and technology. It was painted over by the city within two days.

iHeart himself feels no sense of loss when his work vanishes.

A mural by Earthfolk. (Earthfolk)

"I just accept it as part of the life cycle of street art. I think that the ephemeral nature is what makes it unique," he says.

The Hot Art Wet City show also includes the work of Earthfolk and The Grominator, two artists from Calgary – another city with stringent graffiti removal policies. The gallery show consists mainly of spray paint and mixed media on wood and canvas. It touches on antisocial themes in various ways, from social media obsession to psychological conflict and alienation.

Questioned on the difference between street art and vandalism, Earthfolk says there isn't one.

"I think all street art is vandalism. I just think that there are constructive ways to vandalize things," he says.

He believes that the merits of street art are its accessibility and the social issues it often addresses.

"I hope that, over time, people can start to see that we're just trying to make the world a more interesting place," he says.

#TagsForLikes by iHeart (iHeart)

The drive to brighten grey streets persists among Vancouver artists despite the challenges. Although some applaud the city for approving more public murals recently, others feel the city's mural board isn't inclusive enough. iHeart, for one, doubts his own work would pass the panel review.

At any rate, many artists seem torn between a desire to have their work sanctioned and the need to remain creatively unfettered.

M.W. Bowen's bright, quirky, pop culture-inspired paste-up work has been shown at Hot Art Wet City several times over the past three years. Though he's done some commissioned work and would like to do more, he's preparing another summer paste-up project and has no plans to quit.

"I can basically do whatever I want and the whole city is my audience," he says.

And, anyway, there's joy to be found in its illicit nature.

"When everything is sanctioned and vetted and has gone through an approval process, I think it loses a lot of energy and fun. And that's something people like," he says.

"People like the rules to be broken a little bit."

Antisocial Media. March 3 to 19 at Hot Art Wet City, 2206 Main Street, Vancouver.

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