In his mid-teens AJ Louden began expressing himself with cans of spray paint, illicitly leaving his mark around Edmonton. But one person's vandalism is another person's art, and Louden shows few regrets about the nature of those early days in his artistic pursuits.

"I found that graffiti and street art spoke to me in a way that other art forms that I'd been exposed at that time didn't really."

Today Louden, who goes by the artist name AJA,is a sought-after artist whose work legally adorns walls in Prague, Barcelona, Florence and his hometown Edmonton. He's also part of a unique festival that brings other one-time graffiti artists together to turn spray cans to barren walls and create massive pieces of art.

Edmonton's public art festival began last year in the most ad hoc of ways. Artists Annaliza Toledo and Trevor Peters were jazzed by the public art they'd seen around the world, and they thought Alberta's capital could use an injection of style.

rust magic

Trevor Peters and Annaliza Toledo created the Rust Magic festival to bring colour and vibrancy to downtown Edmonton while celebrating the unique look and feel of graffiti art. (Sam Martin/CBC)

They looked to Europe, where festivals like Croatia's Graffiti na gradele are changing the urban landscape. Similar events were drawing visual artists to Copenhagen, London and Stockholm. Montreal had launched a mural festival four years earlier, so Toledo and Peters thought Edmonton should be next.

They had a big idea but little money. Fortunately Edmonton has an abundance of bleak cinder block walls and a handful of building owners willing to risk setting a stranger loose with a spray can. So they set out to find a group of artists willing to work for free.

"We kind of started reaching out to some of our favourite artists in the world and just decided to put a message in a bottle and see if we got anything back," explains Peters.

Pushing creative boundaries

Fourteen artists signed up in the first year. Several from around the world answered the online appeal, along with a few homegrown talents like Louden. They were drawn together by the idea of pushing their creative boundaries while hanging out with fellow artists, many of whom once dodged police while plying their talents.

The festival's name, Rust Magic, is taken from the illicit graffiti lexicon. Rust-Oleum spray paint was a favourite in the North American subculture of graffiti art. In an awkward twist, this year's festival is co-sponsored by Montana Cans, a European competitor of Rust-Oleum.

International artists turn Edmonton's walls into art1:17

Many sponsors have stepped up, building owners are donating to the festival and offering their walls, and some big names from around the world are in Edmonton for Rust Magic 2017. This year 23 artists are working on 20 walls.

Toledo says Rust Magic is unique among the world's art festivals because of its emphasis on graffiti art. "It's often misunderstood and has a negative connotation attached to it, so we just want to promote it and show it as a viable form of beautiful artwork." 

 A purple puma with chopsticks

Just north of Edmonton's new downtown arena, a duo from Barcelona are filling the entire exterior wall of the Lingnan restaurant with a cartoon landscape featuring a hungry purple puma using chopsticks. Kram and Eledo are seasoned veterans of the street graffiti scene, so much so they only use their "artist" names when reporters come around.

"We started painting walls when we were kids," explains Kram. He says the spray can is an ideal tool because "it's really quick and you don't need to mix colours, so it's super fast." Today he calls himself a muralist, because he's painting big murals, rather than repeating the spray-and-run urban art of his youth.

DEDOS MURAL

Nelson Dedos Garcia's mural in downtown Edmonton is part of the artful legacy left by the first ever Rust Magic Festival in 2016. (Sam Martin/CBC)

A few blocks away Carly Ealey is covering the two-storey wall of a notorious downtown strip club with a tasteful yet sultry mural of a woman's face. Ealey, who is from San Diego, came to spray cans and large walls only after exploring more traditional forms of art. "Once I got ahold of spray paint it's really addictive and really fun, so I just went crazy and I'm doing bigger murals."

The magic of spray paint

Since it hit the market nearly 70 years ago, spray paint has been a means of self expression. From obscenities sprayed on walls and rail cars, to gang tags marking territory, to the political messages that covered the Berlin Wall, a can of spray paint provides a quick, fast-drying means of delivering a message.

mast action

New York based graffiti artist MAST works on a giant Action themed mural on the wall of downtown Edmonton night club. (Sam Martin/CBC)

"It's just very quick and effective," explains Louden. "It just feels really empowering to be able to put a big block of colour up so quickly."

As building owners opened up to allowing large murals the painters upped their game, bringing a fine art component to what had been seen as petty vandalism.

But there is still an ambiguous line between art and vandalism, notes Louden. "I think that stance of, if it's illegal then it's not art and it's just graffiti and if it's legal then it can be art but that's not graffiti … kind of oversimplifies things."

However there is no doubt 23 people armed with hundreds of cans of spray paint are creating art throughout Edmonton. "It's huge for the city," Louden notes. "And the one that they put on last year just really drastically changed the urban landscape of downtown especially."

For festival co-founder Trevor Peters, the real magic comes from the vibrant images that stand out in the middle of a cold, bleak Edmonton winter. "This is just something to uplift spirits and really bring happiness to the masses."

kram hungry cat

Barcelona muralist Kram chose the image of a hungry puma to fill the wall of a Chinese restaurant north of Rogers Place in downtown Edmonton (Sam Martin/CBC)