Young artists switch the script on public art in Vancouver

The murals slowly creeping up brick walls in East Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood are a surprising development for the Vancouver art scene.

The city's inaugural mural festival runs until August 20th

Fraser Adams' work at the Maker Lab. (Joe Klymkiw)

Down at the northern edge of East Vancouver there's a candy-bright jungle of wild characters and fantastic creatures. It's a brand new, full-building mural wrap covering the formerly unremarkable mint-green walls of MakerLabs creative studios.

A group of artists, mostly local, painted the building over the course of a week in mid-July, marking the beginning of the inaugural Vancouver Mural Festival. Thirty-five more murals will go up during the next two weeks, culminating in a day of art and music on August 20th.

The murals slowly creeping up brick walls in East Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood are a surprising development for the Vancouver art scene. And it's one that many people said would never happen.

Bicicleta Sem Freio's work at the Maker Lab. (Gabriel Hall)

"Everyone I talked to about the idea said, 'Yes, yes, yes. Please, yes,'" festival founder David Vertesi tells CBC Arts. "But then they'd always say, 'Good luck, it's probably not going to happen.'"

Vancouver, a city of natural beauty and shimmering glass, lacks the vibrant street art scene found in cities such as Montreal and Toronto. Outdated bylaws, strict regulations and stringent anti-graffiti efforts have kept its walls and alleyways relatively stark over the years.

But Vertesi, a fan of street art and a member of indie pop band Hey Ocean!, is driven to "switch the script" on Vancouver's attitude towards the arts. He spent two years busting through roadblocks to make the mural festival happen.

Drew Young, Jay Senetchko, and Michael Bock in front of the walls at Belvedere Courts (Gabriel Hall)

Vancouver tends to be a "no first" city, he said. But a few "yes people" – such as members of the Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Area and some enthusiastic supporters at city hall – helped him push the project along. Those same forces might be responsible for Vancouver's re-commitment to public art at city hall in recent months and its revitalized mural program.

All of this is good news for Vancouver artists, who populate this city at the highest ratio per capita in Canada. As the crushing cost of living puts increasing pressure on artists, says Vertesi, cultivating culture and community is vital.

"We're walking on a tightrope right now in terms of trying to retain young and interesting and talented people who are looking for purpose and meaning and excitement," he says.

Alison Woodward and Graeme McCormack's work at the MakerLab, (Drew Young)

Drew Young, the festival's art director, says the city's high prices have taken a toll on the artistic community. 

"Culture has just been pushed back more and more," he tells CBC Arts. "It takes a lot of skills and hunger to stay alive in this town as a working artist. But it's a really vibrant city to live in. So it gives you the hunger to want to stay here."

The result is a pool of artists who are as stubborn as they are talented. They're qualities that contributed to the launch of this unlikely festival – and that keep artists sticking around despite the challenges.

Mandy Tsung and Chop Logik's work at the Maker Lab. (Drew Young)

Vancouver-based artist Ola Volo is always drawn back here despite periods spent in art-rich cities such as New York and Montreal. The city's potential, she says, makes it an exciting place to create.

Although laxer regulations and lower prices allow "more room to play" in other cities, Vancouver seems to be on the verge of an artistic blossoming.

"I feel like the movement is there and it's happening right now," she said last week via phone from Montreal. She's flying home later this month to fill a wall near Main Street with her intricate, folklore-inspired mural art.

Dedos' work at the MakerLab. (Drew Young)

The effect of public art, she says, is tangible. Especially in a city that's renowned for its aloofness.

"It takes people away from their daily routine. It connects people together," she said.

"I just feel like it will bring the whole city to life."

Vancouver Mural Festival. To August 20, Vancouver.