Winnipeg graffiti artist called burned Hargrave building his studio
Street artist known as NES used vacant 44 Hargrave St. apartment as place to withdraw, paint
Charred bricks and rubble are all that remain at 44 Hargrave St. in downtown Winnipeg after a towering inferno tore through a vacant apartment complex on April 6.
The place was little more than an eyesore to area residents, but for one Winnipeg graffiti artist, that vacant building was a makeshift studio and "sanctuary."
CBC News won't be naming the artist, but street art fans in Winnipeg might recognize his signature.
It was like a little sanctuary to just kind of go and paint and relax.- NES, Winnipeg graffiti artist
The artist known as "NES" has been doing graffiti in Winnipeg and across Canada for close to 20 years.
He spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying he would be at risk of being charged for vandalism and trespassing if his identity was to be revealed.
NES cut his chops on grain elevators, trains and building sides in plain sight on the Prairies as a teen in Winnipeg. Now in his 30s, he works in a trade and makes a comfortable living.
"For me, it's just like a stress relief. It's almost a break from reality … to focus on painting, and a way to stay sane," said NES.
The self-proclaimed urban explorer was out on one of his usual scouting missions, looking for a low-key space to paint, when he came across Kenilworth Court at 44 Hargrave St. last summer. It became one of NES's painting haunts, a place where he could quietly work on murals without worry.
"It [was] almost like just a sketchbook," he said. "It wasn't just for everyone; it was aimed at the kind of people that would explore those kinds of places."
Over the course of the next year, NES estimated he entered the vacant apartment about a dozen times to paint the inside walls of the 105-year-old, four-storey brick building. Most of the art he produced in or on the building were different variations of his tag.
"I painted the front … and stacked the rubble and made stairs in front so I could get that one spot," said NES, referring to one of his simpler tags that was a background feature in CBC's news coverage of the fire.
Sad to see it go
"My phone blew up the second that things went up," said NES, claiming that he had friends and fellow artists sending him photos of his work on the outside of the burning building.
Plumes of smoke streaming from the building were visible from St. Boniface, but luckily no one was injured in the fire that caused about $1 million in damages and required 12 suites in a neighbouring apartment to be evacuated. Five youths are now facing arson charges.
- 5 youths, aged 12-15, arrested for Hargrave apartment fire
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NES, who claims he was in the building less than 24 hours before it caught fire, was sad to see it destroyed.
"Not that I was losing anything that was painted … it was like a little sanctuary to just kind of go and paint and relax," he said.
"It was just a nice spot right in the middle of the city that was almost like it wasn't part of the city, you know what I mean? You just kind of go in there and you're kind of secluded from everything and do whatever you want in there."
'Squatters, kids, bums, druggies'
CBC News interviewed several area residents in the aftermath of the fire, including Jacques Fornier, who said the building, vacant since 2007, was a known gathering place for "squatters, kids, bums, druggies."
But during his many painting sessions, NES claims he "never ever saw any evidence of squatters in the building."
"It's not like there's people coming and going and there's all these nefarious activities that people say are going on," he said.
"It just got so overdramatized where it's like, 'It was a home to squatters and vagrants and [street workers] and junkies' … one person says that, and now that's like fact almost, even though that's just one person's quote in the news."
Finding 44 Hargrave
"For me that's [urban exploration], just sort of a precursor to finding a spot to paint graffiti," said NES.
His usual targets are the sides of buildings and trains, leaving him with a limited amount of time to get something layered and cohesive from can to canvas.
Despite having had a few close calls in places like the one on Hargrave, NES has a kind of fearless nonchalance when it comes to the prospect of encountering strangers in dark dilapidated spaces.
"Nothing is going to jump out and bite me," said NES, adding he often carries a flashlight and camera on him when goes painting at night.
"A lot of times, too, if you do run into someone in a place like that, which in that place I never did, but in other places, most of the time they are friendly people and they just want to sit and talk to someone and want to sit and watch you paint and appreciate what you're doing."
Not vandalism per se, says NES
He also thinks most people fail to see a distinction between graffiti qua street art and the defacement of private property for its own sake.
"There's still a respect issue. I'll go into a place like that, but I'm not going to smash windows or set fires or even, like, spray paint on 100-year-old brick or old architectural features — it's just the white wall."
Only a matter of time
NES said he wasn't surprised the building went up in flames. In his experience, abandoned spots often attract firebugs.
The one crucial difference, said NES, is that most times those fires fizzle out and die before spreading through the entire building.
"I'm surprised it lasted that long," he said. "Having a building like that, where it was located, just how easy it was to get inside … you could step over a fence to get inside."
Why risk getting arrested for art no one sees?
"It's almost more about the ritual of doing it…. It's like painting a subway. It's like 10 minutes of painting and three days of preparation."
The process of creating the art in the Hargrave building was more about the ritual and therapy than the final product.
Now that NES's private downtown studio is gone, he's back on the hunt for a new urban "sanctuary."
There were 358 vacant buildings in Winnipeg as of Dec. 31, 2014. In 2014, 54 vacant properties were demolished. Below: Number of vacant properties (only shows neighbourhoods that have more than four) as of Dec 31, 2014.