Can street art be preserved? Undoing of a Montreal mural raises questions

Street artist Zilon understands tagging over public art is “the name of the game." But his defaced mural is raising questions about the nature of street art — and the best way to preserve it.

'I was sad about what some people did to it,' says artist known as Zilon

Artist Zilon is seen with his finished product, an eclectic and colourful mural in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood. (Submitted by Zilon)

It looks like any other tagged-over abandoned building in Montreal, but just a few years ago, the Dépanneur Peur fermé 24 sur 24 was a major work of art in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood, painted by one of the city's best-known street artists.

"I was sad about what some people did to it," says the artist known as Zilon, when asked how he felt about the graffiti and tagging that now covers his artwork.

"But hey, what can I do?" 

A self-described "punk rocker" of street art, Zilon says his first works more than 30 years ago were hit and run pieces, often with a can of spray paint stolen from a hardware store.

He often painted bathroom walls and city property.

The Dépanneur Peur fermé 24 sur 24 was a major work of art in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood. (Submitted by Zilon)

Since those early days, Zilon has been painting over the Montreal landscape. He has worked with designer Givenchy in Paris, and his pieces are sold around the world.

But it's his Montreal work, Dépanneur Peur, that is raising questions about the nature of street art — and the best way to preserve it.

Montreal's Mural Festival commissioned the work for its 2014 edition. It was no small feat.

The whitewashed building, at the corner of Marie-Anne and Saint-Dominique, before Zilon went to work. (Submitted by Zilon)

The Dépanneur Peur covers two facades of a corner property, two storeys high, all within steps of the Parc du Portugal and the home of the late Leonard Cohen.

Now, it's covered with tags, new pieces of street art and advertising posters. There's even a hole in the roof of the building after some people lit a bonfire on it.

It was tagged within a day of its completion.

"One day I was at the Parc du Portugal, I was looking at my work, taking pictures, and there was a guy who did that sort of black balloon thing [tag]," says Zilon.

"I practically wanted to run after him and kick him in the ass."

Zilon's mural has been covered with tags and advertising since he painted it in 2014. The black tag on the left was done within a day of the mural's completion. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

Zilon says he understands the ephemeral nature of street art. He says it's the '"name of the game of street art."

But he says there has to be a measure of respect too.

"There are some jealous little bastards. They don't like my work, they don't like my person, they don't like whatsoever, and they do something over it only to piss you off," says Zilon.

"It's like people, they don't have respect, and probably they don't have respect for themselves."

A woman walks by the defaced mural near the Parc du Portugal in Montreal. (Elias Abboud/CBC)

The idea of respect takes on a different meaning for Sterling Downey, a city councillor and a street artist.

"We're doing a disservice to reputable artists, or even some of our young and emerging artists, by just giving them a wall, paying them to do it, and leaving their wall or their artwork like this later," says Downey.

"This isn't good publicity for them. This isn't going to encourage anything positive."

Downey, however, understands that street art only has a given shelf life.

"Once it's run its life, whatever that life is, after that we need to decide, do we leave it up as a sign of disrespect, or if we remove it, whitewash it, or paint over it," Downey says.

Downey says Zilon's works should be up in Montreal museums and at City Hall now, and not after he has died.

Zilon painted the backdrop for a Givenchy launch in Paris in 2014. (Submitted by Zilon)

Organizers of Montreal's Mural Festival say they would like to maintain all the artworks they commission. But they say it's an expensive venture.

"We want to protect them, but it's difficult for us because [protecting the murals] is a year-long thing, it's not only (during) the festival," said Yan Cordeau, the festival's artistic director.

"As much as we're happy that the festival is kind of lasting all year long, it's also an expense all year long if we have to repair everything that's happening to the artwork."

Zilon takes it all with a grain of salt.

"I call it urban herpes," he said of the tags, with a laugh.

"It's like too many people kissing my building and leaving their little souvenirs."


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