Get the story behind Centretown's murals, while you still can

With the COVID-19 pandemic now more than a year old, CBC Ottawa is trying to inject some life into those stale neighbourhood walks by having local experts guide you through their communities. This week: the often-changing murals of Centretown.

CBC Ottawa series aims to inject some life into the neighbourhood walk

Walk This Way: Take a tour of Centretown’s murals

2 years ago
Duration 3:45
Kimberley Dawkins, with public art festival House of Paint, showed CBC News around Centretown’s murals — some of which are tucked away in the neighbourhood’s nooks and crannies.

We're more than a year into the pandemic, and there's a decent chance the trusty neighbourhood walk — one of our few consistent outlets for physical exercise and mental stimulation — is starting to feel a bit stale.

Well, we want to help.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be rolling out curated neighbourhood strolls designed to give you new insight into the streets you've been trudging along all these months.

And while previous entries in this series required you to actually live in the neighbourhood, thanks to the stay-at-home order, there's good news, intrepid city walkers: that order has now been lifted.

This week: Kimberley Dawkins of Ottawa urban art and hip-hop festival House of Paint shares the stories behind the sometimes-fleeting murals of Centretown.

House of Paint communications co-ordinator Kimberley Dawkins stands next to the mural on the side of Spaceman Music. While commissioned works like this one will likely stick around, many murals are less permanent, and Dawkins says you should get out and see them while you can. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

A good starting point, Dawkins says, is the secluded parking lot beside the Arlington Five coffee shop, just off Bank Street.

Last summer, a number of pieces were installed in the parking lot by muralists, graffiti artists and other visual artists as part of a collaboration between House of Paint and the café. 

The sheer concentration of work — a cartoon shark, a vibrant pink flamingo, a tribute to action hero Black Panther — makes it "a wonderful jumping-off point" for people to get acquainted with the names in the local scene, says Dawkins.

Its semi-hidden nature also rewards the observant walker, she adds.

"This is the sort of space that asks you to stop and pay attention, and to take a deeper look at what's going on in your neighbourhood," Dawkins says.

From there, Dawkins suggests heading north on Bank, hanging a left at Gladstone Avenue, and popping your head into another parking lot, this time next to Spaceman Music.

You'll immediately be confronted by a bear with a piercing pair of eyes, painted onto a garage — with ears sticking out beyond the structure's confines.

Created by a Chilean-Canadian artist who goes by the name "Shalak Attack," it's one of Dawkins's favourite pieces in the downtown. And if you spin around 180 degrees, you'll see more of her work: a large face created by the Clandestinos collective. 

"Many of the pieces that we're looking at … are not necessarily all by one artist," said Dawkins. 

"They're not all painted by one person, which is another really exciting thing about murals — that they're often a creative space for collaborative work."

Dawkins stands in the parking lot next to the Arlington Five coffee shop in Ottawa on June 2, 2021. A number of murals were installed in the parking lot last summer. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

From there, it's a bit of a hike west along Gladstone Avenue all the way to the McNabb Recreation Centre.

High up the wall on the centre's southwest side is a mural initially during the city's Pride week in 2015 to honour murdered transgender women of colour.

After it was defaced, the mural was repainted and relocated to the centre, where it was installed well off the ground.

"Folks were very passionate about ensuring that it was kept safe," Dawkins said.

A mural to commemorate murdered transgender women of colour is seen on the side of the McNabb Recreation Centre on June 2, 2021. It was painted in 2015 and moved there after being defaced at its previous location near Bank and Somerset streets. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Dawkins suggests then wandering north through McNabb Park and the neighbouring streets to Dundonald Park

You'll find assorted bits of public infrastructure adorned with paint — check out the fish swimming along a concrete barrier at Somerset Street W. and Bronson Avenue — as well as brightly coloured benches in the park itself, funded through the City of Ottawa's Paint it Up! program.

Not only do those sorts of works make streetscapes more vibrant, they also give cities an "idiosyncratic" character, Dawkins says.

"Each city is going to have a different artist, and each artist is going to have a different perspective," said Dawkins. "[It's] part of what creates a dynamic and vibrant and exciting city space."

A painted park bench is seen in Ottawa's Dundonald Park on June 2, 2021. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Finally, head north to Bank Street at Lisgar Avenue to see what remains of the "We Gon' Be Alright" mural. 

Painted on construction hoarding by Jimmy Baptiste, Allan Andre, David D. Pistol and Kalkidan Assefa, the "affirming and reassuring" mural went up in the summer of 2020 amidst global anti-Black racism protests, Dawkins says.

A vicious storm blew down the part of the piece that faces Bank Street, but the Lisgar Avenue stretch remains — serving as a reminder, Dawkins says, of the sometimes ephemeral nature of murals.

"That's the nature of public art, right?" says Dawkins. "You're literally subject to the world. Sometimes that happens, and it is really unfortunate."

This bear's face, painted by Chilean-Canadian artist 'Shalak Attack,' is seen on a garage just off Gladstone Avenue in Ottawa on June 2, 2021. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Dawkins stands in front of what remains of the 'We Gon' Be Alright' mural at the intersection of Bank and Lisgar streets on June 2, 2021. Half of the mural blew down in a powerful storm last year. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

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