Montreal street artist Roadsworth captured in new documentary

From 2001 to 2004, Montreal harboured its own answer to world-renowned street artist Banksy — the mysterious Roadsworth.
A crosswalk in Montreal became a giant bootprint (Alan Kohl/NFB)
From 2001 to 2004, Montreal harboured its own answer to world-renowned street artist Banksy — the mysterious Roadsworth.

Roadsworth transformed a crosswalk into a giant boot print, a traffic divider into a vineyard and a left turn lane into a giant zipper.

He left more than 80 paintings on the streets over three years, never signing his name.

Montrealers were divided over whether the paintings, done at night with a stencil, were good fun or vandalism of public property.

Filmmaker Alan Kohl was intrigued and wanted to capture the artist in action.

It turned out the artist was a musician he'd met some years back at a jazz rehearsal and a mutual friend unmasked him to Kohl.

Kohl turned up with his camera, just before Montreal police caught Peter Gibson, a.k.a. Roadsworth, in the act on Nov. 29, 2004. They charged him with 51 counts of public mischief.

"I thought the arrest was the end of line for Peter and for the film. It became the beginning of the adventure," Koln told CBC's Q cultural affairs show on Thursday.

"All the publicity came and he was given offers to go abroad … I just followed the twists and turns as they came up."

The resulting English-language film is Roadsworth: Crossing the Line, a National Film Board and Loaded Pictures co-production that has its premiere in Montreal on Friday night.

Gibson told Q he had not really thought of himself of an artist as he doctored Montreal street signs.

Peter Gibson says he thought of himself as more of an activist than an artist, until his arrest. (Alan Kohl/NFB)
"When I started doing it, I thought of it more as a kind of activism, to be honest," he said.

"What I started doing was making bike paths around the city. I made a fairly rudimentary bike stencil, the idea being I wanted more bike paths in the city. That was the first one I did."

But his arrest and the tsunami of publicity that followed, got him thinking about his artistic influences and in particular Andy Goldsworthy, the landscape artist who inspired him.

"That was the beginning of … I had to answer for myself. I was getting calls from journalists. I had to articulate what it was I was doing … I hadn't necessarily put those ideas into words. That forced me to do that and come out of my shell a little bit," Gibson said.

He became a celebrity of sorts and got offers to continue his street art with the approval of the City of Montreal, as well invitations to France and England to create street paintings.

Kohl captures how difficult that notoriety was for Gibson, who had previously thought of himself as a hobbyist.

"It was a unique situation I was thrown into because my artistic career was a fledgling one," Gibson said. 

He recalls doing a piece of sanctioned art outside the Metro in Ville Marie.

"People had this perception that the city is coming down hard on you legally and yet you are doing this work for the city," he said. "I didn't feel the conflict, but that issue of selling out kept coming up."

The cameras were still rolling when Gibson got arrested again, this time in Amsterdam. Those charges were eventually resolved in 2006.

Kohl said he was moved by Gibson's journey, because he himself was struggling with building a story out of the 200 hours of footage he had shot.

"It was a first film for me — as Peter was finding out what he was doing, I was going through the same thing," Kohl said.

While Gibson is modest about his art celebrity and demures when compared to Banksy, Kohl said he always thought of these works as art, as well as social commentary.

"When you walk over the work, you experienced it in a way that I hadn't had that feeling when I saw graffiti," he said.

"Sometimes dissent is necessary to say what you want to say and do what you want to do."

Roadsworth: Crossing the Line is playing Nov. 21 and 22 as part of the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM).

The National Film Board will be bringing the film to cinemas across the country in the coming months.