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Jarvis: The transformative effect of street art

Wednesday, August 21, 2019


Before, it was a cinder block wall.

Now, it’s art, the statuesque figures of a man and woman, inspired by Michelangelo’s David and Greek gods and goddesses, painted in chic black, white and gray and a swath of elegant gold across the massive 20-by-90-foot space.

To the person who defiled the mural on the back of an Ottawa Street business last week, spray-painting lines through it and writing THC and BANDIT on it days after it was finished, to the person who defaced another mural in the alley off Maiden Lane, here’s what it takes to create arresting street art. Here’s what it means to the artists. And here’s how it can transform a city.

When Daniel Bombardier, known as Denial, was commissioned to paint a mural on the side of a building on Ouellette Avenue, just north of Wyandotte Street, he thought about the family who had commissioned it. The parents had immigrated to Canada from Pakistan for a better life 40 years ago. He also thought about how he had left Windsor to pursue art in Toronto and Vancouver and returned to try to make it here.

The brightly-coloured 90-by-36-foot piece on the building’s south side is “about movement and change and coming and going,” he said. And it’s about Windsor.

There are Bridge to Canada, Tunnel to Canada and Automotive Capital of Canada signs. There’s a Detroit Pistons logo. It’s upside down, a cheeky nod to everyone who mistakenly assumes Windsor is north of Detroit.

Transferring a design from paper or an iPad to the side of a multi-storey building is a job. How to get the right dimensions?

David Derkatz, also known as DERKZ, who painted murals on two sides of the Ottawa Street business, used to do it freehand, “can to the wall.”

“It’s more authentic,” he said.

But he and Bombardier also use tricks, like creating a grid or projecting an image of the design onto the wall, to perfect the dimensions.

There are other practical challenges to painting art on buildings. You have to fill holes in the surface and prime it. There can be obstructions, too – doors, windows, cars parked next to the wall.

You can’t paint when it rains. Heat and cold can make the paint splutter as it comes out of the can. If it’s too humid, the paint won’t stick to the wall properly.

If it’s too windy — if you’re three or four storeys high, there’s wind — you have to block the wind and use high-pressure spray paint, which comes out of the can more forcefully.

To reach the tops of walls, you need a lift. Then you have to watch for storms.

“A lift is like an antenna for lightning,” said Bombardier.

It’s also just tiring. You use your whole body to paint, to stretch and reach.

And you do all this wearing a mask with an air filter because the paint fumes are toxic.

“It’s a lot more labour,” said Derkatz.

But the bigger the wall, the more he wants to paint it.

“It’s more free,” he said. “You’re not sitting in a chair, hunched over a canvas. It’s more expressive.”

Said Bombardier, “I love the transformative effect.”

He’s seen how murals have helped revitalize Detroit’s downtown, helping to draw people and investment.

“I just want that for Windsor,” he said. “It’s a sign of life. It says people care, that they’ve taken the time to do this.”