During the last weeks of August, many Vancouverites spent time checking out the city’s first annual Mural Festival – an exhibition of 35 murals by over 40 local street, graffiti and mural artists mostly clustered around the lower Main Street corridor. The event was sponsored by a $200,000 grant from the City of Vancouver, with additional support from Mount Pleasant BIA and Burrard Arts Foundation
Reviews were generally positive – local artists succeeded in creating some interesting pieces, and local residents (many strapped for cash as usual) were able to spend a cheap afternoon browsing the streets on the lookout for the new cultural additions to the neighbourhood. The Mural Fest also chalked one up for the City, who can now say it has generously sponsored local art. In the aftermath, project organizers and local media have framed festival as an “up-hill battle” against the conservative forces that govern public art in Vancouver as well as a general “win” for the city’s counterculture. There are, however, reasons to probe this narrative.
So what’s the problem?
For starters: tech gentrification. With the success of the “new economy” centered on information and technology jobs, cities on the West Coast have strived to create conditions favorable for tech companies and their employees. Famous examples include San Francisco and Seattle, where the likes of Google, Amazon, Twitter and Dropbox have attracted so much capital, the mass of employees they hire have displaced populations in previously working class neighbourhoods like the Mission and Capitol Hill.
With the tech industry comes a young, educated, and highly mobile “creative class,” which local governments have sought to attract and maintain in hopes of boosting growth. In a short amount of time large scale street art murals, alongside food trucks and craft breweries, have become the prototypal cultural imprints of this emerging class. When viewed against the backdrop of the economic and cultural forces transforming the neighbourhoods north of Main Street and Broadway, the Vancouver Mural Festival fits comfortably within a pattern of municipally-led gentrification and tech redevelopment.
How is tech gentrification affecting Vancouver?
Mural Fest took place primarily in the False Creek neighbourhood bounded by Clark Drive, Cambie, 12th Avenue and Terminal Avenue. This area is historically home to light manufacturing and working class jobs. More recently, the zoning district, along with the False Creek Flats on the east side of Main Street, have been targeted by the city for extensive commercial revitalization and attempts to spur Vancouver’s tech industry. While the industrially zoned neighbourhood offers little potential for residential displacement, the changes occurring here correspond to geographer Jason Hackworth’s definition of gentrification as the “the production of space for increasingly affluent users.” And as new tech jobs spill into the Downtown Eastside, with plans for a tech hub at the former police station at Hastings and Cordova, this form of gentrification has a strong likelihood of displacing the low-income community.
If we trace the map of Mural Fest we can see an outline of murals surrounding new start ups, condos, breweries and coffee shops, including two at the long-protested Rize Development’s 21-story tower at the corner of Main and Broadway. Rize is gaining publicity for the mural on its exterior, while construction at the site has closed down a key bus stop of the #19 bus on Kingsway at Broadway. Those relying on public transit, many with disabilities and strollers, must now walk to the next stop to catch the bus – a symbol of the larger effects Rize will have on the working class Mount Pleasant community.
The showcase piece for the Vancouver Mural Festival is on the exterior of Vancouver’s tech industry poster child, Hootsuite. Located at the former CSIS headquarters, the building’s brutalist façade is now adorned with a brightly coloured geometric pattern. Hootsuite moved into their current site after a likely-favorable secret deal between the Hootsuite and the local government. More recently the tech firm plans to expand to another site in the neighborhood, teaming up with Westbank (of Woodward’s infamy) to purchase a square block of land between 4th and 5th and Main and Quebec. The company is currently lobbying the city for increased density on the site which could net them millions of dollars in profit.
In the context of a severe housing crisis, one which the mayor consistently claims he is unable to do much about, one wonders if another round of public money should be used to help repaint the headquarters of one of the city’s most successful tech start-ups, turned speculative developer.
Why mural art now?
Until recently, the City of Vancouver has had a pretty terrible history with street art. With the announcement of the 2010 Olympic games in 2002, many of the city’s historic graffiti “free-walls,” including those at Main and Terminal and in False Creek near Granville Island, were permanently painted over. The Vancouver Police Department also created a vandal squad to surveil the graffiti community, while semi-private entities such as the Downtown Ambassadors were used to target small-scale crimes of “disorder” such as loitering, sleeping outdoors and tagging. Vancouver exemplifies the larger trend, noted by academics, of the increasing closure of the public sphere under neoliberalism and the aggressive policing of the “unsanctioned” use of space.
Street art as a movement, popularized by artists such as Shepard Fairy and Banksy, emerged as a form of protest over the commodification and closure of space in cities across the globe during the 2000s. More recently, however, street art mural festivals in gentrifying neighborhoods have sparked controversy in various global cities. In a Facebook post that went viral earlier this year, activist Ah Kok Wong reacted to a international graffiti festival in the low income Sham Shui Po neighborhood of Hong Kong, stating: “Whoever participated [in] this event made [life in] the poorest Hong Kong community harder than ever, thanks to your ‘art’ and top-down ‘aesthetics.’” Returning to the case of Vancouver Mural Festival, we see how street art and graffiti can be used by cities to appear progressive, while at the same time maintaining an agenda of up-scaling and gentrification.
Public art without gentrification
Should we be opposed to murals and public art in general? Absolutely not. However, the timing and location of Vancouver Mural Festival, amidst tech re-zonings and sprouting condo towers prompts troubling questions.
In his recent book After Euphoria, local critic and cultural theorist Jeff Derksen discusses how a “cumulative texture” in cities is produced through the transgressive use of public space. By slowly stripping away that texture and replacing it with a sanitized version tied to profit-seeking and speculative interests, Mural Fest helps to produce a distorted mirror image of the city. In America, state and corporate sponsored mural projects, such as those by Shepard Fairy, have frequently been “bombed over” by graffiti artists hoping to preserve the art of illegal tagging as a status quo challenging activity. In this case, the overt celebration surrounding Mural Fest in the local media and lack of critical insight is disconcerting. We should be demanding not just pretty murals to look at, but real spaces of transgression where art and critique can flourish.
Zachary Hyde is a PhD candidate in the department of sociology at UBC. He grew up in Vancouver and now studies issues of housing and gentrification in Canadian cities.
 Jamie Peck, “Struggling with the Creative Class,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29(4): 740-770 (2005)
 Jason Hackworth, “Post-recession Gentrification in New York City,” Urban Affairs Review 37: 815-843 (2002)
 Robert Mangelsdorf, “Former VPD Building will House New Tech Hub,” WestEnder (October 7, 2014)
 Andrei Mihailiuk, “Rize Above the Crowd: A Corporate Developer’s Version of Mount Pleasant,” The Mainlander (April 22, 2015)
 Frances Bula, “Vancouver Considers Beneficial Zoning Changes to Hootsuite’s Land,” The Globe and Mail (Dec 4, 2015)
 Virág Molnár, “Street Art and the Changing Public Sphere,” Public Culture (Forthcoming)
 Christopher Dewolf, “Sheung Wan and Beyond, A Global Tribe,” Rice (August 2016)
 Jeff Derksen, After Euphoria (JPR/Ringer Press, 2014)
 Stephano Bloch, “Why do Graffiti Writers Write on Murals? The Birth, Life and Slow Death of Freeway Murals in Los Angeles.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (Forthcoming)