My morning commute from the suburbs is a long one, usually about two hours spent on a bus or train catching up on readings and beginning the process of keeping myself sufficiently caffeinated for the day. It’s the same mundane drudgery as any other trip into town; the lull of the wheels of the bus going round and round turns into the lull of the train chugging along the tracks. It’s hard to stay awake when you’re sat alongside other people also trying desperately to wake themselves up, but when I am able to pry my eyes open for the ride, I like to take in the view.
Most of the ride is a view of the highway or various industrial yards, but the stretch between Montreal-Ouest and Vendome has my heart. The parking lots and pedestrian overpasses have various bits of street art painted on them, perking up the mix of old and new apartments that are characteristic to NDG-Westmount. But pulling out of Montreal-Ouest, emblazoned across the back of some grey building in big blocked letters, is my favourite sight; “Work is long when you’re wearing a thong.”
It’s so fitting that the audience for this graffito – the other train riders - are on their way to various stiff corporate jobs in nicely pressed suits and dresses. It’s also hilarious to think about them in thongs, what with their airs of professionalism and snazzy Linkedin profiles. (Maybe it’s heightened by my exhaustion at 8AM/5-6PM, but I still get a chuckle out of it every time.)
The unexpectedness of this graffito and its surrounding murals is what makes them so wonderful and, in my opinion, so necessary. The art world is so exclusive and frigid and closed off and things like murals work to break down those elitist barriers. Public art opens the doors to the often pretentious art world when you least expect it to, and these doors should be kept open.
When people think of the “art world” and formal capital-a Art, they think of pristine white gallery spaces, and suited-up security guards, and exiting by the gift shop. Public art is plastered and painted all over cities, and you can feel the drips of paint with your hands and not get thrown out, and the only gift you’ll get is something cool for the ‘gram. Nowhere is the formality found in a museum or commercial gallery. Instead public art actively rejects the notion that all art must be serious and intellectual and contained.
As the weather gets colder and I begin gripping my coffees more tightly for warmth, I’ve been getting rather nostalgic about my summertime mural walks. I consider myself so incredibly lucky to be living in a city so rife with public art, and one of my favourite things to do is to just walk around and find it. It’s like a scavenger hunt, but you have no idea what you’re looking for.
“I think there’s one over here on Clarke?”
“It’s Pride/MURALfest so I’m sure Ste-Cath’s/St-Laurent/Mont-Royal is looking really cool right now – let’s go check it out.”
This isn’t something that is bound to Montreal either. Place de la Republique in Paris has been tagged up in recent years as an act of frustration with the French government and as an act of catharsis in the wake of the Paris attacks. Diego Rivera’s murals were highly politicized paintings that referenced a plethora of important historical moments in both Mexican and world history. Richard Serra’s immense public sculptures play with the idea that space must be so open and spacious and available in the already jam-packed cities they’re displayed in. 5Pointz in Queens was an iconic spot for the history of street art, and has been torn down and replaced with (you guessed it) condos - people are still bitter about it. These works are the bared soul of my city and other cities; they are historical monuments both in their own right and as a collective.
I never know what’s going to appear as summers pass on. This year, an abandoned lot on St-Laurent has become one of my favourite spots in Montreal because the walls have been painted up with massive murals – my personal favourite is a sort of zombie-esque Lichtenstein piece.
But it’s the fact that I found it by stopping on my walk around town that makes me cherish it so much, because that’s what public art should do. It should make you stop; to play around like you should on the swings at Place-des-Arts, to be shocked like Louise Bourgeois’ Mamans want you to be, to remember those lost like the missing and murdered Indigenous women painted on the wall on de Bleury between Sherbrooke and de Maisonneuve, and to forget for at least a moment the mundanity of a public without art in it.
I implore you to wander in wonder and marvel at your city’s soul unfolding right in front of you.
If you’re interested in public art and want to know more, I highly suggest you check out this video from the Art Assignment linked below. Their videos about art are always fascinating to watch, and their work is definitely and inspiration of mine when I write about art. I recommend their “The Case For…” and “Fierce Women of Art” series – both are incredibly thought-provoking.
Images are author’s own.