What is the Mile End Aesthetic?

By: Diana Sims

In the four years I’ve lived in Montreal, I’ve seen more line drawings of plants than sesame seed bagels, Canada Goose jackets, and construction cones combined. A possible explanation for this unlikely statistic is my regular presence in Mile End boutiques, coffee houses, and zine fairs, where ficuses, ferns, and cacti are ubiquitous, and in almost all cases printed next to a rectilinear window and a squiggly continuous line drawing of a woman ripping a bong.

“And palm trees,” adds Billy Mavreas, longtime Montreal artist, keen surveyor of local visual trends, and owner of Monastiraki, a curiosity shop that opened on Saint Laurent in the early 2000’s. “A few years back it was all about wolves and Canadian wildlife, and now it’s gone tropical…what do palm trees have to do with Montreal?”

Monastiraki is a pastiche itself, though–more attic than store–and in addition to the family photos of strangers and secondhand postcards, it has drawers and drawers of prints, drawings, and collages, many rendered in this Mile End aesthetic which Mavreas terms “revisionist 80s.” Distinguishing features are cool colors, lots of blank space, apartments, floating triangles, floating hands, floating text, and an overall clean domestic hipness.

According to Mavreas, the style is a reaction against the “violent psychedelics” that characterized the Mild End look in the mid-2000s, and its comeuppance can largely be credited to Edmonton-born illustrator Tallulah Fontaine. Fontaine in turn demonstrates the formal influence of comic books on the aesthetic; her narrative illustrations are just people hanging out at their houses and looking out windows, but they’re done in the sort of pop-ish legibility you would find in zines.

The Mild End look, including Fontaine’s version of it, has also been taken up by the neighborhood’s post-DeMarco music scene to use on their merch. In many cases, the visuals are supplied by the groups’ significant others, and it is my personal opinion that Montreal seems to have the world’s highest population of band girlfriends that are into making hip pottery and selling it on Etsy, thereby making the Mile End aesthetic readily available to anyone with the internet.

But while the style’s become much of the neighborhood’s visual output, Mavreas points out that it has a particular Tumblr-ability to it, and can thus be found in loci of hipness all across the continent. That being said, whether or not it’s trendy, or imported, or predictable, I still like line drawings and houseplants, and I will continue to wear a squiggly-woman-ripping-a-bong t-shirt that I have, which I anxiously put a sweater over whenever I’m going to be south of Saint Joseph. 

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