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Writing on the walls

Graffiti workshop aims to help indigenous youth find expression

Graffiti is slowly evolving in the public eye, portrayed less now as a frightening act of vandalism then a legitimate and nuanced artistic medium. The ever-changing imagery of a wall of graffiti acts as a public forum for political, social, and personal expression. The streets of Montreal serve as an impromptu exhibition space, free from being subject to an institutionalized preconception of what art should look like.

On Thursday, October 18, the Indigenous Student Alliance (ISA) of McGill hosted a graffiti workshop with special guest artist Vincent Dumoulin. Held in collaboration with the Intertribal Youth Centre, the event took place in the Native Friendship Centre of Montreal.

Jessica Barudin, the president of the ISA, helped to organize the event in support of the group’s mandate: “with the Indigenous Student Alliance, what we’d like to provide is a network for self-identifying Indigenous people and also…a means to connect students and allies among the community. Our mandate is unity, bringing students together, but also empowerment of the students to reconnect with traditional ways of knowing.”

The workshop was aimed at Indigenous youth; unfortunately, attendance was low. The event began slowly, with the coordinators encouraging people hanging out around the centre to participate. Dumoulin wasn’t fazed, and began explaining that graffiti is often misperceived to be exclusive to youth culture, when it is really an all-ages, inclusive medium. In a follow-up interview with The Daily over email, Dumoulin spoke about this inclusivity: “[Graffiti] has given a chance for anyone on the planet to express themselves. It can be used to express political statements to the masses. It generates huge amounts of fear from large segments of the population who think it is gang-related. It is seen in such different ways by everyone in society. […] I also feel graffiti is unique in its way to allow for so many various styles to evolve and continually produces new forms of genuinely legitimate public arts with original, deep, and thought provoking messages.”

Dumoulin’s and Barudin’s enthusiasm for the workshop soon brought smiles to the initially shy participants. Dumoulin explained various styles of graffiti, tasking everyone to make their names in a beginner’s style. Moving from budding artist to artist, each person was encouraged to express their own creative freedom, as Dumoulin demonstrated with a few strokes of a pencil.

Dumoulin’s attraction to graffiti was partly because of the creative freedom and inclusivity it offered. He explained, “when I discovered a subculture that honoured and rewarded delinquency, allowing anyone to rise to levels of fame and peer recognition that would take much longer in any other field. I had struggled with conforming to the protocols and discipline required by other activities in my life [such as] organized sports, music classes, et cetera. In graffiti, one can achieve success and gain the attention of others quickly with very limited risk of getting caught, [and] at a very low cost, since we provided the supplies through the five-finger discount. Dedicated internet sites and books that were not as plentiful or simply not existent at the time I was painting are providing new adepts with unlimited amounts of exposure, inspiration, and information.”

As each participant continued their graffiti piece, creative risks began to get bolder, and Dumoulin greeted each new idea with, “Keeping it fresh!” Paint splatters surrounded one name, a heart-dotted ‘I’ on another, and glaring skulls peered out of one fiery name. At the end of the event, Barudin viewed the low youth turnout as an example of why future collaborations between the Intertribal Youth Centre and the ISA are so important. “I think [graffiti is] very inviting for youth,” Barudin said, “because there’s so much expression to it, but I think that it’s open to everyone, and [today was] such a good example of [how] youth can be very reluctant [to participate], and that comes a lot from maybe lack of confidence. That’s just precisely what these type of workshops are hoping to foster, to build that confidence in youth, and just feeling comfortable with other Indigenous people, and other people in the community.”

Dumoulin also emphasized the continued importance of planning and participating in youth-oriented events. The artist will continue to collaborate with the ISA, holding future graffiti workshops. “[The ISA] wishes to promote the empowerment of at-risk First Nations youths and other First Nations youths in general,” Dumoulin said. “The movement we are building has seen some success from Vancouver to Africa, and hip hop is an amazing way to connect with the youth via something that resonates deeply with many of them. The nature of hip hop itself…allows for a maximum amount of flexibility and we are able to integrate key values of First Nations traditions and values in the dynamics of the workshops [such as] interacting in circles, talking pieces, et cetera. This happens through the implementation of research into the youth’s various traditions and cultures in the workshops themselves.”

Graffiti art offers an attractive alternative form of expression. Hopefully, workshops between the ISA and the Intertribal Youth Centre will continue to help empower First Nations youth. Removed from the heavy inequities and problematic aspects of the traditional space of the gallery or museum, graffiti enables political and creative voices to find expression.