GRAFFITI GOES GREEN
Ottawa artists yearn for eco-friendly, non-toxic paints
Painting pictures of distressed animals perishing in polluted waterways — and using chemical-laden paints to boot — never sat well with Stefan Thompson. No wonder the Ottawa graffiti painter, once known as Maki, changed his ways.
Two years ago, he took his old supplies to the waste disposal facility and began researching ways to make his own paints using vegetable pigments and linseed oil.
You notice a difference. His Chinatown studio has no overpowering odour and his works have changed fundamentally.
“I love spray cans and I miss them,” the 28-year-old says, “but I can’t put across a positive message with a poisonous medium. It’s like fighting yourself.”
You can find one of his old-style paintings at the corner of Booth and Somerset streets. It’s called Makin’ Duh City Pretty and was commissioned by the Somerset BIA.
He no longer scrawls outdoors because the paints he makes take too long to dry on concrete walls. These days he draws on scrap wood and recycled paper — anything that doesn’t add to the Earth’s mess — and sells his works at festivals. Most galleries won’t accept his work because inherent in his use of green paints is a question of permanence. Vegetable paints fade and galleries sell artwork based on the potential value of an upcoming artist 10 or 20 years down the road. By then, Thompson’s works will have lost their vibrancy, but certainly not their poignancy.
The question of permanence is a big one in graffiti circles. Young artists who paint multi-hued, detailed art want their images to pop from the city walls and last long enough to make some sort of com- ment. Graff, by its nature, is temporary. Images painted on legal walls are painted over to make room for new ones. The city’s year-old Graffiti Management Strategy means home and business owners must remove illegally painted works within a “reasonable period of time” making the argument of needing permanent paints — and their toxic off-gassing — fade fast.
Sabra Ripley is the communityminded founder and co-ordinator of the annual House of PainT party, which this year is to take place tomorrow. The free event brings together breakdancers, MCs and DJs for a day-long festivity. Some 40 graffers will throw up designs underneath the Dunbar Bridge, which spans the Rideau River and connects Carleton University and Riverside Park via Bronson Avenue.
With attendance increasing every year at House of PainT and with trailblazers like Thompson making inroads into the art of eco-painting, one question keeps arising: what is the future of graffiti in an eco-conscious era?
“The best thing we can do is put the environmental message out there as much as possible,” says Ripley. Lately, she has been researching new paints, while encouraging spray painters to make environmental concerns part of their norm.
For starters, she’s hoping the city will place a paint-can deposit box at the site to re-route spent cans from the regular dump and into the toxic waste facility. As for the paint itself, she can only wait for the green wave to hit the spray-can industry.
Green-leaning councillor Clive Doucet sees the trouble with spray paint. He was on board six years ago when Ripley was lobbying the city and the Ottawa South community association to allow her to hold the event. She was instrumental in making the Dunbar Bridge a legal space for graffiti painters year-round. During a recent cleanup at the adjacent Brewer Park, Doucet found lots of crushed spray cans. “You don’t have to be a scientist to realize these things are pretty ugly. The smell is terrible, even in its empty form.”
Thompson can put a name to those odours. He completed a bachelor’s of science in environmental science from Carleton University in 2005, and has extensively studied the metal uptake of plants and the retention of metals in landfill sites.
He found that copper, cobalt, cadmium and chromium were at elevated levels in the landfill. He looked at the back of his cans and found the same metals listed along with chemicals such as xylene.
“That’s when I realized that my paints were full of carcinogens,” he says. “If you want to extract a thimbleful of metal, you have to go through a bucketful of rock, and to get it out of the rock, you have to heat it or treat it with other chemicals. So all these pigments are like mining diamonds, you have to look at it that way.”
Science background or not, making the link is easy. Ten years ago, when he took up spray painting, Thompson had heard stories of painters, who didn’t wear breathing masks, suffering from bladder-control and memory problems.
Change is happening, but slowly. Last month the federal government proposed adding 11 more chemicals to Canada’s list of toxic substances including oxirane, chromate yellow and molybdate orange and red — substances that are used in paints and coatings.
“Those are only a few pigments out of likely hundreds, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Thompson says.
So what can be done? At the ground level, he suggests making small steps, such as buying low or non-VOC paints and painting with brushes. Acrylicbased paints are made with petroleum products, but Thompson says a half-step is better than no step. While it would be difficult to pass the idea onto spray-can painters at House of PainT, organizers could start by dedicating part of the bridge to brush painting and increasing the wall space as graffers improved on their brush skills. Doucet says he’d hate to see spray painting disappear as an art form. “I think it’s an interesting new one. On the other hand, you don’t want to see kids getting cancer from it either.”
He suggests that graffers get organized.
“The painters themselves need to lobby and create a voice inside their own community for non-toxic paints,” Doucet says. “Mural painting has been around for a long time and it has been the basis for some pretty spectacular art.”