Graffiti Reframed Workshop

by Shane Erickson

Shane Erickson is a supporter of urban arts in his community, and a vinyl disc jockey/collector.  As DJ Seith he acts as backing DJ for local hip-hop artists, and is head of the Soo York City Urban Arts Collective, which is a group of like-minded Northern Ontarians committed to furthering the positive tenets of hip-hop culture.

The City Of Sault Ste. Marie is changing colours before our very eyes, and it’s only due in part to the foliage.  While the warmth of summer becomes a memory and the autumn air brings deciduous reds, yellows and oranges to join in the symphony of coniferous greens, a movement is gaining steam in a small workshop on the corner of Gore and Albert.  Youth are gathering around tables, markers, pencil crayons and colorful picture books strewn about as they sketch and doodle, shapes and letters skewed and stretched and coloured and bent from their English origins into a new language - the language of street art.

Sharon Hunter, Lead Project Coordinator for the Graffiti Reframed Workshop has been working with youth and business owners since 2004 to shed light on the misconceptions surrounding the oft-stigmatized artform.  “It’s about bringing youth together and community involvement and beautifying the city, and an understanding of what street art is.  The big premise of [the workshop] is that graffiti is in every city, but for some of the store owners, the concern is more about the tagging onto their property.  What are people doing about it?  So, people are coming together to voice their opinions and come up with solutions and ideas.”  Youth involved in the workshop have the opportunity to learn about the self-expression and community awareness that comes with the artform, while also honing their own artistic skillsets.  “The premise of graffiti is just getting up, just doing it wherever.  ‘I got up in the hardest place to reach on that building…’ all these sort of aspects, so it becomes exciting and a thrill.”

Youth are also encouraged to pursue the artform in the way that feels most comfortable to them.  “When you take that [thrill of getting up] and you try to put it into a legal concept - there’s your wall, there’s your parameters - a lot of graffiti artists won’t touch it.  ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with that, that’s not my world.  I don’t want to do that, I want to do the trains.’  That’s okay.  When lots of people are involved there are lots of different opinions and directions that people go.  And then there are other graffiti artists that go ‘Yeah, you know what? I’ll get involved with this, this is cool, this is great.  And I’ll teach some youth, sure.  And it’s kind of nice to do a legal wall.’”  Sharon encourages youth to put real value on their art and understand what it means to them as individuals, as well as the commercial value that their artwork can invoke in local business.  “I’ve worked with a lot of graffiti artists.  One group particularly that I worked with in Toronto, they were tired of businesses asking them ‘hey, could you do something for us, but for free?’  They may do a little graffiti but they are doing community commissions, Toronto commissions, gallery shows… they went off in their own directions.  I think having that base with some of these projects offered to them at that particular time in their life, sure it helped, it fed into their portfolio, it gave them more chance to work.  So I think that this project can offer the same if people take advantage of it.”

I asked Heather Pearson, a high-school student involved with Graffiti Reframed, about what the workshop has provided her as a budding artist.  “It’s great because we are all artist-type people.  I like how you can build a connection that way, by doing art.  I think it’s really great that people [like Sharon] are actually going out and running stuff like this, because it doesn’t happen all the time.”  She found herself drawn to graffiti as a creative means of expression.  “I really like the style, it’s very graphic but not computerized.  I hadn’t done graffiti before this.  [I learned] how to use spraypaint and tape.  There are different caps [for spraycans], if they are small caps they will drip all over.”

Sharon believes that despite all of the positive aspects of practicing the art of graffiti, there are still a lot of hurdles to overcome and awareness that needs to be spread.  It is her hope that the Graffiti Reframed Workshop can help further the benefits of graffiti in town while addressing the concerns of residents and business owners.  “Sometimes people see people with spraypaint, they think graffiti is bad, it’s gang-related, so a lot of these myths about it [make it difficult to get into].  So when people start meeting each other face-to-face, i think those [myths] start breaking down, we start seeing each other as people who have feelings, thoughts, who want to share in community involvement.  It’s beautiful.”  I asked Sharon about the details of the workshop and what the group will have to show for it when everything wraps up.  “Right now we are centered at the neighborhood resource center, which is trying to do a lot of community work in the Gore and Albert area.  We are working on a mural behind Steel City Motors which is a great location, it keeps it all visible in this neighborhood.  There are a lot of little projects that are going to fraction off from this one [as well], so we are just building on it with NORDIK, and the Arts Council of Sault Ste. Marie.”

“We’re here to work, the paints are supplied, the people are coming together,” Sharon continued.  “You’re going to get a wall, you get to work and hone your skills.  What a great opportunity!  Also, connecting with other artists and business owners and [making] that connection, breaking down those barriers that can happen with people.  If a graffiti artist [is inspired to say] ‘Hey, I really want to do more business with this’, [then] that opportunity is there.  I think that [Graffiti Reframed is] a great project that will help to jumpstart that.”

The Graffiti Reframed Workshop will be hosting a special event to commemorate the finishing of the wall mural behind Steel City Motors, which will include a special DJ performance by myself with Mic Swiff doing a breakdance showcase.  The event takes place at the mural between 12:00PM and 3:00PM on Saturday October 18th.  It is free to attend, so we here at Ears and Eyes Online encourage you all to come out and meet the youth behind this awesome project.