Concrete Canvas Fest, and why the graffiti movement in Hamilton is here to stay

If you live, work, or play in downtown Hamilton, you may have noticed some visual treats that have popped up along some busy, yet unassuming building-lined streets. Where an empty brick wall once stood on the corner of Barton Street and Emerald Street North, there is a cheeky image of a child dressed in a unicorn suit. Where your eyes may have once glazed over as you drove down Hunter Street, they may now have met the intense glare of CFL Hall of Famer Angelo Mosca. If you’ve slowed down to marvel at these walls, snapped a pic, perhaps told a friend or investigated what other areas have been painted, then you’ve proven that Concrete Canvas Fest is filling an artistic space (figuratively and literally) in Hamilton.

Thanks to the collective efforts and creativity of its organizers and artists, building exteriors that were once obsolete are being given new life in the form of street art and murals. All of the sudden, local Instagram accounts formerly filled with images of the neon bar slogans and beer garden backdrops of the Downtown Core now display images of an ethereal butterfly on the side of 35 Hess St, or a Daft Punk-looking welder against a Steel Cityscape behind RSK Automotive. Areas that were once less explored, but with no less potential, are being discovered and rediscovered.

What began as a project between founder Leon Robinson and lead curator Scott McDonald over 20 years ago as a way to celebrate street art in Hamilton, has become a multi-day visual arts festival taking place every July that has changed the face of many street corners. Initially, Concrete Canvas Fest was meant to be a temporary wall at the top of Jackson Square, but Leon and Scott decided to think bigger and instead make it a city-wide fixture, encouraging people to go on an adventure and explore neighborhoods they wouldn’t normally. In the process, it’s helped spruce up and build up local communities, while also celebrating and inspiring local artists.

When asked why this shift seems to be occurring in Hamilton, Scott attributes it to the effect that street art has had on people in the city – many of whom hadn’t previously stopped to appreciate this form of art. “We get tagged on Instagram daily by people who are now exploring new routes and streets in the city while seeking out these walls,” says Scott. “We want to see people getting outside again, going on adventures, seeing the artists’ work, and in the process, visiting new spots and businesses that they otherwise might not have.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Graffiti is a Crime signage was being posted in areas around Hamilton. In fact, these signs popped up along the Concrete Canvas Fest route recently, even though it’s obvious that this calibre of art is far from the sloppily spray-painted controversial images and slogans that many have formerly associated as street art. Cosmopolitan cities like Barcelona, New York, and Stockholm all have neighbourhoods filled with vibrant street art that can be thought-provoking, symbolic, inspiring, or celebratory. Some cities even have entire districts dedicated to graffiti and murals, like Miami with the Wynwood Walls outdoor museum. At one point in these cities, it was most likely a crime to “tag” or paint publically, but somewhere along the way, it has become accepted and celebrated. Now, street art has become a part of the fabric of these cities, with many even offering organized group tours dedicated to exploring the areas of the city dedicated to graffiti art.

Having travelled the world as an artist himself to paint in places like Havana, Moncton, Warsaw, to name a few, Scott has seen the tangible and intangible influences that street art has had on districts, businesses, the community, and even the artists themselves. While abroad, he has accumulated a number of artist friends and contacts who are eager to come and contribute to the movement here in Hamilton; he’s aiming to recruit some of them to paint for next year’s event, adding to an already impressive roster of local talent and an equally impressive set of walls put aside for next year.

So, what’s the process like on a project of this size, and in a city where red tape and lack of support can leave initiatives like this dead in the water? It began by knocking on doors, looking for businesses with blank building or wall space with landowners that would be willing to place their trust in an artists’ hands. “We got a set of walls and partnered up artists that we felt would be a good fit for the wall and the area, and got a good idea of what landowners were comfortable with,” Scott explained. In terms of theme and content, unlike other city initiatives where the finished product is predetermined, Concrete Canvas contributing artists are given as much creative freedom as possible. “An artist is at their best when given full creative freedom, and we want artists to inspire people within neighborhoods. It’s about knowing what an artist is capable of and their body of work, having that trust, and obviously ensuring that there be nothing hateful or overly political or sexualized.” They’ve also had the support of organizations such as the Hamilton BIA, and people like Ken Coit, Manager of Placemaking, Public Art & Projects for the City of Hamilton.

However, a project this size is never without its bumps in the road. They lost a title sponsor at the last minute during the crucial planning and recruitment stages, which threatened to affect the way things would be laid out. Leon and Scott instead took this hurdle as an opportunity to keep things authentically local, combining talented Hamilton artists whose work needed to be showcased, with recognizable industry names like Burnt Toast Creative (whose clients include Google, Redbull, Facebook). Authenticity and homegrown talent — what’s not to love?

Up next for Concrete Canvas is a legal art wall at Woodland Park, launching on September 21 in co-operation with the City of Hamilton. They’re also working with Hess Village business owners on putting together a Hess Village Gallery behind Che that will be lit up and filled with art for people passing through to enjoy. People are already beginning to migrate back to the Village to see some of the artistic wall additions, and in the process, are rediscovering an area eager to prove it’s not what it once was. As the owner of Che, Scott has witnessed the ups, downs, and evolution of a once-burgeoning neighbourhood. It’s a familiar shift experienced by Barton, and once upon a time by James North, where what started out as an artists’ haven has morphed to something else (but that’s a long-winded topic for another day), but certainly proves the impact that art can have on reviving an entire area in terms of culture, curb appeal, and foot traffic.

There is still much that can be done to further make these artists efforts possible. Having legal walls where artist can learn to paint is one suggestion Scott has, “so that artists don’t resort to abandoned warehouses and train tracks and have to worry about getting charged.” As with all things, these efforts are not cheap on money, time, or resources. Projects like these take hundreds of man hours by artists and organizers alike. Corporate sponsorships and large or smaller business support make this possible — there is even a GoFundMe page set up that is linked to their Instagram and Facebook. Scott is also quick to differentiate Concrete Canvas Fest from other local festivals; while other festivals make vendors money and capitalize on an area over a day, or a weekend, Concrete Canvas Fest leaves an enduring grassroots footprint that allows the art, the area, the local businesses, and the artist to be appreciated day after day, year after year. “It’s long term,” says Scott, “and this celebrates the entire city of Hamilton from the outside in, all year round.”

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