interviews the writting on the wall murals
The Globe and Mail
National Publication
Vancouver — Published on Friday, Dec. 11, 2009

Vancouver orders removal of anti-Olympic mural

Gallery and artist claim piece was removed because of its message, prompting concern about free-expression rights

photo by colleen heslin
by Marsha Lederman
The city of Vancouver has ordered the removal of a mural hanging outside a Downtown Eastside gallery depicting the Olympic rings as four sad faces and one smiley face.

The gallery says in 10 years, it has never before been asked to remove any work.

The city issued the order under its graffiti bylaw, but it comes in the wake of a debate over a controversial city sign bylaw that opponents feared would allow officials to stifle anti-Olympic expression.

“It was pretty clear to me that it was because of the context of the work,” says Colleen Heslin, who runs the Crying Room, a small studio focusing on emerging artists.

Ms. Heslin points out that over the years she has hung about 30 murals there, and has never had any trouble. She has also used that space as a giant chalkboard, allowing passersby to write or draw whatever they wanted (which included swear words) and was never asked to remove that either.

In fact, when her landlord, Peter Wong, received a notice from the city telling him to remove the graffiti from his building, he had no idea what they were talking about. “I called them and said I cannot find the graffiti. And they said the sign [the mural] is graffiti.” This surprised him, because the murals have been up for years and he had never heard from the city about them before.

“ It has nothing to do with content. ”— Vancouver spokesperson Theresa Beer

The mural – black paint on varnished wood – may look grittier than other works that have hung on the front of the gallery in the past, but the artist, Jesse Corcoran, says he has no doubt it was ordered taken down not because of a misunderstanding but because of its anti-Olympic content. “I think that they were very careful to try and just term it as graffiti … but let's be honest: it's on the front of a gallery that has had a rotating series of art pieces. So I think that's just the kind of terminology [they used] to avoid it seeming like it was being removed because of the Olympics.”

Vancouver spokesperson Theresa Beer says a city inspector viewed the work as graffiti, not a mural, noting “black graffiti tags on wood panelling covering a window.”

“It has nothing to do with content,” Ms. Beer added.

While this removal was ordered under the city's graffiti by-law, a sign bylaw in Vancouver has faced heavy criticism. First passed in July, it was accused of stifling debate by giving police and city officials broad power to seize signs and placards, with one civil libertarian saying the city was at risk of becoming “Beijing 2.0.” The law was revised last month to apply only to commercial signs, with Mayor Gregor Robertson saying the city's “commitment has always been the protection of people's Charter Rights and Freedoms.”

Ms. Heslin removed the mural on Nov. 16, complying because she likes to rotate the art there anyway (the work had been up since Sept. 25). Also she didn't want to cause Mr. Wong any grief, as he allows her to install the murals without restrictions – a great freedom, she says, for someone running a gallery with no funding.

The mural is unquestionably an anti-Olympic statement. Mr. Corcoran, who works at a homeless shelter, feels that the Olympics have not served marginalized people of the Downtown Eastside well. He is upset that some key gathering places for homeless people – such as Oppenheimer Park – have been shut down for pre-Olympic renovations. “The oppressive nature of the Games is what I wanted to capture and how the majority is suffering for the minority.”

And for everyday Vancouverites like himself, Mr. Corcoran says, the Games are simply inaccessible. “I live in Vancouver and I pay taxes and I'm not going to be able to go to the Olympics. I can't afford to go to the Olympics. So basically on a lot of people's backs like the taxpayers of British Columbia, the Olympics are being staged and it's not really for us. I find that frustrating and I think there's a lot of issues that should be dealt with before we have to worry about increasing our ability to host sports events.”

Patrick Smith, director of Simon Fraser University's Institute of Governance Studies, said the removal of the sign is symptomatic of the high demands the “Olympic movement” places on its host cities. He believes Vancouver will be the beginning of a shift away from the modern Olympic era, with communities saying the cost of hosting is too high.

“A lot is asked of communities, and it seems to me this is a perfectly good example of where we've gone too far,” he said. “There's no other way to describe it other than overreaction, but it's the city trying to protect a brand that's not the city's brand. It's the Olympic movement's brand.”

It's the latest in a series of cases where the Olympic interests have trumped Canadian or local interests, he argues, citing other examples such as a recent court ruling that Canadian women ski jumpers couldn't claim a spot in the Games under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or a new B.C. law that allows police to force homeless people into shelters in severe weather. Civil libertarians argue the law is simply a tool to sweep Vancouver's homelessness problem under the rug during the Games.

“I think the city has kind of caved in to a whole serious of events here,” said Prof. Smith, also a past chair of SFU's department of political science. “It [the Olympic movement] dictates an awful lot to local citizens. It's not as if the event isn't interesting and doesn't grab the attention of people around the world, but [the Olympic movement] goes to far and it asks too much.”

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