Graffiti Gallery (Graffiti Art Programming)

Graffiti Gallery Group photo (Feb 2009), front row, l-r: Tracy Beckwith, Jillian Ramsay, Patrick Lazo. Back row, l-r: Violet Nelson, Bob Veruela, TJ Blair, Steve Wilson. Missing: Danielle Winfield, Greg Hanec.

The Graffiti Gallery is an entity that is truly unique for Winnipeg, and likely all of North America. It's a space, a youth community art centre, where young artists can meet, work, research, exchange ideas, learn skills and show their work in an environment that both encourages and sees the value in their work. The Gallery's operations (or Graffiti Art Programming as it is often called) are multifaceted; and views art as a powerful tool for community development, social change and individual growth. The Gallery runs year round and is usually open 7 days a week. The upper floor of the gallery includes a computer lab with a dozen or so stations providing free Internet access to its visitors. At the time of this writing it employs a director, administrative assistant, and 21 artists in various capacities.

The Gallery was the brainchild of its executive director (a title he is reluctant to use), Steve Wilson. Although the concept was his idea, Wilson is not an artist himself, and it took a great deal of work and a lot of help before it became a reality. A decade earlier, Wilson had graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University Manitoba with a major in Sociology and began to look for work in social services. He took a job working as a prison guard at Stony Mountain penitentiary. It was only to be a temporary position and he thought of moving on to parole or probation, or some similar area where he felt he could effect positive change with troubled individuals. Once he entered the correctional bureaucratic system, he found it suffocating; and saw it as full of people just passing through on the way to something else and not committed to what they were doing: " I really hated my job for nine years. The shift work was killing me, the stress was killing me, just being a number on a roll call sheet was killing me. I became disillusioned by the whole thing and didn't want to move up or on. My mind started wandering to other things. I can remember being in one of the Towers working on this concept of the Graffiti Gallery. I had become interested in and a bit of a fan of the graffiti style and the music. I thought that other people would like it as well."

Wilson's idea was to have a place where artists could both work and show their work and give young artists an opportunity to open up career opportunities and facilitate further educational opportunities. About a year and half after he started working on this idea his wife and him split up and he ended up quitting his job. It was a real and complete life change for Wilson: "I don't know if it took courage or if it more was just something I couldn't do any more; the job was affecting my health and affecting me mentally. To quit my job and have my marriage end was scary though; the job was a secure reliable and steady income. But I decided that I could live pretty cheap, and I did have this idea and a little bit of my own money."

Wilson obtained a small business grant and started the Graffiti Gallery in June of 1998 in a small little garage space in Elmwood just off Watt Street. He got together a group of young graffiti artists and tried to convince them to try their style on canvas legally so that that their work wouldn't get painted over, and so that people could come look at it and maybe buy it and take it home with them! "That took a little bit of persuasion, but once these guys decided they could trust me it happened."

Their first public show was a couple months later in September at the World Next-Door festival at the Forks. The festival was intended to be a yearly festival but it only happened once and it was a major flop. But it was huge success for the fledgling Gallery, though, because they had an outdoor booth; all of their paintings were there and the artists were giving live painting demonstrations onto canvas. As a result they sold six paintings that weekend. Encouraged by the results, they decided to get serious about what they were doing and to find a bigger and better space in which to do it.

A friend of Steve's started bugging him to come look at a building on Higgins Avenue, an old abandoned pickle factory, but Wilson had reservations about even looking at it: it was kind of out-of-the-way, there weren't a lot of young people or many families in the area, and it was not in one of the neighbourhoods he was thinking of. He was finally talked into going to see the place, and he took Pat Lazo with him. "The minute we walked into this space, we knew that it was going to be our new location," says Wilson. "It was a mess, it hadn't been heated in 10 years, no running water, pigeons had been living there for 10 years, there were used tires piled everywhere! But we cleaned it all up and we worked through the winter. We took possession of it in January 1999. It wasn't until mid March that we got the heat hooked up: for the 2 1/2 months before that we worked in there without heat. It was a real group effort to get the place in shape. In April we had our grand opening."

The original group included, amongst others, Lazo, Ian August, Owen Carpenter, Shawn Morin and Fred Thomas. Most of them still maintain a strong affiliation with the Gallery today, says Wilson: "We established a close relationship and is there's been a lot of loyalty back and forth. My original ideas would've gone nowhere without these guys."

The Graffiti style is street-level art, and, obviously, it is illegal when it is rendered without the owner's permission. In his position, Wilson meets, talks to and connects with hundreds of young people. Many of the young people he encounters have serious trust issues, especially with people who are adults or in some kind of authority position. Some of them, perhaps, have been in trouble with the law or have been portrayed by others as attacking their community. But Wilson has a lot of compassion for disenfranchised youth, and, through spending time with them, feels he understands why they wouldn't trust someone like himself and why when they do begin to trust they find it difficult to maintain that trust because they don't really know what trust is. They know the word, but have never truly experienced it.

Wilson: "In the time I've been associated with these young people, one of the things I would like to tell other people is that I've been able to look through that and peel back a few more layers and discover that the reason that these young people are attacking their community is because that's all they know. It's because at a very early age they were being attacked by their community. It's really striking how similar these root causes are with many of these young people. A young child is born and is left unattended or unloved; they get a little older and they see the negative behaviour of imperfect adults; they get a little older and it's lunchtime they don't know if they're going to get lunch or not; there's no consistency in their upbringing; there's no barriers or boundaries to control and guide their behaviour in a positive way. Sometimes there is even physical or mental abuse. They then grow up internalizing all of this, thinking that they're bad and that they're always doing something wrong and there's always the negative cloud hanging over them. When they get a little older, it's little wonder that they start getting into trouble. Number one they're trying to get away from their community that is abusing them, and number two they're looking for some sort of connection that they can hang onto."

"When we can reverse that cycle and get a young person who has a little bit of skill, teach them a thing or two about painting Murals, and then put them back into the community where they're standing in front of a blank wall and start painting and creating and then have members of the community walking by come and sit and chat with them and asking them questions about their artwork; all of that is very reinforcing. Murals are one of the best ways to bring at risk youth and young adults back into the community. So when a young person completes something large like that, for many of them it's one of the most important and biggest things they've ever done! They come away from that experience with feelings of accomplishment and confidence. Plus in order to complete the work, they've had to drop the negative influences on their life and get it together to accomplish this work which leaves a lasting legacy in the neighbourhood. That's why Murals are such an effective tool for community development."

"We take them and help work on their self-esteem and self-confidence, increasing their skills, increasing their coping abilities, and giving them a warm almost family like environment where they can depend on people and rely on people. There are boundaries for behaviour that is consistent. And then we set up the scenario to place them back in the community that they came from. Now they're going back to the community with all these skills and are offering to contribute to give something back to help their community heal through some form of public art. The end result is a young person who was attacking their community is now back in the community painting a beautiful Mural that is adding to the community and gives the artist a sense of renewed pride in that community. While that artist is painting a Mural in the community, community folks are walking by and stopping to say thank you and taking the time to talk to the artist and find out about the artist and find out about the artwork. It's a really positive experience for both the artist and the community, and can act as a catalyst for further change. The next thing you know, the artist is starting to feel really good about themself. They've made choices and worked hard to get to where they are now to give back in a positive way to the community. Sometimes they stray and fall off that path; it's hard work. But all they have to do is drive by that Mural or remember back when they had that art show and 200 people showed up and think about how they got it together to pull that kind of thing off."

"The scenario is like this: we try to help young people reconnect with their community (not just the geographical area in which they live, but family and friends and other significant people in their lives) because it's that community that gives the support that they can fall back on when times get tough. We try to set up scenarios and situations where they can reconnect with their community through an art show where they exhibit their artwork and give them an opportunity to show their artwork in the gallery; then they can invite their friends, relatives and neighbours down to the show and it's a real positive experience. The artist then realizes 'well I can do other things besides breaking the law; I can get attention in a positive way with my artwork'."

In this writer's opinion, Wilson's comments above eloquently suggest the worth and the power of what they're doing; and makes clear why part of their mission statement talks about art as a tool for social change, community development and individual growth. A CTV television film crew for W-Five in 2003 aired a half hour documentary on Canadian grassroots street level programs that have made a difference; and it includes a moving 11- minute segment on the story of Nathaniel Bunn, one of the Graffiti Gallery's bright young talents. Like any organization, good press can be an asset in helping to achieve goals. But because of who they are and what they do, the Graffiti Gallery also has had its share of critics. "Negativity has always been associated with our organization," says Wilson, "but the negativity has made us stronger. It is in my mind an integral part of our story and our evolution. Our kids, the students have had to rally around us and pitch in and help otherwise the gallery may well have been shut down. We counter some resistance in parts of the business community, but the same time we had tremendous support in the business community-the Rotary club for instance. And every Mural job we get it's a businessman saying 'yeah, we'll give these guys a chance'."

The Gallery has evolved considerably since its inception 5 1/2 years ago (as of Nov. 2003): back then it was a young commercial company with 11 artists doing strictly graffiti style on canvas. Today it is a nonprofit organization with a ten-member volunteer Board of Directors. They operate with funds from government grants and donations. They are able to generate 10% of their budget (or slightly higher) by their work revenue; a figure they are determined and committed to 'bumping up as much as possible'. This poses a challenge, as Murals are a difficult business with many uncertainties. Because they operate a training program, they don't necessarily have the most skilled people for the job (aside from their in-house art instructors). What would normally take a team of professional artists three weeks to complete, it may take their own young artists in training three months. The Gallery's overhead and fixed costs of operating are also considerably higher that that of a freelance artist, putting them somewhat at a disadvantage in competing for Mural projects. But they are managing just fine, says Wilson: "Thank goodness there are a lot of Mural projects, and that the city is promoting this type of public art as well as they do! It's really helpful and exciting to us."

The Gallery operates three main projects they receive funding for. The first is their Urban Canvas Project. That's a career skills career development training program for young artists. They have six young artists that they train and also give them commercial art experiences and help them with their artwork. That runs for 48 weeks. Their second project is their Pound Project, which is relatively new. It involves teaching young people how to build powwow drums. In that experience, they're taught the lessons of the drums, the seven teachings, legends, folklore and traditional beliefs that is all aboriginal based. A high percentage of the people that come to the Gallery are aboriginal, first Nations, Metis or Inuit. "We saw there was a need for this kind of programming and people were asking for this kind of thing," says Wilson.

The third project and the one with the widest mandate is their st.ART project. It's street art, where the Gallery gives free lessons to young people who want to learn about art. Within that mandate they are able to do all sorts of things: exhibitions for artists to promote young artists' work, gallery shows, collage parties, performance nights, and all kinds of community activities as well. They attend a lot of the local street festivals: the Ellice Street Festival, the Urban Circle Street Festival in Selkirk, the St. John's Picnic in the Park, to name but a few. They participate in a lot of community events where their artists and volunteers work outside the gallery and in the community teaching young kids art lessons were doing live painting downtown. Steve finds that these young artists enjoy going out into the community and representing the Graffiti Gallery, because they've been given so much say in what the organization does and who they are, so they feel part of everything.

They've also expanded their after school free art for kids and that has occupied a few more of their art instructors. Shawna McLeod, a recent Fine Arts grad from U of M, works at the Gallery in a part time capacity as one of the art instructors and enjoys her work there: "It's a great place for kids to drop by. It's very open as to how many artists can come here and the times that they can come. There are often classes going on and they are welcome anytime. It's an open door policy. We work hard at keeping people engaged, excited and creative. It's good for me, too, because I get the opportunity to work with all kinds of people."

Steve Wilson: "We're attracting young artists all the time with fresh new ideas. The art scene in this city has been revitalized because of all these young artists. We've had art shows at the Centennial Concert Hall and the Plug-In Gallery; all around the city. The established art community is now changing their viewing of young artists; they're taking them seriously and seeing fresh input. And we get a chance to work with them all the time!!! They challenge the art world. In the past year we've had exciting shows every month that could probably not been put on at any other place. Young artists are discovering us, they're coming down, and they're using our space, facility and resources to its maximum potential to come up with these most creative and amazing shows. That for me is the most exciting part of what we're doing."

The original idea that germinated in Wilson's mind back in that prison tower over a decade ago has sprung forth into reality and manifested itself concretely in Winnipeg. Wilson reflects: "It's evolved and we've had much more success than I could ever have imagined, but it's still the general idea and the seed of the idea that I had a long time ago. Yeah, I had the idea, and I got the people together. But in those early days Pat, Fred, Owen, Ian would do so many free in-line painting demonstrations and give away or donate paintings to bring awareness of what we were doing. There were so many things that they did, getting paid no money just to get this thing going! All of those people deserve all the credit of where we are today. We're all still around. So many things happened to make us what we are today; from not knowing how we were going to pay the rent and all of the other crises we faced- it always seemed to get worked out. I believe that 'luck' is preparation and opportunity meeting. I don't think we were fluky and lucky; I believe we worked hard and persevered and took advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves. And the way it all came together is surreal. On some level, with a little bit of guidance, it was meant to happen."

The Graffiti Gallery is located at 109 Higgins Avenue in Winnipeg. Contact The Graffiti Gallery at 667-9960 or by email at
Visit their website at

Click here to view Graffiti Art Programming's Winnipeg Murals.