Sterling Downey: Under Pressure bombs, tags and thinks its way into the next generation
“I’m so ashamed of the Plateau,” Under Pressure’s founder Sterling Downey tells me as we drive through the neighbourhood in his car. “A bunch of folks and I helped build the culture of that hood in the nineties, and now all you see are these osties d’hipsters and people trying to emulate Jersey Shore. At a certain point, there’s no more culture here, so you have to seek it out elsewhere.”
That’s precisely what this forthright man’s been doing. On a Friday afternoon in mid-June, the brightly tattooed, shade-sporting Downey is heading to Coup de pouce jeunesse, a youth centre in Montreal North where he’s giving a street art workshop to a handful of teens. For the man behind our city’s annual Under Pressure International Graffiti Convention, which blows out 15 back-alley candles this August, these teaching gigs have kept him quite busy – and fulfilled – of late. This coming from the guy who, up until very recently, was staunchly anti-school.
“It’s just last year, after working with kids for 5 or 6 classes per week in different communities and cities, that I realized that with the right person in there, listening and working, it made all the difference. I’m not popping out curriculum. I’m there to figure out how to engage them and address the things that bother them, so it’s a freestyle every time I walk in.”
And freestyling comes second nature to Downey, who’s defied all odds by keeping UP afloat for 15 years (along with its related publication, Under Pressure Magazine.) The impetus for the event, a sun-soaked downtown block party boasting skaters, DJs, emcees, rappers, breakdancers and graffiti writers from Montreal and beyond, was to provide a counterpoint to the bad rap street art was subjected to in local press. Conceived by the community, for the community (Downey himself is a graff writer), UP has always relied on public donations, dedicated volunteers and committed businesses to come through with support – which they have. That, plus a shrewd, streetwise businessman willing to brave the road less travelled (read: the one so perilous it makes Montreal’s pothole-tested drivers come off as rookies.)
“You don’t discover things by applying the same pattern over and over again; you discover them by making mistakes, taking risks and doing stupid things. Like the financial problems UP has encountered over the years – I’ve gone against every accountant who’s ever advised me. Like, here’s a credit card… boom! Let’s do the event on it! Nobody wants to do those things. But you know what? If we don’t do them, we’ll never know what’s going to happen.”
In regards to Montreal’s graff scene, Downey believes the milieu plateaued during the nineties, and points to the reigning street ethos to explain the community’s current crises. “There used to be more camaraderie between artists because we were a small number of people against a bigger institution. Now the group is bigger than the institution and nobody gives a shit, nobody wants to make it better.” With young bucks coming into the game with a sense of entitlement and everyone operating independently, Downey argues that few seem eager to break down boundaries. All the more reason for Downey to mentor young kids, affording him the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: give back to the community, but also hear out where this generation is coming from.
As we set foot in Coup de pouce, Downey recalls the moment it dawned on him that UP had lost touch with the younger generation. “I think it was year 12 [of UP], we realized we didn’t know who were the current 15 year-olds that comprised the same demographic we had targeted when we started the event. There was no established relationship, and that was due to our own neglect. That taught me that when you move forward, you have to start looking back. Otherwise you forget your original intent, and people forget who you are.”
WHAT'S UP, TEACH?
Kids slowly trickle into the classroom as Downey dispenses tales of bombings done on the sly, run-ins with the law and assorted graff writer wisdom. Other kids peer into the room, their curiosity tickled, until Downey finds himself speaking to a sizeable crowd just in time for his tagging exercise. It’s a scene straight out of those “new-teacher-storms-into-apathetic-classroom-andinspires-bright-minds” textbook scripts, except for the fact that Downey is a lot more credible in the role of unconventional educator than Michelle Pfeiffer or Hilary Swank ever were. To Downey, it’s all about applying the same philosophy with which he has run Under Pressure since day one. “I want to be hands-on, make sure the project is always being managed and properly taken care of and continue to shape it based on the needs of community, industry and culture. It’s about striking the right balance between all of those, while still making it fun for everyone.”
Under Pressure Electronic Fundraiser, with Construct, Vilify, Rilly Guilty, Pat Styles, Milton Clark and Sarcastic
July 17 | Jupiter Room | 3874, St-Laurent
Under Pressure 2010 | August 14-15