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10 reasons to take over Montreal streets for the Under Pressure graffiti festival

In its underground heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s, graffiti tags, throw-ups and assorted spray-painted shenanigans were widely regarded as illicit, its artists considered to be vandals, their craft nearly always done on the sly and the issues they brought attention to consistently the subject of controversy.

Now, in 2012, you’d be hard-pressed to find:

1) A Montrealer who’s never come across Roadsworth’s cheeky stenciled creations or Zilon’s signature androgynous characters

2) Anyone under the age of 30 advocating for tougher graffiti-related legislation

3) Anyone who still believes that graffiti artists are dangerous outlaws who cultivate ties with the criminal underworld

In fact, I dare you to find a single NIGHTLIFE.CA reader who’s never heard of either Keith Haring, Basquiat, Banksy or the oft-maligned Shepard Fairey. Popular culture has largely embraced these guys’ work, and that of all those who’ve followed (or not) in their covert footsteps. The wars graffiti artists now wage on city streets around the world perhaps aren’t as revolutionary as they once were, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to fight for.

As the Under Pressure International Graffiti Convention’s 17th edition gets underway this weekend, it’s important to remember how it all started: as an indoor event in 1995 called Aerosol Funk, with folks sporting gas masks to protect themselves from toxic paint fumes. Here are 10 reasons why you, like all those graffiti writers, b-boys, hip-hoppers and skaters, should take over the streets this weekend.


1. To get an up-close-and-personal look at how vibrant the graffiti scene still is today
There are other ways to learn about graffiti culture than through perusing one of the gazillion coffee table books on the topic or renting Exit Through the Gift Shop. You’ve perhaps heard of A’Shop, and local talents such as Astro, Carlos Oliva, Mon-e, Peru Dyer and Zek. But if you’re not involved in the scene, chances are that most of the young guns remain shrouded in mystery. Here’s your chance to meet your favourite writers up close and personal. Just don’t lose your cool and ask for an autograph (or worse: for a pro bono mural on your living room wall). 

Credit: Beaux Dégâts, Fresh Paint Gallery 
2. To visit the Fresh Paint Gallery
After launching the Fresh Paint gallery last year across the street from Foufounes Électriques, in a dilapidated building that once housed the now-defunct Montreal daily La Patrie, Under Pressure is celebrating the pop-up gallery’s one-year anniversary…and preparing to close it down on September 9. It has hosted a number of great exhibits over the past year, wherein artists are invited to make use of the space as they best see fit (i.e. they’re free to tear shit down in the name of boundless creativity).

180 Ste. Catherine East


3. To see Fouf’s back-alley walls get all pimped up
There’s only weekend every year where you can venture behind Foufs to admire a plethora of colourful artworks-in-the-making, in broad daylight no less.

87 Ste. Catherine East


4. To see b-boys, skaters, DJs, emcees, breakdancers and graffiti writers of all ages come together
Not to get all sentimental here, but there’s something quite special about seeing a number of disparate crews unite for the greater good of the community. Let’s not beat around the bush: the graffiti scene remains dogged by all kinds of petty in-fighting, turf wars and ego stroking, so it’s no small feat that everyone shows up to work together and foster greater dialogue in the community. Wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as a "love-in", though.

Credit: Fading Ads of New York City

5. To be reminded of graffiti’s pre-commercial, countercultural roots
I’m not talking about that interminable “is it vandalism or is it art?” debate. I’m rather referring to all those car, sneaker and beverage companies who began to co-op graffiti culture’s cool cred to boost their bottom lines. While graffiti has lost some of its rebellious appeal because of all the senseless branding, there are many writers who’re now in their mid-thirties (or older), and who now only tag/bomb occasionally, recreationally if you will. They take part in UP alongside the city’s fresh faces, which gives the event a pretty unique cross-generational appeal.


Credit: Raphaël Ouellet for NIGHTLIFE.CA 
6. To shake hands with UP founder and future politician Sterling Downey
Bland is not a word you'd associate with Sterling Downey. A passionate, outspoken and incredibly resourceful Montrealer, he’s become our city’s unofficial spokesperson on all street art matters – as well as trying to block proposed anti-graffiti legislation. (Read our 2010 profile of Downey here.) According to a news release sent out this week, Downey is “considering taking matters into his own hands and running for city office in 2013.” That doesn’t surprise us one bit.

7. To celebrate the fact that Montreal, unlike other Canadian cities, still has a strong, rallying graffiti event
It isn’t North America’s biggest and longest-running graffiti fest for nothing. The key to the Montreal event’s survival has always been that it doesn’t rely on any contributions from the city whatsoever. The festival is staffed by volunteers and entirely funded through private donations and corporate sponsorships. Since there’s no municipal contributions to slash, UP can’t fall victim to a newly elected official’s unforeseen harsh stance on graffiti. Another example of community management that cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa might want to pay heed to.


8. For the love of ramp battles, three-on-three breaking battles and art battles

If your only battle experience involves Step Up 3D, you owe it to yourself to take in some of UP’s battling bonanza. The art battle (Fine Mess #4), taking place Friday, August 10, 7–11p.m., sounds especially exciting. Five teams get two hours to transform a red wall into a contemporary masterpiece. Best of all? Audience members crown the winning team, by dropping empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans in the trash bin of its favourite team. Defeat tastes particularly bitter for the four losing teams, as they watch in horror as their artworks gets crossed out by the champions.


Smif N' Wessun - Bucktown by keyzz

9. To catch ‘90s hip-hop legends Smif-n-Wessun (aka Cocoa Brovaz)
It’s no secret that graffiti culture and hip-hop music are brothers from another mother, as both of these once-upon underground, urban movements came into being in the ‘80s and remained close allies as they gained mainstream acceptance. Sunday night, Under Pressure welcomes East Coast’s mid-nineties hip-hop soldiers Smif-n-Wessun (who changed their name to Cocoa Brovaz in 1996), for a closing night performance at Foufs that will also feature D-Shade, DJ Brace and Philly Moves.


10. To gawk at some of the most gorgeous tattoo art in the Greater Montreal area
Enough with the Miami/L.A./London Ink marathons. Get off that couch and make your way downtown to get inspired by all the creative tattoo art in full view. Scan the area and take in the beauty of all that dyed dermal tissue.


Under Pressure International Graffiti Convention
August 10-11-12
On Ste. Catherine East, between St. Laurent and Sanguinet |