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Under Pressure's Sterling Downey on graffiti culture's dramatic evolution

In 1996, Sterling Downey and his friends decided to give a gallery in the old St-Ambroise carpet factory a face-lift. Around five hundred people came to check out the small handful of painters and DJs. It wasn’t a festival so much as activism. Graffiti writers were tired of being portrayed as gang criminals. “The festival was a way for us to publicly, peacefully, and intelligently protest what was going on,” Downey explained in a recent interview with NIGHTLIFE.CA.

Now in its 18th year, the Under Pressure art/dance/music festival attracts thousands of people from around the world. Alumni include A-Trak, Kid Koala and Chromeo’s P-Thugg and Dave 1. Its longstanding ‘venue’ is the area (streets and back alleys, mostly) surrounding Foufounes Électriques.

For a long time, “the city didn’t know about us. It was in a part of a city that nobody even paid attention to,” said Downey. A lot has changed “with condo developments, the Quartier des Spectacles, and the Village having pedestrian streets. Paid walking tours of the area now point to graffiti as highlights.”

Graffiti culture has evolved dramatically since 1996. The introduction of ‘street art’ widened the category, popularizing and commercializing what had been an alternative community’s passion. “Where were you people eighteen years ago? When I was in London in 2002, I met Banksy. These people have always been there, you just weren’t aware of them. Then, every gallery selling landscapes all of a sudden started getting into street art, thinking they were servicing these artists because they had ‘nowhere’ to exhibit. But we had the best place to exhibit: the street, with 100,000 people walking by per week. Street art and graffiti were never about selling it. It was about a message. It was a form of visual communication.”

Crédit: Under Pressure 

This June, media incorrectly labeled the MURAL festival’s inaugural edition as Canada’s first street art festival. But there are upsides to street art’s rise. An influx of youth programs now integrate rather than condemn graffiti. Under Pressure works with organizations that place young offenders mandated to work community service hours, offering volunteer shifts and mentorship. The city also approached Under Pressure five years ago, prompting the introduction of the fest’s all ages Saturdays. Graffiti writers who attended as teenagers now come with their own kids.

This brings Downey full circle. Back in 1996, he worked at an arcade. “I was sitting there by the poker machines and drawing. It was next to a local high school. They’re skipping school and you sit and talk: ‘So why aren’t you in school?’ You know, I used to do that when I was that age too. And it’s stupid because now look at what I’m doing—I’m giving out quarters!”

Projet Montréal recognized Downey’s experience with outreach and approached him a year and half ago. He is now running for City Council this November. This might have had something to do with the Ville-Marie borough calling three weeks before the festival was to start, telling them they did not approve of closing Ste-Catherine Street this year. Or it might have had something to do with how they changed their minds in time for the event.

Politics and graffiti culture attract Downey for the same reasons. “It’s about having a party in a parking lot. People coming together to celebrate something that we all share an interest in. It’s about dialogue, and about mobilizing the community.”

The Under Pressure Festival runs August 10-11 on and just off Ste-Catherine, between du Berger and Ste-Élisabeth.