Making the City Pretty
Passionate and practical, Cassandra Dickie and Mike Davis are the lead artists behind Ottawa Urban Arts, a collective of graffiti artists who work with community groups, municipal committees, and local businesses to brighten up public spaces and educate youth on positive ways to use their creative energy. As the city launches its third annual Paint It Up! campaign with Crime Prevention Ottawa, Dickie and Davis gear up for another season of application forms, mural sketches, and covering up grey concrete with bright colours. Dayanti Karunaratne talks to the dynamic duo about their love of graffiti — and why they think it’s an important part of the city’s future.
You spend a lot of time advocating for legal graffiti walls. What is it about graffiti that interests you?
CD: It’s just such a powerful form. I remember my first time seeing the tech wall: I was 12 years old, and I knew right then this was what I wanted to do.
MD: You can work with friends, meet people, and enjoy the hip-hop culture. I just love the scale and colour of it.
How would you describe your own graffiti style?
CD: I do characters mostly — realism and comic book style. I like to layer my characters with colours and effects.
MD: Everyone just says I’m quick. I guess I’m driven by emotion. It’s almost gymnastic — or like dance.
Why do you think it’s important to have legal graffiti walls?
CD: Legal graffiti walls give graffiti artists a space to develop their skills, a place to make an impact and speak to the city in a peaceful way.
MD: If you brighten up a wall, more parents are going to bring their kids there and fewer people are going to use the space to inject.
Are there specific locations you’d like to see made into legal graffiti walls?
CD: The wall at the end of Bronson (on the west side, near Lebreton Flats). It’s a central, gigantic green space — and it’s desolate. Let’s use it! We’ve appealed to the city, but there are a lot of competing interests.
MD: As well, it would be great to get more small spaces used for rotating public art that lets lesser-known artists get some recognition.
What would you say to someone who argues that graffiti must be done on an illegal space in order to stay true to its roots?
CD: Yes, graffiti is about rebellion, but it’s also about freedom and reflecting the voice of the people. This voice is different depending on where it’s coming from. It’s also about going big with your style and doing your own thing. It has so many more aspects at its heart than the destructive.
MD: There’s always going to be illegal graffiti. If you look outside of Ottawa, for example, there’s a lot more political graffiti. But most kids grow out of the illegal side — that’s where collectives and legal walls come into play. And if you’ve been through two years of lawyers and court appearances and running from the cops, this gives you another avenue.
This story was featured in the May 2012 edition of Ottawa Magazine.