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Roadsworth, revisited

An article in the latest Walrus on the “renaissance of cute” in street art got me thinking about Roadsworth. Roadsworth used to spraypaint beautiful, unauthorized stencils around Montreal: owls perched on nothing but shadows, zippers peeling the streets apart, giant footprints. I have a love-hate relationship with street artists like Banksy, whose work is undeniably deft but excruciatingly unsubtle. There aren’t many ways to interpret an image of children digging a hole through the West Bank separation barrier.

Roadsworth is different. His work – some of which is still visible, albeit faded, around the city – blends in seamlessly with the concrete landscape. Most stencils build on something that was already there; a crosswalk or dotted lane line or lamppost shadow. His works are the organic outgrowths of the city’s mundane, everyday features. A devil, deep in thought, straddling the street; it doesn’t scream “political statement,” but it is. One man decided, on his own, to make the streets look a little nicer.

Roadsworth is more blunt about his art’s role than his actual art ever is. “Public space belongs to everybody, but who’s allowed to use it? It’s all about ownership and private property,” he once told the McGill Daily. “It’s the corporations that seem to have the biggest share of the public space, and I find a lot of the shit that goes up way more offensive than some kid who draws his name on a wall.”

He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t get you off the hook with the law. Roadsworth (aka Peter Gibson) was arrested in 2004, caught red-handed, more or less literally. He got off relatively lightly: at first, he faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and exile from Montreal, but after a public outcry he managed to get the punishment down to $250 and 40 hours of community service.

Roadsworth has been back, in various authorized forms, in the following years. Commissioned work in schoolyards might be a little less badass, but it’s no less beautiful. There’s a documentary about Roadsworth coming out, too. Of course, there’s more to street art than just protest – it can be an agent of gentrification and all that – but maybe that’s where Roadsworth’s community service and commissions come in. Beautifying the basketball court: there’s no better way to show the community you care.

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