In a back alley in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, street artist Ken Foster spray-paints long black lines on a steel garage door, the first strokes in what will ultimately become one of the moody, alleyway paintings that have become the artist’s signature.
Behind him, James Hardy – who paints under the name Smokey Devil, or Smokey D – outlines the upper torso of a grimacing, goateed man, crack pipe in hand. To its right, in bright blue, he spray-paints: “We must eliminate stereotypes, hypes and crack pipes” – a nod to a 1989 lyric by rapper KRS-One.
Steps away, Shawn Hefele, looks over his painting of an oversized angel, wings spread and tears streaming from its face, carrying the limp body of an overdose victim against a backdrop of pinks and purples. “For all the loved ones we have lost,” a banner overhead reads. Mr. Hefele, who tags under the name Heph, calls the figure the Angel of East Hastings.
The artists are among more than a dozen being commissioned to paint permanent murals along the length of the alley, which has long been one of the city’s busiest for illicit drug use.
It is an unsavoury stretch for many. It is located behind a supervised drug-use site and the DTES street market, littered with garbage that never seems to entirely make it into the alley’s seven dumpsters. The odd rat scurries around. It doesn’t smell great.
But for Sarah Blyth, executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society and organizer of the mural project, it’s a high-traffic public space that deserves the same care and attention as other city streets.
“We kind of snagged the idea from the project downtown, where they painted the whole alley,” Ms. Blyth said, referencing a stretch that the city painted pink, purple and yellow several years ago and has since become a popular place for selfies and other photo shoots.
“We thought, why can’t we have our alley looking beautiful too? There are people here every day, it’s a place where they feel comfortable and there is a community here.”
Ms. Blyth sought advice from people behind the Vancouver Mural Festival, an organization that has led to the creation of permanent, large-scale public murals around the city, mostly along the city’s Main Street.
Organizers at the festival were eager to help out the OPS. Most of the festival’s murals are created in partnership with the community, but about a quarter specifically with organizations whose work centres on social justice, anti-poverty and other similar themes. The Overdose Prevention Society was a perfect fit.
Adrian Sinclair, the festival’s director of engagement, said in such partnerships, his team typically sorts out the back-end details – permitting, liability insurance, liaising with stakeholders – and leaves the creative work to the groups.
“We’re really happy to add that bureaucratic support so the organizations can stick to working with the communities that they support,” Mr. Sinclair said.
“We really liked her vision – we thought it was amazing. The issue was navigating city hall, navigating funding, navigating permission, and logistics and safety, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”
The mural festival also had a lot of paint leftover from previous years – 120 gallons, to be exact – which it donated to the Downtown Eastside mural. Mr. Sinclair said projects such as these give his organization meaning.
A few of the pieces currently up are permanent; a few will be painted over in coming weeks. The artists have each been assigned a section and are free to paint what they please.
Bob High, an artist known best for his cartoons depicting the long road to cannabis legalization, and David Malmo-Levine, a long-time drug activist and self-described agitator, collaborated on a piece depicting a cartoon poppy field, calling for prescription heroin and opium poppy cultivation rights.
Mr. Hardy – Smokey D – has lost roughly 60 friends and acquaintances, including a girlfriend, to B.C.'s overdose crisis. He says he would like to honour them with a piece similar to those around the city he has become known for: half memorial, half public-service announcement on fentanyl’s devastating impact.
“At the top, it’s going to have the names of all the local people who have ODed and died,” he said. “There will be a couple hundred names on there, easily.”
Mr. Foster, an enigmatic presence whose distinct take on Vancouver’s streets and alleys have made him the subject of coffee table books and documentaries, says he’s still figuring his piece out.
“I want to incorporate actual statistics in with the visual – some sort of thing where it shows the transition of death,” he said. “Make it look like a read-out. Some sort of a mechanical thing.”
Mr. Hefele – Heph – wants to do something different. He pulls out a blueprint he’s prepared of geometric patterns in shades of green, pink, purple, red and yellow.
“I want to make it more bright and lively,” Mr. Hefele said. “I’m trying to shoot for something different from what everyone else is doing. I feel that other people are doing characters and that kind of stuff.”
Ms. Blyth is working to secure payment for the artists from city grants, donations and funds from the local business improvement association and Vancouver Mural Festival. The alley artworks will be part of the official mural festival taking place in August.