Skip to main content
art or graffiti?

When Louis Racette leaned down in front of the plywood sheathing where people had penned words expressing their sadness, anger and hopes of healing, he felt a surge of emotion come over him.

Mr. Racette, a transit driver who moved from Montreal to Vancouver 35 years ago, knows that hockey and street violence are sometimes linked. So he had been dismayed, but not overly upset when he watched on television, Wednesday night, as mayhem erupted in Vancouver after the Canucks lost to Boston.

But here he was now, come to pay his respects at the wall of plywood covering the shattered windows at The Bay, and he was starting to choke up.

"If you write something, you are behind it," he said, moments after he'd joined the thousands of others who had already expressed their feelings on the plywood sheets. The day after that shameful night, the boards had spontaneously become a shrine, or place of atonement, for a shaken city.

It is not known what will happen to the plywood after it has served its purpose - but it is clear from reading what is written there, and from talking to people like Mr. Racette, that this is no longer just ordinary plywood. It is a cultural treasure - a form of public art that is infused with heartfelt emotion. And it should be saved.

More than 100 sheets of plywood were put up to cover The Bay's broken display windows along Granville, Georgia and Richards Streets. Other stores had plywood coverings that were written on too, but The Bay took the worst of the looting and became a focal point for the outpouring of public emotion that arose in the aftermath of the riot.

Mr. Racette said he came to look at the plywood display because he wanted to know how his fellow citizens felt. He wanted to connect with them. For something this important, this deep, social networking on smart phones just wasn't enough.

"It's a way of all of us getting together," he said, as an ever-changing crowd gathered on the sidewalks along the plywood wall.

"I have thought, I have cried, I have loved, I will always remember," Mr. Racette wrote in French, after pondering his emotions.

Then he stood back and looked at the wall, festooned with a tangle of writing, as people tried to fit their comments in without obscuring the words of those who had written before. People were taking pictures, reading, waiting for a chance to add their own thoughts with one of the Sharpie pens that had been left along the window sills.

"I don't know what will happen to this plywood. I suppose it will disappear. … I hope Vancouver never forgets," he said.

Nearby, Jaymi Dcharme, a skateboarder and busker who plays guitar for spare change, was on his knees, drawing in dark blue ink a beautifully stylized combination of the letters K and I.

"It's my tag," he explained. "I'm a street artist. I leave this [symbol]in skateboard parks."

On the night of the riot, Mr. Dcharme said he was playing his guitar on Georgia, near the Vancouver Art Gallery.

"I was trying to bring people's spirits up [after the game]" he said. Instead, a sea of anger washed up the street from the fan zone and he left, with cries, explosions and dark smoke rising in the darkness behind him.

"It sucks man," he said of the riot. "I think it's crazy, dude. I think people have no control of their anger."

But the wall, he said, the wall was different.

"I think it's awesome. It's art, not graffiti," he said.

Stephanie Jung, of Burnaby, a personal trainer at Steve Nash Fitness World, was trapped briefly in the riot, surrounded by a frightening, chaotic explosion of violence that left her shaken.

She came back the next day to write on the wall.

"The real fans did not do this. The real fans cleaned the mess up," she wrote.

Ms. Jung, 23, said she was upset that so many of those who caused the mayhem were about her age.

"This is not what Vancouver is about," she said.

Not far away Bill Lloyd, 70, was also writing a message.

"How do you put it into words?" he replied when asked what he was feeling.

But to write on the wall, of course, you have to find the words.

"Where does this anger and hate come from?" wrote Mr. Lloyd.

It was an expression of bewilderment shared by many in this damaged city.

Mayor Gregor Robertson says the city has been in touch with merchants and asked them not to throw the plywood away, while archival staff consider ways to save what he calls "these pieces of history."

Storing them isn't the answer. They need to be out in the open, stopping people in their tracks, and making them think.