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eyes on the island

The wall was banal as only a wall can be, a lengthy expanse of uninteresting cement block.

It stretched for more than 30 metres along the interior yard of a recycling business located in a gritty Victoria neighbourhood home to tire depots and auto-body shops.

It was stupefyingly dull even by the undemanding standards of walls.

For the owners, though, it represented an opportunity to make a statement. For one local artist, it provided an opportunity to launch a career that is changing the look of the city.

A blank wall for Ellice Recycle was a blank canvas for Jeff Maltby.

Trained as a graphic artist and mostly self-taught as a painter, Mr. Maltby has produced Christmas cards for the company for more than two decades. He went from the smallest of commissions – rendered in a palm-sized card – to the largest.

In the eight years since, the artist has completed six other murals in the city, including a trio in Chinatown in front of which tourists gather for photographs.

Yet he remains a little-known figure, this Michelangelo of the cinder block, a quiet artist who confesses one of the difficulties of working as a muralist is "being on stage."

Murals create special problems. Exterior latex house paint has different qualities than art paint. It drips. It demands larger brushes and different strokes. The pigments are not pure, so mixing colours is part art, part science, part alchemy.

"It's runnier, too," he said. "It's sure different than working on a painting on an easel."

The first mural was a challenge. The wall at the recycling company stood about 7.5-metres tall, ranging 30 metres along the courtyard with another 15 metres at one end. The artist and the owner settled on portraying an imagined scene from 1890s Victoria with rag pickers, paper merchants, and scrap-metal dealers making their rounds on horse-drawn carts on cobblestone streets.

The homage to garbage pickers was rendered with great deliberation.

"I was nervous at first," he said. "I was making my plans pretty concise so I'd know what I was doing when I was out there."

He began painting on Canada Day in 2004, his days often spent aboard a hydraulic lift. "The process was long," he said, pausing to contemplate the amount of time. "Very long," he added. "Long, long, long." He painted throughout the summer and fall before at last completing the mural.

While the recycling depot is not on the tourist trail, Mr. Maltby's Chinatown murals are popular with visitors and locals alike. On the side of two restaurants in the 600-block of Fisgard Street can be found a 19th-century street scene featuring the Way Sang Yuen herbalist's shop rendered as a trompe-l'oeil.

Further along the block is a formal portrait of the family of Lee Mong Kow, a prominent community figure who became the first principal of the Chinese-language school that still stands on the block. Also popular is his mural of three children rushing to school – a boy in a turn-of-the-century sailor suit, a 1950s girl bobbysoxer, and a modern lad with a skateboard.

A more recent work can be found high on a brick wall on the side of the the Murchie's Tea building. It includes three people shouting from a window, an homage to a scene from the movie It's a Wonderful Life.

To earn a living, he sells canvas paintings, does some commercial art, even paints houses.

Mr. Maltby, 49, was born in Soellingen, Germany, where his father was stationed at a Canadian air base on the front lines of the Cold War. He grew up in Trenton, Ont., studied illustration at Sheridan College in Brampton, Ont., and served his own three-year stint in the armed forces handling electronics and communication radar. After 18 months at Cold Lake, Alta., he left the military and moved to Vancouver Island with his wife, Trudy, who is also a painter.

Their first stop: a pilgrimage to Chemainus, the logging town that transformed itself into an outdoor art gallery with more than three dozen murals.

It became his ambition to "do a big painting and make it like a piece of fine art."

None of his murals have been damaged by the city's legion of taggers and graffiti artists. Even the easy targets at street level have gone untouched, which the muralist takes as a sign of respect.