Opinion: How graffiti is telling Vancouver’s stories like never before

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Rachel Thexton, who is a public relations expert and the principal of Thexton PR.


When we think about PR, we think of messaging, speaking to media, and talking about the issues by using facts and authentic engagement.

All of this is vital, but we must consider actions and how powerful they can be in illustrating a message or changing the optics around an issue. Words are effective but, in the end, it is actions that illustrate authenticity and prove to a community that one is “walking the talk.”

At one point, in the City of Vancouver, graffiti was considered a crime, a form of reckless vandalism that destroyed the city’s businesses and our downtown’s beauty.

Well-known DTES graffiti artist Smokey D described a time when he was arrested. At one point, there was even a police group with a mission to stop graffiti. Smokey spent eight months in jail due to his work with spray paint.

Graffiti was not accepted as art, and in public places, it was illegal, period.

Things have changed and much is due to the actions of people like Smokey D and his graffiti artist friend, DTES Overdose Prevention Site staffer, and advocate, Trey Helten.

The men advocated for graffiti and started to execute actions that began to change how people saw the art. Vancouverites started to consider graffiti differently. They became interested in it.

Trey Helten at Clean Lines. Submitted

The new City of Vancouver leadership, including Mayor Ken Sim, and council, started to notice.

Smokey and Helden visited local Chinatown business owners to show a genuine desire to work together and to agree on areas where artists could create graffiti. One business owner, who was initially frustrated with graffiti, was eventually thrilled with a portrait of himself that Smokey created on his business rolldown shutter. These efforts created a bridge between two divided community groups that only meaningful actions could accomplish.

The City of Vancouver then stepped up big time.

A Chinatown merchant poses with DTES graffiti artist Smokey D, Trey Helten, and Lorraine Lowe. Lowe is the Executive Director of the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. Submitted

It provided funding for the city’s first legal graffiti wall, located in an alleyway off East Pender Street. The City also formally recognized Smokey, aka James Hardy, by presenting him with a framed declaration at city hall stating that March 11, his birthday, would be known as Smokey D Day.”

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Smokey was recognized by the city for his efforts to build bridges in the divided DTES/Chinatown community and for his murals that inform the public about the ongoing drug toxicity crisis and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Smokey often paints memorial pieces in the DTES to ensure that those who have passed away are not forgotten by the community but are instead painted in large, personalized portraits for all to see and remember.

Graffiti cans

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Another action-based communications example is the recent Clean Lines Graffiti Jam, an event celebrating urban art and creative expression. This event brought the City of Vancouver community together to see demonstrations of how graffiti is created, with an exclusive opportunity to engage with talented local artists.

Organized Helton, in collaboration with the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Coalition of Graffiti Writers, The Overdose Prevention Society, Vancouver Native Housing Society, Visual Orgasm, and Beat Street Records, the event highlighted the positivity and beauty of this vibrant street art culture that thrives within our city.

Organization Digital Hopes is a non-profit organization committed to supporting under-represented DTES street artists, those focused on graffiti and other forms of art. The founders feel that the time has come for people to see the phenomenal talent that exists in a community that is often overshadowed by news about residents committing crimes when, in fact, many are doing the best they can and creating outstanding art that must be seen.

On the weekend of August 12, BC Author Tara McGuire, who lost her son to overdose, and wrote a book about the experience, will partner with the Vancouver Mural Festival to host the Holden Courage Memorial Graffiti Jam.

Artwork to remember Holden, who died in 2015 at age 21. Submitted

This two-day event is a tribute to Holden, who died in 2015 at age 21. Holden was accepted into Emily Carr University of Art and Design but graffiti was his passion and he was a talented graffiti artist at a time when the art was not accepted as legitimate by the city or many of its residents.

Words matter. Conversation and engagement are fundamental parts of any communications effort. It does not end there. We cannot forget the value and strength of actions.

Turning graffiti from a taboo topic, that most think of negatively, into an art form that is gaining respect, and even legal spaces for execution in the City of Vancouver, is a great illustration of this.

Say it, but also do it, and do it well.

The opportunities for change are endless when we highlight what is possible and that we mean what we say.

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