What Zïlon’s death tells us about how we treat artists while they’re alive

Montreal street artist Raymond Pilon, known as Zïlon, used to joke that people would only remember him and his work once he died, says Dorian Verdier, the founder of L’Original art gallery.

“And it happened for real, so Zïlon was unfortunately right,” he says.

The passing of the man dubbed by some as the “godfather” of street art in Canada was announced Saturday morning by the Beauchamp Art Gallery, which worked closely with Zïlon. 

Verdier says it’s ironic that, while Montreal has earned an international reputation because of its murals, the artist that started it all was struggling to receive recognition.

“He was the first one to bring back to Canada that movement of street art and pop culture,” the owner of Beauchamp Art Gallery, Vincent Beauchamp, said in an interview. 

According to him, it was almost impossible to miss Zïlon’s artist tag — a spray painted “Z” — if you frequented Montreal’s bars in the 1970s, when Zïlon first started adorning the city’s streets with punk art.

Montreal muralist Zilon standing in front of one of his murals. The words
Zïlon is considered by some as one of the first to bring the movement of street art to Montreal. (Stéphanie Allaire)

For sound engineer Reid Caulfield, Zïlon’s figures and style were so intrinsic to the Montreal experience that he decided to pitch a feature-length documentary film about the artist, back in 2010, when he was pursuing a career as a filmmaker. Caulfield was able to follow the artist with a camera for about four days.

He says he remembers how Zïlon felt about his place in the artistic community. 

“What was weighing down on Zïlon was he felt he had never been treated fairly by the art establishment,” says Caulfield.

With more than 30 hours of footage, Caulfield put together a promo video for Zïlon and his publicist and a 10-minute piece which he used as a proof of concept for his pitch.

But, he never secured the funding for the film and the project was shelved.

Hand-painted BMW by Zilon
Being a multidisciplinary artist, Zïlon used all kinds of different canvases such as this BMW vehicle for his art. (Submitted by Zilon)

Over the years, Zïlon participated in major events in many cities, including London and New York. 

In 2014, he painted the backdrop for a Givenchy (a fashion brand) launch in Paris. That same year, his mural Dépanneur Peur fermé 24 sur 24 in the Plateau neighbourhood was featured in Montreal’s Mural Festival.

Not even a decade later, that mural barely peaks through layers upon layers of paint added on by other street artists over the years.

Verdier says it’s a shame.

“I think it’s important to keep, for as long as we can, the city of Montreal as a living museum,” he says.

He adds that it’s important to give artists the recognition they deserve while they’re alive and value their work so that they can actually earn a living.

“There are many Montreal art shows for free, you can meet them in person, you can see their works, you can connect with the meaning they wanted to show,” he says. 

WATCH | Zïlon through Caulfield’s lens: 

Zïlon takes on Montreal

17 hours ago

Duration 0:56

Then-filmmaker Reid Caulfield followed Zïlon with a camera in Montreal for four days in 2010.

Beauchamp says that in many ways Zïlon’s legacy is carried by today’s street artists keeping the movement alive.

“Don’t do things to be cute,” he tells them.

“[Zïlon] created a body of work that is not for everybody ….It’s not meant to please people, it was meant to say something.”

And that, according to Beauchamp, is exactly what street art should be about. 

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