Calgarian’s quest to document temporary artworks becomes collection of art

As the author of nine books, George Melnyk knows what it feels like to have one’s work published.

On Nov. 29 the proud father watched as his son, Adam Melnyk, launched his own first book.

“I always gave Adam a copy of one of my books when it was published. And now he’s going to be giving copies of his books to me,” says George.

Adam’s book, titled “Visual Orgasm: The Early Years of Canadian Graffiti,” and published by Calgary-based Frontenac House Media, was officially unveiled before a full house gathered at Endeavor Arts Space.

David Scollard, one of the book’s editors, says that “Visual Orgasm” explores the origins and the early history of graffiti across Canada.

“That means the late ’70s to mid ’90s. It covers as far east as Montreal, Que., and out west to Victoria, B.C.,” Scollard explains.

“The book consists of photographs and interviews with the outstanding graffiti artists from that time period. Adam used his judgment about who made the biggest contributions and who were the pioneers in the field.

“He collected pictures of their work, interviewed them, and basically just let them riff.”

Long-standing interest in graffiti culture

Melnyk, who grew up in Calgary, says he became interested in graffiti around 15 years ago.

“I was really into rap music and wanted to try to get involved in that scene. But I found rapping and break dancing just weren’t my thing. So I got into my last option of graffiti,” Melnyk says.

With a laugh, he says he has “never been very artistically skilled,” something that posed a challenge when it came to pursuing graffiti.

Eventually Melnyk found a different way to stay involved — he began travelling across Canada and started documenting graffiti, collecting both the images of the artwork and the stories of those who created it.

“I began engrossing myself in the whole culture,” Melnyk says.

Website serves as historical record and educational resource

As his collection grew, a friend encouraged Melnyk to put it on the Internet. In 1998, the website Visual Orgasm was born.

Eventually the site became a virtual repository for the history of graffiti in Canada — today it boasts nearly 15,000 photographs, representing over 1,300 graffiti artists.

While he still maintains the website, Melnyk says he can’t travel as much as he used to. His own contributions to the site are now complemented by those emailed to him by others.

As the website continued to expand, Melnyk eventually began to formulate the idea of a book.

“I know the history, but people before me really set the foundation for the graffiti culture. I wanted to create a book that showed what happened.

“I know from documenting things that people disappear and people pass on,” Melnyk says.

“I thought about the best way to bring the information together and put it in one place to show people the interesting stages of graffiti across Canada.”

Book explores the foundations of Canadian graffiti

Melnyk says that rather than a “sweeping thing,” graffiti in Canada developed more as “pockets of people who started doing it.”

“I know the history, but people before me really set the foundation for the graffiti culture. I wanted to create a book that showed what happened.”     

— Adam Melnyk author of Visual Orgasm

“So it’s interesting to see who got into graffiti and why they got into it,” he says.

“The book’s focus is on what people did in the ’80s, and how they laid a foundation when there really was nothing like that happening in Canada.”

Melnyk’s book is unique because it serves as record of artwork whose tangible existence is often temporary, existing today only in old photographs. He says that played a role in why the book took seven years to be published.

“Some of the photographs were mine, but a lot of people contributed photos. That was the fun part — tracking them down.

“I knew for sure that someone had to do it sooner or later because things disappear. Some people that I talked to gave their photos away, or their ex-girlfriend took their shoebox and threw it out or something like that.

“The sooner we can try to collect the photographs, save them, and share them, the more documentation about graffiti there will be,” Melnyk says.

Continuing education

Melnyk, whose full-time job involves working with Calgary’s less fortunate, says he plans to continue to document graffiti.

“We are currently re-designing the website and coming back to really focusing on having it as a focal point for information about what is happening in graffiti culture.

“I am certainly interested in continuing to educate people about graffiti, how it is an interesting part of our society and a great underground culture.”

Although he is in “no rush” to work on a new book, Melnyk already has an idea of what he would like his next one to be about.

“I would like to focus on some of the people that I grew up with here in Calgary who were doing graffiti and kind of made their mark. I would like to tell their story.”

The Visual Orgasm website can be found at visualorgasm.com

ktaylor@cjournal.ca