On a cold day in Calgary, Alta., deep in his studio and with a spray can in hand, David Brunning is creating something that may look pretty to some, but controversial to others.

Graffiti is an art form that has a complex history in North America. Most notably, it either gets lumped into vandalism or commissioned murals hanging on disparate street corners. But, to Brunning and other graffiti artists, it’s more a form of expression that artists use to represent a city and the people that live there. 

Albertan artists David Brunning and AJA Louden speak to the Calgary Journal on the history and culture of graffiti. Video produced by Richie Nguyen, Olivia Baychu, Thomas Bogda, and Rod Neyra.

In places like New York, Berlin, and Rio de Janeiro–places known for their culture–graffiti thrives. Brunning says Calgary is not only lacking that kind of openness to graffiti, the city is grasping at some sort of defining culture.

“I think Calgary wants to see itself as an international city. I have no idea how it’s going to do that,” says Brunning. “Having travelled the world in New Zealand, Brisbane, Thailand, cities everywhere, there are [art] events going on all the time. The thing that drove me to those places outside of Calgary was the fact that Calgary struggles with identity.

He thinks that people love Calgary based on the cost of living and the amount of money that’s being made here. Though he does have some criticisms, Brunning doesn’t hate Calgary, and he’s felt a lot of love and support from the people here.

Abandoned Graffiti building outside of Calgary. Photo by Olivia Baychu.

“I love this city. I have just wrestled with what the city’s about. I’ve wrestled a lot of with where it’s going and what to do. And I think we’re starting to see change.”

One program that’s trying to set the city up for a better future in graffiti is Calgary’s Street Art Program for Youth. Last year, AJA Louden led the program at Confederation Park, teaching kids age 12-17 the method, culture, and history of graffiti.

Along with his own program, the Aerosol Academy, Louden wants to help connect kids to the art world while also instilling a healthy perception of graffiti he says is too often lost.

“Growing up I didn’t necessarily connect with the art I received in school, like art classes,” says Louden. “It wasn’t speaking my language all the time, or wasn’t the right fit for me.  Then I found graffiti and the visuals associated with hip hop culture and that connected more closely with me. By doing a lot of workshops with youth and outreach programs with smaller communities, that’s what I’m trying to do too, to provide another window into the art world.”

Like Brunning, Louden says Calgary is trying to figure out how it wants to represent itself. The controversial public art saga hasn’t helped, but he gives credit to the difficulty of trying to make or present art that pleases everyone.

Ultimately, Louden wants there to be more support for graffiti. He’s biased, he admits, but he points to the vibrancy of a graffiti piece that lights up your drive to work on a wintery day. Next time you see a piece, look at how much colour it brings into the city.

“As a winter city, there’s so much of the year where the color is really pulled out of the city. There’s a lot of snow, trees don’t have leaves and flowers aren’t blooming. So when you have large scale public art, it’s a way to inject color and life and vibrancy into the city and it really does do stuff for people. It really does affect your mood when you see something bright and positive on your way to work, or maybe you see something a little bit dark and negative but it connects with you. It really does a lot for people.”

Graffiti artist David Bruning paints in his downtown studio. Photo by Olivia Baychu.

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Editor: Casey Richardson | crichardson@cjournal.ca