Eight years ago, I was crossing Fairmount Avenue near my apartment in Montreal’s Mile End district when I noticed a strange addition to the zebra crossing beneath my feet: barbed wire. Not actual barbed wire, but a painted rendition of it along the edge of the crosswalk, half in yellow, the other half white, both colours indistinguishable from the other road markings on the street.
Strange, I thought. Is this a new initiative by the city to raise awareness of pedestrian rights? A nod to the sanctity of the crosswalk? Before I could finish crossing the street, a car sailed past me without bothering to stop.
By the time summer arrived, everyone had noticed the funny new road markings around town. Lane dividers were turned into giant zippers. Crosswalk zebra stripes became birthday candles. One crossing had become a giant shoeprint. Many of the works made brilliant use of nighttime shadows: owls stranded in the middle of asphalt during the day found a perch after dark. It was unlike any graffiti I had seen before. I wondered who had done it.
My answer came in July, when I visited Wooster Collective, a street art blog. There, I found images of the road stencils I had been walking past for month, and attached to them was a name: Roadsworth. They were accompanied by a brief Q&A.
How would you describe your art to someone who could not see it? What would happen if the guys who are hired by the city to paint the lines on the street decided to drop acid while on the job.
What is your greatest ambition? To turn Montreal into a car free zone.
By now, every culturally-attuned Montreal is familiar with Roadsworth’s story. After a surge of popularity in 2004, he was arrested and subjected to some spectacular criminal charges. In the media uproar that ensued, we all learned Roadsworth’s true identity: Peter Gibson, mild-mannered musician by day, graffiti-writing deviant by night. The publicity helped Gibson establish himself as a full-time artist. But for all the buzz generated by his early graffiti, there has been surprisingly little mainstream discussion about the questions raised by Roadsworth’s street art.
Peter Gibson was born and raised in Toronto, not far from Yonge and St. Clair. He describes his youth as “relatively middle-class.” His father was an amateur musician and his mother a part-time painter. “She was kind of influential in me getting into art, because we were always going to art galleries, going out to shows that her friends would have or that she would have,” he tells me. “There were tons of art books everywhere — Jeanne-Claude and Christo, guys like that. That probably remained in my psyche for a long time after.”
It wasn’t art that Gibson pursued when he left high school, however. He played piano, and in 1992 he moved to Montreal to study music at McGill University. Like many students who arrived at McGill from out of province, the city’s allure proved stronger than that of the lecture hall. “I ended up dicking around for the first two years I was in Montreal,” Gibson says. The city appealed to him. “I like the scale of Montreal and the tension that exists between the francophone and anglophone communities — it can be a positive tension if people are not feeling overly threatened, abused or marginalized.”
After graduation, Gibson began playing jazz, funk and dub-influenced music with “a lot of bands you’ve probably never heard of” — Ark of Infinity, Whip Cream, Kalmunity — as well as piano for the Union United Church Gospel Choir. After a few years, though, Gibson felt he had run into a dead end. “I wasn’t creatively satisfied,” he recalls. When his girlfriend introduced him to the work of Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist who creates site-specific installations from natural materials, he was compelled to do something similar.
Gibson liked the way Goldsworthy worked with available materials — rocks, flowers, twigs, icicles — to create installations that conversed with their natural setting. “I started thinking of how it could work in an urban setting,” he says. “At the same time, I was into Adbusters magazine and activism like culture jamming.” In 2001, he made his first stencil, a bicycle, and began applying it to streets he thought should have bike lanes. “It felt more like activism than art,” he says. “Questioning how space in the city was being yes, the over-reliance on the automobile and everything required to support this culture where everyone is expected to drive a car.”
At the same time, Gibson liked the repetitive patterns employed in Goldsworthy’s work, and he found a similar aesthetic in the painted lines that governed behaviour on the street. He adopted a pseudonym that paid homage to Goldsworthy and the writer William Wordsworth, and created a range of stencils that he could use to satirize the city’s road markings. His first efforts were crude — he was using road paint from a gallon bucket — but he quickly honed his technique. “I wanted to create something subliminal, something that looked like it belonged there,” he says.
Roadsworth’s early work came at a time when more and more Montrealers were adopting a more activist relationship to their urban surroundings. “Certain people were randomly taking it upon themselves, without legal permission, to reclaim public space,” says filmmaker Alan Kohl. “One guy was installing metal art installations on public property, another guy was illegally landscaping beautiful parks for people to enjoy in our neighborhood. It was so cool that people were breaking the law to make our public environment more beautiful.”
Kohl says he was “excited and confused” when he first saw a Roadsworth stencil. “Like a lot of people I wasn’t sure whether the city had done this, or it was the work of a local artist. The fact that I was questioning this at all was something new for me,” he says. When he found out that Roadsworth was Gibson — his bandmate in Ark of Infinity — he made him the subject of a feature-length documentary, Roadsworth: Crossing the Line, which was released by the National Film Board in 2008.
Of all the public-space interventions taking place in mid-2000s Montreal, Roadsworth’s were the most memorable. His arsenal of stencils was varied enough to keep the public surprised, and they put more stock in wit than self-righteous sanctimony. “Each time I came across a new one, I got excited,” says art critic and curator Chris Hand, who was the owner of Zeke’s Gallery on St. Laurent Boulevard at the time. “It was kind of like a large scavenger hunt without any real list of things to find.”
Part of what made it so exciting was that nobody had seen anything like it before. “Other street artists like Zys and Cismo paint on streets and sidewalks, but Roadsworth’s work is singular insofar as it illuminates a site typically devoid of artistic expression,” says Concordia University art historian Anna Waclawek. “By working with a preexisting formalized language that tells drivers and pedestrians what to do — walk, turn, park — Roadsworth calls attention to our potential, through the creative gesture, to question and participate in the creation of a city’s visual culture.”
In his landmark 1988 essay Kool Killer, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that graffiti was a revolt against the systems of social control that characterize the post-industrial city. Roadsworth took that to a new level by literally subverting the rules of the road. This wasn’t something that Montreal authorities took kindly to. Gibson says he laid down more than 300 stencils between 2001 and 2004, a time when the City of Montreal had spent $4.5 million to remove graffiti and step up enforcement against it.
He was always aware of getting caught, so he worked furtively, sometimes taking an entire night to complete a single intervention, pausing to hide when he saw what might be a police car. Sometimes Gibson was helped by his girlfriend (now wife), Nikoo Asadi, whom he met in 2001. “On a couple of occasions when we were laying down a stencil and a cop car would approach, we would start smooching as a decoy — a way of saying, ‘Nothing to see here.’ Of course it was also a great excuse for a smooch,” he says.
The smooch strategy didn’t always work. The first time Gibson was caught by police, he was arrested but not charged. Later, he was caught again and ordered to pay a small fine. “Strangely, it actually encouraged me to continue doing what I was doing, because it seemed at the time that the police were unaware of my other activities and the extent to which I had already bombed the city,” he says.
But the police were quietly building up a case against him. On the evening of November 29, 2004, Gibson was intercepted by three police cruisers and placed under arrest. Charged with 53 counts of mischief, he was threatened with $256,000 in fines; one overzealous police inspector even told him he could be banished from the Island of Montreal. When he returned home from 24 hours in jail, he found his home ransacked. His roommate told him that seven police officers had shown up with a search warrant. “He had just recently moved in with me and we didn’t know each other so well,” says Gibson. “He thought I was dealing drugs or something.”
Gibson fell into a depression. “I felt like my life was over,” he says. But news of his arrest spread quickly, and within a few weeks a vocal campaign, spearheaded by Chris Hand, was calling for the charges to be dropped. Alt-weeklies like the Montreal Mirror ran glowing profiles of Gibson while the intellectual newspaper Le Devoir took an interest in his case. La Presse urban issues columnist François Cardinal penned a strongly-worded editorial in Gibson’s defence, which helped galvanize mainstream public support.
Two months after his arrest, Gibson seemed in good spirits. “It’s amazing to see people actively having this dialogue about my activities over the past three years, and raising the question about the use of public space,” he told Mirror news editor Patrick Lejtenyi. “I’m seeing my initial intention being brought into the public arena, so it’s satisfying on that level.”
He had reason to be optimistic. Two years after his arrest, thanks to sympathetic media coverage and public support, Gibson’s charges were reduced to five counts of mischief. He was ordered to pay a $250 fine and serve 40 hours of community service, which he spent by painting a whimsical scene of alligators, dragonflies and vines on the asphalt schoolyard of a Mile End elementary school. Since then, Gibson’s work has shifted to commissions, usually from public institutions. He works almost as often abroad as he does in Canada. But his work is still rigorously site-specific, and it still raises questions about the social and ecological consequences of the way our cities are run.
Last summer, Gibson and his friend Brian Armstrong transformed the glass-and-steel atrium of Montreal’s Eaton Centre shopping mall into an artificial ecosystem made from waste generated by the mall’s tenants. The installation, “Fragile,” was unlike anything Gibson had ever done. It was textural, three-dimensional and enormous in scale. When I visited on a sunny day in July, it seemed to have attracted a lot of attention from shoppers, who stopped to take photos and videos of giant cardboard trees and an upside-down plastic-bottle fish pond.
Chris Hand wasn’t impressed. On his blog, he dismissed the installation as corporate greenwashing and criticized the quality of its execution. “I’m fairly certain that there are some people out there who can use ‘craft’ materials and make some pretty awesome stuff. Peter, right now, isn’t one of them,” he says.
Hand’s critique stands out because it is so rare. Roadsworth is a popular subject for newspaper and magazine journalists, but less so for art critics, who have mostly ignored his work. Gibson admits to moments of artistic self-doubt, but he also says he isn’t bothered by the lack of critical attention. “The fact that street art, at least in the true sense of the term, lies outside of this system makes it hard to situate, define and justify,” he says. “In some senses it could even be viewed as a threat to that system since it bypasses the vetting process that an artist is usually subject to before gaining access to a public audience. Street art completely obliterates this process.”
Art criticism isn’t the only thing missing from the discussion about street art. For all the attention given to Rob Ford power-washing graffiti from downtown Toronto alleys, and all the suggestions that graffiti can be dealt with by providing sanctioned venues for street art, nobody has bothered to address the uncomfortable truth about the medium: that it’s most meaningful when it is illegal. Roadsworth’s work has become more sophisticated since his arrest, but it is often less impactful than when it was found by chance on a Mile End streetcorner. “The fact that it’s illegal and therefore uncensored allows artists to push boundaries, provide a counterbalance to commercial imagery, and essentially question the role of art and artists in contemporary societies,” says Anna Waclawek.
Gibson says that his experience of working on commissions has only affirmed the value of his earlier illegal work. “It’s possible to be rebellious in the context of a commission, but it often feels distorted and contrived,” says Gibson. “Although I’ve received permission from the city to do work on the street, the process is relatively onerous. The work I was doing prior to my arrest would have been impossible via official legal channels. As they say, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
Gibson still works illicitly, but he now has two young children, so it’s not something he can do often. “I spend most of my time at home now,” he says. (The last time we spoke on Skype, he kept excusing himself to check on his two-year-old daughter. “It’s suspiciously quiet in the other room,” he said before dashing off.) He says he does not regret working without sanction, even if it landed him in serious legal trouble. “When I first started doing street art, I had a sense that our lifestyles in general represented a form of violence against nature and therefore against our own best interests,” he says. “The ‘vandalism’ that I and many graffiti artists and street artists have practiced has to be considered in the context of the industrial vandalism that’s a part of our everyday lives.”
Unlike an urban highway or a misguided road widening, street art doesn’t take long to disappear. Last year, I wandered around my old Montreal haunts, trying to see if I could spot any Roadsworth graffiti that has survived six years of winter road salt. I didn’t find anything. But I did find something similar to his first bicycle stencil along the miles of new bike paths that have opened in the past few years. It would be outrageous to credit Gibson for Montreal’s embrace of the bicycle, but it certainly reflects a change in mindset that his graffiti helped bring about. Roadsworth challenged the order of things — and in some small way, the order gave way.
Tags: Art Installation, Graffiti, Mile End, Montreal, Plateau Mont-Royal, Public Art, Roadsworth, Street Art