Going Out

The Writing on the Wall

Pondering the future direction of street art with renaissance man Mat Dubé
By Fateema Sayani

The subversive paste-up on the side of a ByWard Market building is classic Shepard Fairey — except that the man himself didn’t actually install it. The famed “Obey” vandal/artist, whose work came to prominence during the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign, deployed his peeps to install the 9-by-15-metre piece outside Nrml, a clothing store at Rideau and Waller streets, in March.

Something about the process — a kind of arm’s-length revolt — had the air of industrialization. Rather than slapping his art on the side of the building under cover of darkness, Fairey — or, rather, his team of two installers — was efficient, precise, and compatible with daylight — qualities not always associated with those who create piquant social commentary.

But times they are ever changing and so are the thoughts and processes behind the ideas. As such, the Fairey piece marked a shift for some in the Ottawa community. If you hear this noise — kkkkrrarrraacck — you can recognize it as the sound of pendulums swinging.

Street art doesn’t have a long history unless you want to trace its origins back to hieroglyphics. It’s generally considered a forum for modern malaise, expressed in photo-based or text works that call into question urban habits, political leanings, and cultural instincts. Some of it is eyes-glazed-over bad, some of it is made-ya-think good, and some of it is purely eye candy, free of metaphor and deep analysis.

Mat Dubé's work can be seen in various locations throughout the city.

“With much of my work, people expect weightier social commentary,” Fairey told the Chicago Sun-Times in April, “but I don’t want to do that 100 percent of the time. I think it’s healthy to have some escapism as long as you maintain an awareness of the right balance.”

The street artist must consider other balances, as well. Do you “sell out” and create a marketing company catering to Levis and Pepsi the way Fairey did? Do you create socially conscious works inside Toronto community-housing projects while, at the same time, taking commissions for Vespa scooters the way Toronto-via-Ottawa street artist Dan “Fauxreel” Bergeron did? Do you apprise yourself of the rules around graffiti in the City of Ottawa and then flout them anyway the way — wait, should I say his name? Uh, bylaw officer, um, sir, are you reading?

“Sure, I’ll embrace my inner criminal,” Mat Dubé, 34, jokes when asked if he’d have his name and photos associated with this column. Dubé is struggling with direction right now: he’s at an exciting and confusing place in his artistic career but isn’t sure where to head next. Dubé is a sculpture artist when not working at Arts Court or playing in his techno-punk band, StrayOtic.

His recent sculpture works have a creepy feel to them. They look as though they’re made with designer Play-Doh that’s moulded into demons from your subconscious. Once completed, they remind me of what a Gremlin looked like when it got wet. Dubé has begun photographing these ghastly sculptures and — using industrial carpet tape — creating stickers from the images. He posts those stickers around town on power boxes and walls and other spots that are subtle enough to escape mass detection but noticeable enough to anyone not looking at their mobile while walking down the street. He marks his creations with his handle, Dubium.

Mat Dubé photographs his demonic-looking sculptures and creates stickers from the images. He then posts the stickers around town, marked with his handle, Dubium. Photos courtesy of Mat Dubé.

“In many ways, doing street art is more interesting than putting stuff in galleries,” Dubé says. “There is an interaction with other street artists. Someone else goes and puts a sticker next to mine or adds a hairdo on your guy. I find that interesting.”

Street art is free from any formal curation, and you can’t sell it unless you take it to a gallery. Otherwise, it doesn’t pay. Dubé wants to figure out how to monetize his craft while maintaining some artistic control. He also doesn’t want to get arrested. Too much to ask? Maybe not. The Fairey installation at Rideau and Waller — the first by the artist on Canadian soil — was okayed by city council and funded by grants.

It’s the language of the corporation that’s coming to street art: partnerships. Approach the building owners of bars, clubs, and stores, and install something that’s agreed upon. Your work is out there, and so you have the same end result: good art exposed — and sanctioned. It has Dubé thinking about exploring that avenue. Does anyone have a side of a building to spare?

Read “Sound Seekers,” Fateema Sayani’s weekly dispatch on the music scene, at ottawamagazine.com.