Sound Seekers

SOUND SEEKERS: House of Paint celebrates a decade of urban arts in OttCity

Sound Seekers by Fateema Sayani is published weekly at OttawaMagazine.com. Read Fateema Sayani’s culture column in Ottawa Magazine and follow her on Twitter @fateemasayani

Ten Years On, Is It Time for Another Legal Wall?

When the annual House of Paint festival began 10 years ago, its mandate was to bring a community together around the multiple elements of hip-hop, which include a culture of music, dancing, and graffiti. Founder and festival director Sabra Ripley added advocacy to that mix and in ten years has done a bang-up job of turning a small, one-day event under the Dunbar Bridge by Brewer Park into a multi-day festival with a marketplace, family events, and workshops that teach up-and-coming MCs and DJs how to market their art. She assembled a team of programmers who developed competitions where graf writers, DJs, and b-girls could improve their art through public performance.

Festival founder and executive director Sabra Ripley, second from left, at last year’s event. She’s with members of the organizing team of Manifesto, a hip-hop culture event that takes place in Toronto. They came to HoP last year as part of a shared learning project. Photo by Ming Wu

There will be more performances at this year’s 10th anniversary edition of the House of Paint festival, running from September 11-15, one week after the Ottawa Folk Festival. There are events in galleries and clubs around the city starting on the 11th. There will be a concert on Friday the 13th and the main event—which features breaker battles, DJ sets, kids’ activities, and the vendor marketplace—will take place on Saturday the 14th under the bridge.

House of Paint organizers will announce the entire artist line-up for the September festival Friday night at Ritual Nightclub. Chicago’s Hypnotic Brass ensemble headlines the launch party along with guest act BlakDenim, an Ottawa orchestral hip-hop ensemble. Tickets are $16.

At the launch party, organizers will announce a new collaboration with The Souljazz Orchestra. The Ottawa band takes a break from their European tour schedule to play the HoP breaker finale on Saturday, September 14. The band is working on a 20-minute b-boy/b-girl suite that melds classic hip-hop tunes and beats. It’s not an entirely new audience for the band—their tune “Insurrection” is popular with breakers—but it’s a new style for the band, says keys player Pierre Chretien.

“We’re composing like a DJ would,” he says, “we’ll be playing re-creations of samples.” On his wish list were tunes by Tribe or Digable Planets, but Chretien says he had to go back to the drawing board to find something more up-tempo. “B-Boys can be particular about what they dance to,” he says. “You have to get the backbeats just right and get the right beats per minute.” And because it’s the final battle, it has to be explosive. “Tempos increase as the battles go on,” Chretien explains.

Tempo acceleration provides a framework for explaining the evolution of the House of Paint festival.

After a decade, the festival is closer to getting onto solid footing. Ripley and her team assembled a board of directors and established the festival as a not-for-profit organization in 2011. That allows them to apply to granting organizations and last year they received $7,500 from the Ontario Arts Council and $12,000 from the City of Ottawa. Ripley says the funds go to paying performing artists, and site management for the festival including scaffolding for graffiti painters and bringing power to the site for DJs and marketplace vendors. The main event has seen an increase in attendance year over year, with an estimated head count of 3,000 people at last year’s spectacle.

The festival does not have a full-time staff member, but they’re hoping to have a position in place for future festivals. In the early days of House of Paint, advocacy at city hall was a focus point for Ripley and she says the festival maintains an eye on civic issues related to their community. In past their graffiti curator, painter Mike Gall, sat on the city’s graffiti management committee to help them make the distinction between unwanted tags and bombs versus murals and artistic works, which are featured on the legal wall underneath the Dunbar Bridge.

When that wall was sanctioned a decade ago, it was a coup for Ripley and her team, but since then the number of legal spaces has remained stagnant. There is a “tolerated wall” at the old Tech High School on Albert Street and it’s often tolerated on the bowls and bike tracks of the city’s skateboarding parks. These days an old, out-of-sight bridge could be seen as a bone thrown to the urban arts community, rather than a legit space.

Ripley says the community asked for that space in particular and while one could argue that the reason the application was accepted was because it’s out of sight and out of mind, the space is celebrated annually with the House of Paint festival and the people who flock there.

The Souljazz Orchestra at a recent New York City gig. The band will play a live set during the final B-battle at House of Paint in the September.

Will the House of Paint organizers mobilize for another graffiti wall?

Ripley says there’s reluctance at city council to open a conversation on new walls and that since councillor Clive Doucet left, there hasn’t been anyone on council who has reached out to the urban arts community.

“Having more space for more people to paint and a culture that’s open to that would be pretty awesome,” Ripley says. “Right now, there is a lot of development in Ottawa. You look at the space around Landsdowne and the amount of hoarding that’s going up around there,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of people do amazing murals on construction hoarding.” She notes that construction companies in other major cities seek out groups to paint murals on their hoarding as part of the community engagement process and would like to see that modelled here in the capital.

“We want to encourage more murals, and more art on public surfaces to create a more colourful cityscape. Urban arts and graffiti—that’s really important for House of Paint.”

The House of Paint main event will take place from September 11-15.