Some mural artists struggling to get work in Hamilton


Published June 27, 2023 at 9:54 am

Photo courtesy of Scott McDonald

Hamilton is recognized as a vibrant city for many reasons – the people, the restaurants, the opportunities, and the art found within. 

But some people say getting art out there is tougher than you think. 

That said, things have changed for the better. 

When it comes to art, Hamilton has come a long way in recognizing the importance of having it across the city. Scott McDonald of Concrete Canvas went from previously getting arrested for work he was doing to working with the city to put up mural installations. 

In 2020, the city implemented its Art in Public Places Policy, which prioritizes the expansion of public art in the municipality. 

According to the City of Hamilton website, these priorities include embracing placemaking, encouraging social cohesion and cultural understanding, empowering artists and arts organizations, embracing digital and social media technology and encouraging public health and belonging through “active living and social connectedness essential to mental health.”

The policy defines six different types of art – publicly commissioned art, donated art, community art, integrated art, temporary art, and art on private property. But regardless of the type of art, connection, according to Tim Nijenhius, Ninehouse Productions local muralist, is what it’s all about.

But connection gaps in the Hamilton mural art community, specifically, do exist. 

For Nijenhius, who has been working as a mural artist since 1997, one of the gaps is folks not understanding what mural art is.

“Street art, graffiti, art, and public art – they are different things,” Nijenhius said. 

McDonald noted that the cultures of graffiti and mural art specifically are closely intertwined. However, he also stated there are some differences. According to Nijenhius, graffiti is often unwelcome, whereas street art is requested.

“If someone is putting a tag on a wall, uninvited, it’s like a dog peeing against the tree. Nobody asked for that, but they’re leaving a mark. And that’s what it’s all about and then it all becomes about themselves,” Nijenhius explained.

“Real public art is art that serves everyone. So, I think that’s an important factor to keep in mind. Who are you pleasing? Are you pleasing yourself? Are you pleasing your audience? If you’re pleasing your audience, then you’re doing the right thing. If you’re doing public art and you’re just pleasing yourself, it is just selfish and it doesn’t function well.” 

Another big gap in the mural art community pops up when the city issues ‘Calls for Artists.’ 

According to the City of Hamilton website, “Calls for Artists to create publicly commissioned art are issued throughout the year.” However, as noted by both Nijenhius and McDonald, within many of these Calls for Artists, there are often different criteria that need to be met to be chosen for the piece.

“When the city puts a public art call out, I end up in front of a shut door almost all the time,” Nijenhius said. “Because I don’t identify with a minority group. Meanwhile, I’ve been doing this since 1997. But people that are representing a minority get it right away [despite not having much experience]. It’s a bit of a struggle. I’m very open-minded, I think everybody should have equal opportunity, but then let’s not exclude those that actually have the experience and have already done a lot of stuff.”

When it comes to bridging this gap, Nijenhius noted that it comes down to communication between artists and city officials. 

“Communication is the antidote to polarization,” Nijenhius said. “As a straight white guy, I don’t get the same opportunities for art as someone representing a minority. But don’t reject me when I bring that up. Listen to what I have to say. Communicating, being open-minded, and not pegging people and not putting a label on someone. I think that’s the only way to break through.”

The city, according to Peter Fortune, Manager, Placemaking, Public Art and Projects, is looking at reviewing the Public Art Master Plan. 

“We want to modify our processes for how we commission art, how we go about setting up juries for it,” Fortune said.

“So, a lot of those are the stipulations then of how we select artists. So, hopefully, we can free up some of those barriers that are holding people back.”

Fortune also noted there are often still many opportunities that are not specific to individual groups that all mural artists can apply to. 

Despite this, both Nijenhius and Scott noted there are some situations where the city is quite supportive of artists. 

The city promotes façade improvement

“If you’re a business owner, you own a building, and you want to fix up your wall with either a mural, or you want to do new trim, work new doors, new windows, the city helps pay for that,” Nijenhius said. “When you go that route, the city is very supportive, and they paid up to 50 per cent – if everything is cool, and if it’s in the right area, and if it’s exposed. There are all kinds of caveats but nine out of 10 times, I’ve found the city very supportive and helps pay for my work.”

McDonald added to this by commenting on just how helpful the city has been with Concrete Canvas, which according to the Concrete Canvas website, is a weekend-long arts festival where artists can congregate to paint murals across Hamilton to help enhance the city’s visual landscape.

“Concrete Canvas, it wouldn’t happen without the city.”

The city has also installed two legal walls for street art – the first one launched in September 2019 at Woodlawn Park.

These two walls were part of a pilot project that the city will be analyzing.

“Do they have community buy-in,” Fortune said. “I think that decision will get made probably in a year and a half or a little longer. We’re going to see if, how well they’re maintained. Do they actually have pickup within the street mural community? Do people actually use them? Are those mentorships that we’re hoping for are they actually happening?”

According to McDonald, the short answer is yes – revealing that the best thing people can do to support folks in the graffiti, street, and mural art community is to supply them with walls.

While there may not be any confirmed plans for future legal walls, the city is looking at more unique spaces for mural artists to paint. 

“We’re looking at every surface out in public spaces,” Sarah Ehmke, the Senior Project Manager of Placemaking, said. “The work we’ve been doing has been walls, but we’re looking beyond that too.”

The next place the city is potentially going to be looking at? 

The ground.

“What can we do in a safe manner, for everybody, for vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists, everything else on the ground,” Ehmke said. “I think we’re hoping to test it this summer and hopefully, go beyond as well. So, if it’s a surface, can we paint it?”

And what do both Nijenhius and McDonald hope to see in the mural art scene in the future?

For the city’s Call for Artists to be more about the art and less about politics, more legal walls, and, as Nijenhius noted, for fellow Hamiltonians to “pay attention, show appreciation, and communicate.” 

Enhancing the connection.

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