As coronavirus (Covid-19) hit a homeless shelter in Vancouver’s troubled Downtown Eastside, a new series of murals offer hope and important public health information to residents of Canada’s poorest postal code, still in the throes an opioid crisis.
The first mural was produced on 7 April by Smokey Devil—aka James Hardy, a neighbourhood artist who for 20 years has been documenting the ravages of drug addiction through vivid, graphic murals that are part pop art, part public service announcements. Smokey Devil is partnering with the City of Vancouver in a new initiative that is funding the painting of murals on temporary boarding on storefronts closed by coronavirus.
Painted over the street artist’s 2016 mural about fentanyl overdoses and safe supply, the new work brings home the dangers of contagion in a visceral way. Framed around the image of a young man coughing and giant coronavirus microbes, black capitalised text exclaims: “Covid-19, a pandemic that infects the entire world. Can’t stop it but we slow it an flatten tha curve. Stay in, stay home, safe an connected from a distance.” A second one features a doctor and a nurse, and thanks healthcare and frontline workers for their help.
Inspired by Smokey Devil’s work, a group of graffiti artists connected to Vancouver’s Overdose Prevention Society (OPS)—whose director Sarah Blyth got the Vancouver Mural Festival to donate thousands of dollars of paint last year to brighten up the organisation’s bleak back-alley entrance—decided to respond with their own murals.
They include one by Boy: a bright orange background featuring a yellow-and-black cartoon character wearing a mask, pointing a ray gun/hypodermic needle and blasting viral maroon microbes with the message “Kill the mo’ fo; Covid 19!”
Two Looney Tunes-inspired works by the artist Grow Up feature a gas masked Porky Pig set against an apocalyptic landscape of factories and oil pipelines and the words "Covid 19 – That’s all folks" installed on the side of another homeless hostel, the Shaldon Hotel; and a strung out Sylvester the cat holding a syringe and saying, "Sufferin succotash, how am I supposed to go home and isolate when I’m homeless and hooked on fent??" mounted on an abandoned building on East Hastings Street.
Grow Up, who works at OPS but prefers to remain anonymous, is in his mid-30s and regards 50-year-old Smokey Devil as a mentor and pioneer of the positive street art mural. In a neighbourhood that lacks adequate housing and health care, as well as access to traditional media, television and internet, the murals are a public service, says the recovering addict.
“When I was shooting contaminated street drugs,” he says, “I wouldn’t have cared about Covid 19. I was just looking for my next fix.”