About a month ago, I met Devlin at a party for EDIT, while standing over a bowl of nachos. As far as small talk went, I got to learn that Devlin was a speaker at the exposition, on behalf of StreetARToronto (StART) and his own personal work that he's done. It didn't take long before the conversation sparked a light bulb moment - my next theme: the artist.
I have Devlin to thank for being my first interview for Fijord since moving back to Toronto. Devlin is a graffiti artist, amongst many other things, though he is too modest to call himself one. He's a recent graduate from the Ontario College of Art and Design University for Graphic Design and now works part-time in a few places as he looks to settle longer term in the design field. Devlin also is contributing and working within the city of Toronto's organization, StART. As I sit down with him for coffee and ask him my usual “what’s your story?” question, his answer couldn’t be more honest:
“I’m just a young person starting things out,” he says, and I can't help but nod vigorously. This is an identity I know I've had before (and seem to have again) and that countless people around me have also felt. However, without dwelling too much on that big question mark of youth, we delve into a little bit of Devlin's background:
"Since childhood, I've been artistically inclined and creative. I'd always express myself on pen and paper and eventually I was able to translate that into graphic design," he articulates, "Graphic design is everywhere and it can somehow take on everything and that's because design itself is everywhere and everything. It's an inherently capitalist term that came out of the industrial revolution. Design can be personal or impersonal. It can be stagnant or dynamic. It has all these possibilities."
I ask Devlin to elaborate a little more as to how he became so immersed in the world of design:
"I guess you could say I'm what they call a 'real Torontonian'. I love to explore and I think Toronto is a great city for it. It's very large, and going outwards you begin to see suburbs and the reliance on cars. But the downtown areas look quite a bit different. You start to notice how much space there is for creative people and how we can use design to make it interesting.
"A great example is through graffiti and street art. It's amazing to see a contemporary city and a community embrace an artist, and alternatively, have the artist embrace the city. This is a great way to use design to enhance both the artist and the city.
"10 years ago, I found my interest in graffiti. It came about just from observing the city. I'd find the different graffiti art and tags and recognize them. I tried to figure out what each tag said and would start to follow them around the city to see where I could find an individual artist's work. It became a scavenger hunt.
"So, some artists I continued to follow for 10 years, without ever really knowing their name or identity. I became allured by the anonymity, yet at the same time, had this look into their lives. I could track how their graffiti style would change subtly, perhaps stemming from corresponding changes in their personal lives."
As someone who knew very little about graffiti art before, I become engrossed by Devlin's perspective. Alike to other art forms, graffiti is just as expressive. Yet, at the same time, graffiti has held that stigma about being about revolt, being rebellious, disrespectful, and at its worst, vandalism. Artists stayed anonymous for a reason, but never held back in their intention for creating their work again and again. I ask Devlin his opinion on that and how it's reputation has changed today:
"Street art has become mainstream along with hip hop culture. The two have progressed hand in hand. For a while, graffiti has been taboo, but now it's starting to flip. The city is offering itself as a canvas for the artist's creative expression.
"An artistic expression, often being born out of a rebellious attitude, is now evolving to become an expression inclusive of a community spirit. As the generations pass on, artists are maturing and willing to adapt to the city embracing them. The evolution of a discipline is inevitable, and graffiti art is a very dynamic experience.
"StART is a great initiative that has benefitted both the community and the artform. Graffiti has changed from this exclusive club of artists to now being art accessible to the community. That's the beauty of public art, and when you can find it all around you, it turns the city into a sort of free museum."
From what I've gathered, Devlin is a connoisseur of graffiti art. He documents his street art findings through photography to archive. I ask Devlin if he himself has ever contributed to any street art projects:
"I have a hard time calling myself a graffiti artist because I have so much respect for them," he answers humbly, "and I've been nervous to put my art on a large scale on the streets. But StART has given me access to contributing to the city's street art."
Here are some of Devlin's graphics:
One of StART's programs that Devlin has been commissioned for is the Outside the Box initiatives. This targets Toronto's abundance of traffic signal boxes, typically suited in a boring green colour, representing a dull part of the city's necessary infrastructure. The idea is to have community members apply to paint one of these boxes, making it more captivating and allowing them to express their artistic abilities to share with the city.
Devlin alludes to the fact that he's painted a box, and though he doesn't specify which one, he delights in summarizing:
"What's most exciting about all this is that when you put your work on the streets, it's not just your work anymore. It's the community's work too."
** Thank you to Devlin Ralph for the use of his images.