Vancouver, BC, may be a hotbed of activism and art, but when it comes to wheatpasting, there is only a handful of artists getting down. Enter M.W. Bowen, an artist whose paste-ups brighten even the darkest of alleys in Vancouver’s notorious Lower East Side. We caught up with this toqued bandit on a cold, dry afternoon and chatted with him as he gave some public space a facelift.
Mass Appeal: Where are you from originally and how long have you been in Vancouver, BC?
M.W. Bowen: I grew up in the Okanagan Valley and then I moved here about 10 years ago to get a job in the design field.
Were you doing paste-ups before you came to Vancouver?
No. I thought I really wanted to be a designer, and I did that for like six years. I was at a good corporate job, but I was really burnt out and I realized being a designer was just a proxy for wanting to do art. So, I gave my notice, and for some reason—I don’t know why—I started thinking about paste-ups; and before I left, I printed off tons of shit on the copier there. I started pasting the summer after I left.
How much printed material did you get out of there?
Enough for how many summers, since that’s the only dry time in Vancouver?
Umm, it lasted two summers. But my first two summers weren’t very prolific ‘cause I didn’t really know what I was doing. I think it’s been like four summers. The first two, I didn’t know what I was doing and I had kind of bad technical skills. But the last two summers have been better quality.
I’ve noticed there is a lot of secrecy about wheatpaste recipes and ingredients. What’s the deal?
[Laughs] I don’t know tons of wheatpasters, but I do know the stuff I was making initially was kind of shitty. The basic recipe is just flour and water. So, then I met a guy who had been doing it for many years and he gave me all these tips on how to blend it properly—how to water-proof it…there’s stories about stuff that is completely weather-proof and water-proof. You can’t get it off with a pressure washer. The guy that taught me all the tricks, he found this like holy grail of glues one time. He found an example of it being used, but he could never find out how to make it. So, yeah, there’s a lot of mystery around the perfect glue. My glue is pretty good, but it’s not the perfect glue.
Since you ran out of the prints from your old job, how do you print?
I just pay for it. I think most street artists that do big paste-ups, they don’t print image. They’ll print 11” x 17”s and tile a large image. So, for some of my bigger images, it might be like 20 pieces I gotta glue together. And another thing is, I think you gotta use laser printing because it burns the ink onto the paper—it’s water-proof. If you used a water-based ink printing process it would just wash. When you glued it on, [the ink] would run right off.
How much does a big piece cost you?
It depends. It’s not expensive. I’ve been doing tricks where I’ll have black-and-white pieces with color accents. So, say for a giant Batman head I do that has beautiful red lips, 85% of the image is black-and-white, and that’s 50 cents a copy or less. Then, there’s some highlights on the eyebrows and lips, and that’s all I print in color. And then some pieces I just do completely color. It kind of depends on the piece if I can make it more cost effective. This summer I probably did $300 or $400 worth of printing, but it easily could have been over $1,000 if I hadn’t planned it properly, which to some isn’t a bunch of money, but it is for me.
It’s interesting because graffiti to some is strictly about racking and illegal walls, yet some people are forking out hard-earned cash to do street art. It’s like an investment. Why are you willing to spend money on it?
There’s lots of reasons. The main reason is that I don’t want to have a day job anymore and I want to make money off my art. I do gallery shows, but I’m not always into the gallery system. Doing street art is very democratic. Everyone has access to it. People can choose to rip it down, or draw over top of it, or take a picture of it and post it online because they like it so much. So, I guess the drive for me is wanting to be an artist…a successful artist to be honest. But I’m not sure doing gallery shows and networking is going to be the best path for me.
When I first saw your stuff, it was all pop culture mash-ups. Lately, it’s been personified wild life. Why the change?
When I started out, I was also doing lots of gallery shows. In Vancouver, there are group shows and that’s how I could get into a gallery. I wasn’t well known enough to do my own show, but I could get into a group show. And the group shows were almost always about pop culture, like David Bowie theme show, or Star Wars theme show…so, a lot of those images I was doing at the time were that kind of stuff. Even when I wasn’t doing work for those shows, it was kind of on my mind. So, it just kind of happened naturally. And then over the last year and a half, I started doing a lot less shows because I feel like I have a bit of a name and I don’t have to do every show that comes along. So, now I can do more stuff that I find interesting aesthetically. Like maybe more political stuff or stuff with a message on it. Pop culture stuff is great, but I definitely want to move away from it. I’m not that interested in it. That being said, I really love Star Trek.
Have you collaborated with other wheatpaste artists?
We did a show at Hot Art Wet City and it was five of us. It was Wrkless, Jen Slingshot, Fred Royal, and I Heart, who’s more of a stencil artist. So, we did a big wall down at Commercial and Hastings to promote it. The show was us doing the walls and then we put art over top of it. We collaborated on the whole layout of the show. There was no direction from the curator at all really.
What wheatpaste artists have inspired you?
One of the reasons I got started with wheatpasting was from seeing an artist called The Dark years ago pasting his stuff around the Lower East Side. A lot of his stuff had a real D.I.Y. aesthetic. I remember one piece in particular: it was a black, halftone image on raw cardboard—the brownish type of board—and it was down near Main and Hastings attached to some building. I remember thinking, “I want to do that.”
I have a lot of respect for Shepard Fairey’s work ethic. It’s kind of amazing how he took the slogan from They Live and a Xerox of Andre the Giant and built a small empire out of it. The one thing he said that made the biggest impression on me is that he wanted to blanket the town overnight so that the next morning his message would be burned into the minds of the people walking, driving to work, looking up randomly and seeing OBEY everywhere.
Wrkless is another wheatpaster I need to give credit to. I remember seeing his stuff up around town just before I started doing mine and really being taken aback by the tightness of his imagery. I remember thinking that the images he was using were a lot better than what I was planning to put up. Then I met him years later and he showed me how to make glue properly, what equipment to use…he really showed me the ropes! An all-around great guy.