Interview by Jenkin Au and Alan Ng
Words by Cornelius Suen
Photography by Jenkin Au
Sterling Downey is the co-founder of Under Pressure and a passionate and opinionated advocate of the graffiti scene in Montreal and in Canada. Active in his community and always looking to give back, Sterling is a voice in the media seeking to educate the public about graffiti and to show that it is a legitimate form of expression and not a sign of gangs and thugs as it is so often depicted as being. Sterling is a vanguard for the values of the old-school graffiti culture, where people did it purely for the art and for the expression.
In this long interview, Sterling tells justalilhype! about how he got started in graffiti, the politics of the graffiti scene, why he does what he does, and the sources of mentorship responsible for who he is today.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I am Sterling Downey. I am the co-founder of Under Pressure: the event, the magazine, and the record label.
How were you first introduced to graffiti?
I was introduced in the ‘80s, and like anyone else that’s my age, through movies like Beat Street, Breakin’ 1, and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Hollywood was really trying to exploit ghetto culture at the time by making it cool and romantic. I was influenced by all that as a kid and I experimented by taking some spray paint and trying to write my name on my garage walls. I was also really into skateboarding around the same time and I seriously started graffiti by writing a lot of band logos. That became my style graffiti. It wasn’t signature based. So that was my introduction to graffiti at the age of 13. To me, there are two tiers to graffiti artists: those that are influenced by hip-hop and those that are influenced by the punk rock scene. I was the latter. Then, I dropped out of the scene for a while. When I was 21 years old, I worked as a security guard at a mall in my neighbourhood and one of my jobs was to catch kids tagging the mall; kids would hang out there all the time. And a lot of kids that I would catch at the time were kids that I went to school with, and they remembered what I used to be like and they called me out on it and accused me of turning my back on graffiti. This fed my ego a little bit. So they challenged me to do it and I started writing again. As a security guard, I knew what to do to keep from getting caught, so we would just hang out at the mall, loiter around until everyone left, and then write on the mall. That was in 1994.
Aside from fame, what is the primary reason that you continue with graffiti?
I stopped for a long time because of the politics involved in the scene. As an outspoken person in the culture, I miss the days where people used to paint for the sake of it, or even for ego, fame, or just to represent the crew that they were associated with. As my generation grew older, graffiti was being resisted and oppressed in the society, especially though media, and nobody was speaking about the culture intelligently and offering counterpoints to the misconceptions that the media was creating about the culture, mainly that it was a culture of thugs and gangsters. I was working with Ph.D students at the time and they taught me how to question what I was doing and to analyze everything. They got me thinking about the value of what I was doing and taught me how to articulate what I wanted to say about it. Therefore, despite the politics that was taking place in the scene, I decided to re-enter it and to take on the fight to spread proper information about the culture to the public. I wasn’t concerned about the legality or illegality of graffiti. I don’t care about legitimizing graffiti and having it put up in a gallery or museum because I don’t feel that it needs to be associated with an institution to be valued. I was more concerned about fighting to have graffiti recognized as a valid form of expression and to educate the public about who were the people behind the graffiti and their motivations, and to show the public that it could be anybody: adults, kids, bums, students, employed people, unemployed people. It was a way of making the public understand that they were attacking ordinary, everyday people who just happened to have a passion for this culture. Somebody had to explain that. I just needed a debate. I didn’t look to win the debate. I just wanted dialogue.
My major reason to be in the scene now is to monitor the scene because graffiti is completely commercialized now and people are exploiting it. Graffiti type images are everywhere, in galleries, in museums, in phone ads, or in car ads. The internet especially has ruined graffiti by making it so accessible. The minute a photograph of an image is up online, the piece on the wall is no longer important. I want to protect the renegade nature that is at the essence of graffiti. The difference between me as a writer and the kids today was that when I started out, there was bigger risk and bigger resistance from the public, and we did it for ourselves, for the simple sake of doing it. Now, it’s a fad. The mentality is, “Oh it’s cool now because everyone is doing it. I am going to pick it up and drop it after six months.” Another reason that I got back into the scene was to change this mindset. The initial politics of the scene put me in the position where I didn’t want to be involved anymore, but then the scene took a turn for the worse, so someone needed to come back to preserve it. It’s our responsibility, and I am willing to do that alongside my life and my real career.
As someone so publicly outspoken about the misconceptions that the public have of the graffiti scene, have you been attacked or used as a scapegoat for the negative aspects of graffiti?
Constantly. I was attacked for years about the event. I was accused of increasing the graffiti problems in the city. Well, of course it does. When you have 8,000 people come out and three to two thousand of them are amateur artists, of course they are going to play around and paint. It’s impossible to police all those people. As for the people who use me as a scapegoat, they are just pointing out the obvious. Sure there is more graffiti around the city after one of our events, but does that overflow counter the good behind the intentions of the event? We are giving these people a context to express themselves through graffiti and a chance to network with artists and business people. We are providing a platform for the public to see what these people do, and to show them that there are actual people behind the paint, not just thugs. It’s a festival and a convention, and large groups of people are going to congregate. Just clean up the graffiti! Do the people who are accusing me give back to the community? I am on the boards of directors for youth groups, I teach at cultural centers, I volunteer, I am active in the Big Brother program, I help artists and negotiate sponsors for them, and I hold down my fulltime work. I have so much stuff on my plate and so many things that I do in the community. What do the haters do? They just open a store, complain when graffiti goes up on their wall, and then point their fingers at me, saying that I don’t care about the community? This preconception that people often formulate about each other is the root of what is wrong with the public’s perception about graffiti. Learn about who you are talking about and then have a conversation with them. Learn about the people you are judging before you judge. If you want to attack the festival and the graffiti for being social disturbance, why not attack drugs and alcohol, things that do real damage!
Tell us a bit about the origins of Under Pressure. Throughout the past fifteen years, this project has not only been an important aspect for the graffiti scene in Montreal but for the whole of Canada as well.
It began as a joke in 1996. We had something we wanted to say and we needed to have a voice in the media to say it. We needed to create something that could demystify all the preconceptions the public had about graffiti in one shot. The only way to do that, initially, was to challenge the public’s theory that, if one were to assemble a bunch of so-called “gang members,” there would be disturbances. So, we started the event and it started as an outdoor day where you brought together a bunch of so-called “gang members” and “dangerous people” who would normally paint in the night to paint these big pieces during the day. Pretty soon people were realizing that the people painting were normal, everyday people who were, more often than not, contributors to their community. People had their eyes opened and realized that, “Everything that we have been told or read about graffiti and the people involved is not true!” But then you have apologists who try to gain acceptance by saying that it isn’t really graffiti and that it’s mural art. No, it’s graffiti. These people are here to do stuff illegally. I do stuff illegally. Again, we weren’t looking to change the illegality of graffiti. We just wanted to change the public’s perception of the people behind graffiti. That was why this event is important. There are responsible ways to do everything, and we wanted to show that the public’s perception is wrong. I want people to use their senses, think, communicate, and then develop an opinion.
Then, we decided to do something for different cultures when we launched the magazine and the record label. Now it isn’t just about graffiti artists, it’s about other artists too, like singers and DJs. We put on shows, we write about artists, and now people can listen to artists on our label. Under Pressure began to work on all these different levels, but with one singular goal: to educate the public about cultures and scenes and to expose them to things that they would not ordinarily gravitate to. And it worked. People took notice of use and were taking the information we had to give and spreading it to others. We had a responsibility to start promoting because, for example, nobody knew who A-Trak was when he began performing as a 15 year old. We brought him out to our shows, wrote about him, and gave him exposure. We felt a responsibility to represent all artists, and to create a vehicle for them to use to get their name out there. We ultimately want to show that Canada has talent. We can make people famous, dictate who and what is the “next” in pop culture. That’s what the magazine was the vehicle for. As for the record label, we will put up their music and help get them noticed. If you work as a community, anything is possible for anyone. We are all promoting each other. The simplest recipe for success is working together and bringing different elements to the table that complements each other. This is the philosophy of Under Pressure.
Going back to graffiti, other graffiti artists that we have interviewed believe that graffiti should be kept illegal and that once it is made legal, it is graffiti-inspired art rather than graffiti. What are your thoughts on this?
I agree with this 100%. Legal graffiti is simply a representation of graffiti and what the culture is about. Older guys can make that distinction but younger guys can’t because they never knew that generation of illegal graffiti. Criticize something when you have something of weight behind you and you have fifteen years of investment in something that you actually believe. The younger guys only know Marc Ecko’s video game. They know chat rooms and websites. They know graffiti in its commercialized form. They don’t know illegal graffiti. They do it illegally because they hear us talking and think that they have to do it illegally to stay true to the scene. They have every door possible open for them right now. In 1996, I would never have imagined that in the future I could be paid $20,000 to paint on a wall. I think that today’s graffiti culture in general, and not just legal graffiti, is just a representation of what graffiti was. Graffiti is no longer what it was. It is what it is now. Go with it. Roll with the momentum. Control it. Make sure that it is still monitored and preserved. Let it grow, move, and take on its own life. Stop people from exploiting it. I am a graffiti purist but I understand that everything evolves. Go with it. If graffiti is on clothing and in galleries, fine. Then make sure that the right people do it, like people who know the culture and are in the culture. If somebody in a car company is going to do an ad with graffiti in it, I would rather that I am the one to do it than someone who knows nothing about it. These are big issues.
Having spoken so much about the past and acknowledging that the graffiti scene is moving forward, where do you think the graffiti scene is moving toward, especially with the inclusion of new technology and new methods of writing, like laser graffiti.
Anything is possible. I mean, graphic design changed graffiti. Graffiti artists stopped using sketch books and started using illustrator. The bottom line is that I don’t care what you are using as long as you give me something good with it. If you can’t use the tool and you don’t know how to manipulate it to produce something good, then your work sucks. A computer does not make you a good graffiti writer. That’s it, that’s all. Everyone has access to the same technology, but knowing how to use it to create something will make you stand out. Let’s talk about spray paint. When I started painting there was only one type of paint. Then different canisters with low pressure and high pressure paint were released. I was like, “Really?” If you can paint with the most primitive thing then you can obviously paint with all the advanced stuff. When I picked up low pressure paint, I wrote some of the biggest lines in my letters with such ease, it was a joke. It required no can control. Today with graffiti, you just have to be a good artist in the sense that you have to know your tool. There will be new technologies, but it will always remain the same in the sense that people who know how to manipulate their tools will do something great with it, and everyone else will fall by the wayside.
You possess such a unified and well informed insight into this culture. Is there any one person that mentored you along the way and showed you the ropes more than what experience alone could have.
I have different mentors for all the things that I have done. The person who taught me how to analyze things, to formulate questions, and to articulate my values was Dr. Louis Gossier. In terms of graffiti, my business partner and friend, Flow, taught me a lot. He is one of the older writers in the city. In terms of marketing and promotions, it was Willow. Willow was the designer for Lithium clothing at one point and now he is working for Lady Gaga. He has had so much experience in marketing and
promotions. These are the three people who, at the earliest stages of what I was doing, had the most influence on who I am now. I took the things that I learned from these three people, applied them to the morals and ethics that I learned from my parents, and became me.
What is HYPE?
Two years ago I was going to design a shirt making fun of hipsters and it was going to have the caption: “The New HYPEsters.” For me, HYPE is just somebody blowing a lot of wind out of their mouths. HYPE is all about the HYPE man, the guy who yells the loudest. HYPE in any scene is just that, the really annoying loud thing that is trying to get your attention.