The mural and the message: How a community advocate and a graffiti artist are spreading facts on the DTES

The colourful but slightly icky image of a coughing man spewing viruses resembling giant spiked balls grabs the eye while the adjacent words communicate the important information: Stay home, wash your hands, don’t touch your face. Take COVID-19 seriously.

The mural with the message popped up in the heart of the Downtown Eastside on the weekend, not hidden down an alley but right out on Carrall Street, plain for everyone to see.

And that’s exactly the point, says community advocate Karen Ward, who, in collaboration with artist Smokey D, created the public art in a effort to pass on a few basic facts about the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know that people here don’t have newspapers, don’t have media or internet necessarily,” said Ward. “They hear their news on the street and so that’s still how to communicate best with a lot people.”

Watch: Smokey D talks about the motivation behind his murals

In 2016, Vancouver street artist James Hardy (aka Smokey D) lost 21 friends to fentanyl overdoses. Now, he paints memorial murals in parts of the city where people get high in an effort to stop them from doing the same. 1:28

Smokey D, a.k.a. Jamie Hardy, said it took two hours to freestyle the mural after Ward wrote the script. 

He’s hoping, if nothing else, it will help reverse some of the more outrageous misinformation circulating on the street.

“People are tripping out thinking that there’s a million dead and the world is coming to an end,” he said. “They’re getting it wrong, saying half of China is gone and they’re stepping over dead people there — just ridiculous things.”

To provide context to the outbreak, Smokey D added the global statistics at the bottom. 

“I mean, [COVID-19] is a terrible thing obviously, but not as terrible as people think,” he said.

The mural is not part of the city’s official program which has seen images of public health officers Dr. Bonnie Henry and Dr. Theresa Tam appear on boarded-up businesses. 

The mural is the brainchild of DTES drug policy advocate Karen Ward, (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

But Lisa Parker, Vancouver manager of street activities, understands the power of the medium to spread a message.

“It’s really a nice way to get information out, show appreciation and share sentiment,” she said.

Smokey D knows the power his work has to speak to people. He’s been creating public service murals about harm reduction and drug use on the DTES for over two decades. 

He even served jail time “back when graffiti art wasn’t appreciated” and has himself fought addiction.

The DTES has yet to be hit by COVID-19, but most believe it’s just a matter of time.

Smokey D says when health officials brought in strict physical distancing measures a few weeks ago, it had the unintended consequence of creating even bigger crowds on neighbourhood streets. 

“The thing is in SROs if you have a girlfriend or boyfriend, they’re kicking them out because only the one person who actually lives there can stay there. So they’re being pushed onto the street,” he said.

Ward says plans are underway for more COVID-19 murals.

“People always talk about one community … but it’s really many, many communities,” she said. “On the street and in public space is one of the few ways we can communicate across those boundaries. So that’s what’s we’re going to do, find ways to do more.”

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