A Graffer’s Journey

By Rebecca Congo-Sienne

I met with Malin, a professional graffiti artist in his thirties. He has been teaching introductory graffiti workshops since 2014. His graffer nickname speaks to the finesse of a skilled and crafty artist.

He grew up in the village of Sainte-Sophie, in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. He discovered graffiti while working at a hotel, thanks to a graffer work colleague. He painted his first graffiti works under a bridge in the summer of 2005.

Encouraged by his family, he made his first steps in the world of graffiti with his friends, who were also graffers.

Over the first nine years of his career he made his way to into out-of-the-way and abandoned places to practice his art. At the beginning, he travelled to the big city with his friends to express his art.

My meeting with Malin introduced me to a complex universe. Far from being just an illegal activity, graffiti is an artistic lifestyle, one that you automatically adopt when you become a graffer.

“It’s when painting becomes instinctive, and when you’re recognized by your peers, that you can feel like a real graffiti artist,” he says.

To become a recognized graffer, you have to respect tradition, like a rite of passage. Everything starts with humility. It’s necessary to know the pre-existing hierarchy when you enter this universe. “These days, with social media, young people have no respect for their elders anymore. When I was young I respected the older graffers. When I see a nice graff, I respect it. I don’t touch it. I’ll take my little corner just beside.”

I asked him: How do you gain that sort of respect? What do you do if you’re not at the right place at the right time? In that case, do you have to cover walls with your name in order to be noticed?

How do you stay authentic when you have to convince your elders of your talent?  Does a young graffer have to adapt to older artists’ expectations?

When we start out on graff, Malin explains that it’s possible to already know your style and your identity. It’s also possible to not know yourself at first, and develop an identity through practice.

As to what inspires him: “The work of others inspires me. So does travel. Nature also inspires me, but more for my mural work.”

His curiosity constitutes a real inspiration for him too. It keeps him going.

“There’s a need to exist through my art, it’s really a question of identity. It’s a beautiful form of expression,” he tells me. He also wants to develop his knowledge in the medium. He’s much like an innovator always searching to improve and perfect his identity.

It’s also means finding and understanding the balance between his two identities, both as a graffer and a muralist. In this context, tradition becomes a not unimportant factor. “When there’s no system to intervene, it’s just the proprietor and the artist. That’s also graffiti. It’s the community side of things, sharing. It’s a décor, an atmosphere of the street.”

This practice isn’t always illegal, depending on the context. But graffiti has to respect a certain “anarchy” in its execution. “It could be in the way it’s done” when it’s not relative to laws.

Novices have to succeed in integrating into the street art movement. It’s not a question of being a better graffer than others. Technique improves with experience and the discovery of identity.

For example, Malin learned to love “More natural esthetics and compositions that reach the public.”

His perspective on his artistic practice is renewed as the years tick by. “There’s an evolution, or at least a transition, a change.” A natural born innovator, Malin admits that his artistic perspective has been altered over time. “There are graffs I did eight years ago which I still find super beautiful, but use esthetics I don’t really want to return to.”

He understands that lettering is “a little less understood” and “a milieu for initiates.”

Malin has learned how to marry his personal needs with his professional goals. He’s a complete artist with a technique and a personality that gives his works a certain tone. An artist without an identity can be compared to a building without a foundation.

A graffer is a street artist who understands, respects and adopts the traditions of the street.     

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