Days after two East Vancouver artists turned graffiti vandalism into Chinatown street art, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden hosted a special show to highlight the often hidden artistic talents of its neighbours.
Presented in collaboration with High Hopes, the one-day public art exhibition featured four Downtown Eastside artists, including Jamie Hardy — also known as Smokey Devil or Smokey D.
“We want to give them a platform to showcase the work that they deserve and the recognition they deserve,” said Lorraine Lowe, executive director of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.
Smokey Devil and fellow street artist Trey Helten recently delivered a graffiti gift to Chinatown herbal merchant Tommy Wong. Frustrated with the repeat taggers defacing his storefront shutter on Gore Avenue, the Chung Shan Trading Company operator painted his own message last month.
“(Hey) u, go find a job make your day,” it read. “What a shame of your life? Coward. What else u can do? Ha Ha. Graffiti. Your mom will (be) happy to see u found a job. Ha! Ha!”
Wong’s words caught the attention of Smokey Devil and Helten, who responded by designing two murals for his shop — one depicting Wong at work and another for the barber shop next door.
“It’s a lot better than handcuffs,” Smokey Devil said with a laugh, adding that he once spent eight months in jail for doing graffiti.
After losing his wife and dozens of friends and family to overdoses, he now uses the power of his art to document and raise awareness about the fentanyl crisis.
“It’s huge, it’s huge, it’s huge,” he said. “I mean it’s time to get back because of all the years that I was a mess.”
High Hopes is supporting underrepresented Downtown Eastside street artists, including Smokey Devil, BOY, Ken Foster and Edgar Alan Rossetti, and empowering them to share their styles and stories based on lived experience.
“There’s so much talent in the Downtown Eastside, and we just want more and more people to know about it,” said High Hopes art curator Gala Vega, “and help (the artists) live a really great life and live off their art.”
Meantime, Wong is continuing the conversation he started by adding labels to the jars of ginseng and other herbal products Smokey Devil painted on his rolldown shutter. Their efforts are resonating on the streets of Chinatown, where the mural transformation made the front page of the Chinese newspaper, Ming Pao.
“Respect your life and others,” said Wong on Saturday.