Grafitti as ART at the Vernon Public Art Gallery

Artist is taking it back to the streets


By Kristin Froneman – Vernon Morning Star

Benny Hannya stares at the wall in front of him. Shaking a can, he triggers the nozzle, emitting a stream of crimson that erupts against the stark, white surface.

There’s no thought-out plan, as he reaches for more cans, their hiss bringing the wall to life, streaking it with colourful lines, lettering, squiggles that resemble symbols, and even smiley-faced tear drops.

It’s this stream of consciousness that Hannya usually can’t apply in his other line of work as a tattoo artist. But when it comes to the streets, well in this case, the window-front space in the Vernon Public Art Gallery (VPAG), all the rules have been thrown out.

Often thought as vandalism –– with the supposed desecration of walls and streets with spray painted designs and words –– graffiti is usually not tolerated by the authorities. And those who are caught can suffer some consequence. Hannya should know. He was arrested as a youth a few times while in his hometown of Armstrong for graffiti-related acts.

But lately, the 22 year old has turned the nozzle towards something he feels is more productive. His latest exploits can be seen from the street level on 31st Avenue looking into the front window of the VPAG, where he and fellow artist Cody Moyor have created an indoor graffiti-inspired installation called While You Were Sleeping, produced directly on the gallery walls using spray paint and felt markers.

Hannya avoids the term graffiti artist to describe what he does. He isn’t hiding like famed street artist Banksy, the subject and filmmaker of the appraised documentary film, Exit Through the Giftshop, and has always been quite up front about his escapades.

“What I’m doing is not much different from a mural, but the fact is most street art is illegal… You are liberating spaces that aren’t yours,” said Hannya. “I’ve viewed both sides and understand both sides when it comes to people saying that graffiti or street art is vandalism. My thinking is if they give me a space, then I won’t paint people’s property. I’m trying to replicate what people have been doing in Vancouver, New York, and in other urban centres.”

To hardcore street artists, Hannya hasn’t completely gone soft. Instead, he’s learned to work with the system. His VPAG installation not only addresses issues surrounding the legitimacy of urban art and its function within a community, but it has captured a whole new audience.

It was deemed “a dope exhibit,” by one recent guest at the art gallery, and has been popular with youth, many of them carrying skateboards, who would normally not think to enter the doors.

Hannya was, not too long ago, one of those kids. He first became interested in street art with the 2005 opening of his hometown skate park in Armstrong.

“On opening day they did some graffiti, and I was captivated by it –– how it was applied and completed in a short period of time,” he said. “I like the fact that you could be productive so fast and so efficiently to cover a space.”

The young teenager then decided to make his own mark, literally, to the skate park, but says some of the skaters complained, so he instead started painting on the streets –– a move that didn’t go over that well in his small town, hence the arrests.

Not wanting to cause more trouble, Hannya decided to approach the city and the Armstrong Pellet Plant about allowing him and other street artists to paint an unused 50-feet wide-by-10-feet tall wall at the pellet mill.

Former Armstrong mayor Jerry Oglow showed support for the project, and the wall soon became a haven for artists who came from all over the place, said Hannya.

“We just wanted a space… It worked really well, and people started travelling from Kelowna and Vancouver to Armstrong, not to vandalize, but to paint. We even had a paint depot, where we had access to free spray paint.”

Eventually the project was shut down, but Hannya says it instilled in him a reason and interest to pursue art.

Now a respected tattoo artist, who works out of Vernon’s Five Fathoms studio, Hannya is about to work on his first official outdoor public art project, aside from skin –– and it’s a legal one at that.

He has been given permission to paint a cement wall on the third floor of the city-owned Parkade, located atop the VPAG, and gets started on the project today.

“What I want to do with the project with the VPAG is not graffiti, but I want to paint a crazy mural and also express my love for older typography and lettering,” he said. “I think the project will appeal to older members of the community as it uses phrasing, letters and words of an older generation –– that timeless poetry. I also want to let people know that you have control of where you live, and can express yourself if you find the right ways.”

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