Because of the Globe and Mail's recent moneywalling of their archives, Reid Cooper has granted his permission for the reproduction of his article on Roadsworth. It was first published in the Globe's Review section (p. R3) on January 6 2005, and presented here courtesy of

Roadworth, photo:Zeke's Gallery
photo: Zeke's Gallery

Roadsworth, photo: Mike Patten
photo: Mike Patten

Roadsworth Gallery courtesy of Mike Patten

When the stencil his the road

A recent arrest has put a halt to the engaging Montreal street images of 'Roadsworth,' making him a minor celebrity and raising questions of art versus vandalism

By Reid Cooper

Donning paint-splattered clothes and cycling the streets of Montreal at 4 o'clock in the morning, Roadsworth proceeds to a random spot on the Plateau Mont-Royal. There he scopes the area for police cruisers, takes notice of the traffic patterns, and at an appropriate time lays down a large stencil and proceeds to spray paint one of his art works onto the streets. The images he produces are prosaic yet communicate an environmental and social consciousness; an owl, vine leaves, bullets. However, the morning of November 29th turns out to be anything but routine for the renegade artist. At 5 a.m. Roadsworth, having grown bolder after three years of spraying hundreds of stencils, gets stopped by the police. He is arrested, spray paint taken for evidence and bicycle locked to a tree with a municipal padlock.

Completely anonymous before his arrest, Peter Gibson, AKA 'Roadsworth' has become a minor celebrity with a lot of media attention being focused on his case. Sergeant Olivier Lapointe, a spokesperson for the Montreal police department, reports that Gibson was arrested while writing graffiti at 5 am, and faces 53 charges of public malfeasance, which carry a maximum sentence of $5000 per count. Gibson, a native of Toronto, says, "I don't even want to know what that comes to." (For the record, it's $265,000.) Further, Gibson alleges the medieval specter of banishment was raised by the arresting officer. He alleges that during his interrogation the officer let it be known that the last person she arrested for writing graffiti was banished from the city for three years. "Maybe they were trying to intimidate me," he says wryly, "Dante was banished!"

The seriousness of the charges and the potential punishment, however, has to be seen in light of the overwhelming support for Roadsworth's images. Chris Hand, the director of Zeke's Gallery on the Plateau, who is organizing public support for Gibson through his webpage, says he was "surprised about how many people thought the art had been done by the city." Bernard Lamarche, writer for Montreal's Le Devoir, says "It is absolutely shocking that there is a criminal attitude against his art. They should hire him to do more of this around the city to acknowledge their supposed willingness to be a cultural centre." Jonathan Achtman, a resident of the Plateau says the art "makes the streets more pleasant. By arresting him instead of aligning themselves with him, the city has squandered an opportunity to show itself as the progressive city that I like to think I live in." Even the political adviser to the Mayor of the Plateau Mont-Royal borough, Richard Coté says, "Roadsworth's work makes people smile."

The support for the work stems from the fact that Roadsworth's art is different from most of the scrawling graffiti found in cities around the world, by its systematic integration with the city's infrastructure such as carpark-marks, passing lanes and sewers. The stencils, working with the infrastructure and using the same colour and type of paint as the official markers, suggest a dialogue of sorts with the infrastructure. As Plateau resident Tibor Van Roy says, "It is like someone is playing a game." Roadsworth admits, "I am turning the city's language around on its head. I take something and re-appropriate it, parodying it. And by doing this, I can bring out the nature of the old meaning, exposing it."

Roadsworth, started stenciling images onto Montreal streets three years ago after 9/11. "I would paint the cyclist's symbol [on streets] and place it at different points in the city as a visual proposal for more bike paths." He continues, "We cover the city in 90% concrete to allow for cars, which produce traffic and congestion that continue unchecked, and relentlessly cause pollution. Cyclists and pedestrians are not given much of a share in the public space."

So your work creates a space for pedestrians and cyclists? "The images don't create an alternative space, they propose a space." "If you make an analogy between advertisements and noise, when you walk down the streets you would be hit by an insane cacophony of noise. Why should we be exposed to this and not have the right to respond?"

Stefan Tischer, the director of the school of landscape architecture of The University of Montreal, says that the case brings up two issues, namely who controls public space to determine social and political values, and who determines whether the markings are art or vandalism.

Tischer believes that vandalism is the destruction of private or public property, and says, "the fact that he was arrested for these images is ridiculous." Roadsworth, who is inspired by British artist Andy Goldsworthy, from whom he takes his name (with a wink to Wordsworth) says, "There is a certain amount of intellectual work that goes into integrating the images with the pavement markings. It is like a puzzle." "My art is respectful and not antagonistic. It is open for interpretation and invites questioning. It asks 'what do you think of this?'"

Coté says that as far as the city is concerned, "There is no question of artistic intention, it is about public security." Gibson says, "I anticipated the safety concern. It almost seems ludicrous in the face of the existing safety concerns in the city with the sheer number of cars and the number of distractions in the form of advertisers' images." Tischer says, "maybe cars will go a little slower, (which is a good thing), but it is absolutely not something that is creating a danger."

"The control of public space has fallen into the hands of commercial interests," declares Tischer, explaining that private interests have come to determine the production of space in the city. Roadsworth agrees: "The streets are the city’s economic lubricant, where everything is subservient to getting people around as quickly as possible to work and consume more. Economic expediency is king."

Gibson continues, "I love the city, it is a great place of cultural exchange, but personally I feel there is not enough balance between cultural exchange and selling things. There is more to culture than consumer exchange and institutional messages."

Both the city and the artist agree that not everyone should have the right to paint any message they want on the streets. Coté says, "If we don't put limits on things it will look like the subway in New York." But people do not want to limit artistic expression either; nor involve the justice system in a costly process. As a way for the city to react to street art, Hand suggests there are "historical precedents for not prosecuting artists," pointing to the example Maclean in Montreal in particular. Maclean is best known for his 2001 Art Sign project where he converted 'ARRET' signs into 'A R T' signs with the use of red tape. Hand says, "He was not arrested. The police spoke with him and let him go on the condition that he would stop altering the signs." Tischer agrees with this method, "Public space should be open for people to express different points of view. If someone does not like Roadsworth's works, there should be a dialog to bring different points of view together, and not simply call upon the police to make an arrest."

The arrest, however, says Gibson, "has brought these issues and my thoughts on them into concrete form. I just hope it does not get too concrete as in four cement walls."