A Review of Lisa Poh’s “Graffiti Borealis” in Tesseracts Seventeen: Speculating Canada From Coast to Coast (Edge, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Our urban environments are places of identity, places where one can find oneself, but they are also places of loss. Lisa Poh’s Graffiti Borealis is about the notion of finding a voice and finding a place in the city. Daniel, having moved to Canada for his dream job, finds himself out of place. The city is a strange place, particularly since all of the graffiti on the walls come to life around him and call his attention to him.
Graffiti is generally seen as a form of vandalism, but Poh explores the potential for it to be a medium for people without voices to speak, to claim the urban environment for themselves as they are pushed to the fringes and to be able to say something despite being largely silenced. Graffiti can represent the need to speak, to express, and graffiti can be a form of resistance to erasure. In Graffiti Borealis, the graffiti literally NEEDS to speak, not for the author, but for itself, calling the attention of Daniel, who is one of the few people who can see graffiti art move and hear it speak. He is called upon by urban art to save tags and other street art from a section of the city that is being demolished as part of an urban renewal project. The graffiti itself fears being erased as the city re-forms itself once again to privilege certain architecture and certain inhabitants.
Daniel finds another person who is out of place, a Haitian-Canadian graffiti artist who has been able to see her graffiti move, but not had the opportunity to speak to her own art. Calling herself La Gueparde, the artist also wants to rescue the graffiti from obliteration and bring it into new vitality elsewhere, to give it a home in an urban environment where everyone is trying to find a sense of home.
The connection between graffiti and the notion of finding home is made even stronger when La Gueparde refers to the rescued works of art as “refugees”, bringing to mind the search for a home and the need to find a place of one’s own. Despite being an inherently temporary medium, constantly being erased, tagged over, and modified, graffiti serves here as an evocation of a love of place, a way to make a place of home out of an isolating urban environment. Poh, by making the graffiti in her fiction a portable medium, alive, vibrant, and full of movement and identity, underscores the power of this art form for creating a sense of belonging, and since Daniel and La Gueparde are both figures trying to find their voice and place in the city, giving them the power to move the graffiti by summoning it off of the surfaces it occupies gives them the power of being mediators in discovering a place of belonging.
To find out more about Tesseracts Seventeen, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/tess17/t17-catalog.html