Vandalist recently sat down with OTHER, one of the artists participating in “Housepaint, Phase 2”, now showing at the ROM. OTHER, a.k.a. Troy Lovegates, a.k.a. Derek Shamus Mehaffey, is an acclaimed street artist who has made his mark the world over. We caught up with him at his temporary studio space, just off Dufferin, while he prepared a piece bound for the ROM last month, and chatted about the show, being on the road, homelessness, and his Toronto roots.
Although he’s often identified as a Montreal artist (and he has, in fact, spent more time in Montreal than any other place), Derek Shamus Mehaffey was born in Scarborough and began working on the streets of Toronto around 1988. Nowadays, he’s something of a vagabond—always on the road—but Toronto is where he was born, where he began his graffiti career, and where he became OTHER.
“I used to tag my middle name. Pretty stupid, cause you get caught, and they look through your ID and say, ‘Oh yeah, that wasn’t you, eh?’ So I wanted to come up with something other than that. And when I was saying ‘I need another tag’ to my friend, I just heard the word ‘Other’ and it seemed to fit. Also, in Toronto at the time, when I started with that name, it was all lettering guys, and I felt like something other than that. I could never do lettering. I love it, but I don’t have the patience; I don’t have the mindset. I couldn’t do it. I always tried and got bored. I’d never finish a lettering piece. I’d feel like a draftsman or something. I never had that kind of flow. I’m sloppy and dirty. It’s just who I am…. But other than that, I really like when I Wikipedia ‘Other,’ and there’s this big theory of ‘The Other.’ That’s the fucking best thing ever. So I kinda appropriated that after the fact.”
Toronto, OTHER says, is now in the midst of a graffiti boom.
“It’s changed a lot in the last couple years. It seems like there’s way more. Coming from Montreal, I used to come to Toronto and think, ‘There’s nothing here. The biggest-up dudes are all guys coming from Montreal, and they’re just coming for the weekend! That’s pretty lame.’ But now it seems like there’s a lot more graffiti—more than Montreal! Montreal’s slowed down. Nobody’s doing anything. They’re all in the party scene. So it’s flipped. I think Toronto’s got the most graffiti of any city in Canada right now.”
Perhaps that’s why Toronto is currently home to “Housepaint”, something of landmark show for Canadian graffiti and street art—the first of its kind showing work by Canadian street artists in a major Canadian institution. But as OTHER clarified, the show isn’t as much about the art practices of street art and graffiti as it is about homelessness: “It’s not street art. It’s not graffiti,” he says. “I don’t see what graffiti has to do with it.”
So what is the connection between the homeless and street artists? OTHER thinks that street artists can have a special insight into the other groups that occupy the streets. He explains that street artists and the homeless share the same space and often find themselves on the same side of the law. And it is from this shared space that a respect for the homeless can manifest itself within graffiti culture.
“I always try and leave somebody’s space alone if I can tell that they’re there…sometimes it’s hard to tell. You see an old, dirty sleeping bag, and you figure it’s been abandoned for a month. You start painting, maybe stepping on it a bit, and some dude will walk up and be like, ‘What the fuck are you doing in my space?’”
The respect can go both ways.
“It’s amazing how many more people come up to me that are downtrodden: ‘This is so great! Thanks for doing this! I love this!’ It seems like they have more of an interest in it than the regular person—walking by, going to work—who doesn’t even bother looking up.”
“They live on the street; it’s part of their landscape.”
But OTHER doesn’t make his work for the homeless any more than for the condo crowd. He says he has no target audience: “I’m just doing it. It’s more of an action. It’s like riding a motorcycle after being inside all day. I paint inside all day. I want go out at night and do something that’s out in the fresh air.”
Like the homeless, OTHER relies a great deal on the waste of the wealthy. Wherever he goes, whatever city he’s in, he gathers most of his art materials from picking through the garbage that lines cities streets and alleyways. As we talked, he packaged the sides of a little house, built from scrap, to prepare it to go into the ROM. (It was part of a heating process intended to kill bugs. If his work carried any aggressive insects into the ROM from the street, they could wreak havoc on the ROM’s other collections.) While he prepped the panels, he explained that he gathered the materials to build the little house from the streets of Montreal over a one-month period: “Montreal is insane. People throw out so much garbage. Like a perfectly good bicycle with a flat tire.”
“In Japan, you find the best metal. All their posters are made out of aluminum because they have so much excess metal, but they don’t have any wood because they don’t want to cut down the last forests. When my friend and I were in Tokyo for two weeks, we slept outside. We just slept in between houses. And everybody knows that cardboard is, like, the best insulator. If you don’t want to sleep on hard cement, it’s the best thing ever; it’s the warmest. It actually keeps in the heat you release. In every other city in the world it seems that cardboard is completely abundant, but in Japan, the homeless will fight you for cardboard. We were at a subway station and we found some. We pulled it out and these homeless guys ran up to us, threw their fists in the air, and were ready to take us out!”
As well as having spent the occasional night on the street, OTHER has also had a short experience with true homelessness. “I lived on the street for four months in Europe…. I didn’t have a home the whole time. I went with, like, one hundred dollars for four months. I slept in bushes, hitchhiked, hopped trains, stole food.”
But OTHER sees nothing romantic about the homeless lifestyle.
“I’ve always been lucky: wherever I go, even if I don’t have a home, someone often lets me stay at their house. I’m not at this stage where I’ve disconnected from society. I think homeless people either have a series of bad luck or schizophrenia or something…there’s nothing there to glamourize. It’s terrible. It’s awful. A lot of [the homeless] are schizophrenic, and then they get drugs pushed into them, you know? They’re an easy target for people: ‘We can turn him or her into a machine that makes money for us.’ You can’t even begin to believe the stories of people walking up to me while I’ve been painting these murals. They just walk up and pour their hearts out to you. Right away…. It’s so open that you’re scared. There are random people that choose to be on the street, but a lot of [the homeless] are completely ravaged.”
A great deal of OTHER’s work is inspired by hobo culture, and along with artists like LABRONA and TURF ONE, OTHER is sometimes considered to be a part of a “Canadian School” of street artists—a school that seems largely defined by working on freights with cold-weather-friendly paint sticks.
“Trains are such a big part of Canada,” OTHER says. “The country was to a large degree built on the railroad…and I do sort of see oil sticks as more of a Canadian thing. I mean, streaking [tagging names on freight cars with oil sticks] obviously isn’t a Canadian thing. It was started in the States. But I think we’ve got a bit of a hybrid going on. Hobo culture mixed with graffiti culture. There are lots of guys in Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver, that do the same sort of thing, way more ornate than just a thirty-second moniker. And, except for maybe 27, this guy from Minneapolis, you don’t see much of it outside of Canada.”
But the hobos and the graffitos in Canada are competing for freight space, and the hobos’ monikers are quickly losing ground.
“Big graffiti pieces take out a lot of the history. But that’s how it goes. It’s weird. I came from that graffiti world, that hip-hop lettering spray-paint world. But, I dunno, I prefer the history [of hobo graffiti]. I mean, it’s from three centuries.”
OTHER has ridden the rails himself, and while he enjoys it, he actually prefers the opportunities that hitchhiking offers:
“It’s more social. I like getting into peoples’ strange worlds for a couple hours. You get picked up by the weirdest people, and they all tell you the strangest stories, and every time, you get to make up a new world: ‘Oh yeah, I’m a…professional mannequin builder! Can I take your photo? I’m really inspired by your body!’ You get to make up stories, and every time you do, you get to have a new life. People always ask you the same questions, ‘Where are you going? Why are you going there? What do you do?’ It’s so boring to tell the same story every time you get a ride. It’s like having a broken hand—‘How’d you do that?’ again and again.”
But hitchhiking, riding the rails, or living the hobo lifestyle isn’t the same thing as homelessness. Explains OTHER: “The hobo is more of a free soul, looking for work, always on the move. I feel the same way. I’m here [in Toronto] this month, I was in San Francisco last month; I was in Montreal the month before…[he rattles off a long list of international cities]. It’s non-stop. I’m a travelling salesman, in a sense.”
We wanted to know: “Do you travel alone? Does it get lonely?”
“I’m always lonely.”
OTHER’s work at the ROM can be seen until July 5.
All photos courtesy of OTHER