The tragic deaths of 3 graffiti artists in Montreal this past weekend have catapulted their friends and families into mourning. I feel for them. I’m a dad, and those kids could have been mine or any of ours.
God knows everybody hurts when young people die senselessly.
And there’s no more senseless way to die than painting a panel of concrete in the middle of the night, which is what these youth were apparently doing.
Graffiti is an art form, I grant that. I respect, even if I don’t understand the rebellious youth culture that surrounds it. In that context it’s inevitable the three young people who were struck and killed by a Via train while spray-painting will become heroes to many of their contemporaries.
And obviously, the dead are the ultimate victims, with their friends and families most deserving of our sympathy.
But please, let’s spare a thought for the other victims here: the train crew, the medics, the journalists and everyone who has to deal with the graphic sight of three young people killed in the most horrific way.
We can bicker endlessly about what should and shouldn’t be illegal. I don’t have a problem with energetic, artistic youth adding some colour to bare concrete walls, even if that technically breaks trespassing laws. There are areas of our cities built with no respect for the human need for colour and beauty. If talented artists want to spice those up without harm, fine by me.
I do have a problem with vandalism, where freight trains, cargo vans, storefronts, homes, and signage we all need and paid for become the private canvas of kids with their own moral codes. I have a problem with unthinking adolescent artist wannabes “tagging” mailboxes and historical plaques for their own reasons.
And I have a huge problem with anyone messing around on the railway tracks at night.
Not because I don’t support alternative art forms. Not because I think trespassing is inherently wrong. Not because I don’t understand youthful rebellion. But because playing on the tracks is a stupid thing to do.
I grew up along the railway tracks in rural Ontario. I’ve walked more miles on slag ballast and rail ties than most people will in a lifetime. I learned early about safety around trains, thank goodness. It may have saved my life on more than one occasion.
But also I’ve done some stupid stuff around trains. Under the influence of adolescent risk addiction, I showed off and acted cool. I did things like hopping onto a moving flatcar and throwing stones at automobiles on a passing freight, trying to break their windows.
Dumb stuff. Damaging stuff. Deadly stuff.
Deadly stuff is exactly what five young artists were doing in the early hours of Sunday morning along a dangerous stretch of the Via tracks, where visibility and audibility are poor, and the trains move far too fast to stop in time – but the concrete walls beckon, a graffiti “hall of fame.”
Some fame. Three kids dead, two traumatized, apparently all for the notoriety of tagging a stretch of concrete.
Their loved ones, and a whole lot of people whose names we’ll never know – the engineer and his crew, and all who dealt with the awful aftermath – are paying the price for a risky game they never even signed up for.
It’s hard to see the positive here, when our hearts are aching for all those involved, including the victims. Of course they didn’t deserve to die. But they did bring about their own deaths.
If there’s an upside, it’s that their senseless deaths may prevent the deaths of others.
Among the ephemeral works they made, one lasting message will not fade:
Great artists play it smart; dead artists make no art.