Dead graffiti artists' lasting statement


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.

4 comments on “Dead graffiti artists' lasting statement

  1. Wow, Mr. Newland, thank you for taking the time to let me know how much smarter you are than these unfortunate souls who died as a result of reckless youth. I agree that the train operators are also victims, and I suppose you could argue that medics are victims as well, though they choose their careers, journalists like yourself certainly are not. A journalist accepts the responsibility of uncovering and disseminating truth, whatever the cost. If he or she can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

    Frankly, your blog here is offensive to the families of the youths who were killed. We all know youthful pranks can be silly and dangerous so get off your high horse and show some sincere sympathy instead of bashing the dead in a blog I pray the parents of the victims don’t ever read.

  2. Gabriel, no need to flex so hard! Journalists are parents, and people too! David’s thoughtful article read to me as words from a wise heart.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. Gabriel, I hear your concerns for the parents loud and clear, especially since, as Karen notes, I am one myself. Moreover, I’m keenly aware, as I noted in the blog, of how close I came to such a tragic death on too many occasions in my own youth.

    I think you’ve missed my sympathy, which is carefully expressed above. But I take your point: I thought a lot about how it might feel for the parents of the victims in this tragedy to read my work.

    Of course I wince to think of one of them reading. But proceeded to write this difficult post, because I had another audience in mind.

    I wrote thinking about all the young people who might be looking to read something more about their peers. I lost a lot of friends to drunk driving, suicide and other such sad situations, and I remember the tendency to create myths around their deaths.

    Here there is no myth, just a profound lesson. If one kid reads and understands that his or her gifts are too great to risk in such a fashion, I’ll be glad.

    And by the way – when I speak of journalists being affected, I’m talking not about myself – a mere online commentator – but about the photographers and reporters whose job entailed being on the scene. That had to be a terrible assignment.

  4. Dear Mr. Newland:

    I thank you for the compassion in which you wrote your article. My three sons went to school with two of the deceased and my nephews with the other. It is an extremely hard time for the family and friends of these boys right now.

    The boys left a house party because it was getting out of control and no longer felt comfortable. They, as a group, decided to go skateboarding, which was another passion of theirs, in an empyt parking lot prior to VISITING the tags on the wall.

    The train in question was suppose to have gone through at midnight, but due to a suicide in Toronto with a GO TRAIN, the train was delayed and forced to switch tracks.

    The story is FULL of “What if’s” and unfortunately, Mitch, Ricardo, and Dylan will be lost forever. Mitch’s so called Graffiti was NOT words that would hurt another person, ethnic group, nor crude designs. His work were Works of Art! His Graffiti wall inside the school will hopefully be there as a reminder that WHERE you play can be dangerous. Ricardo was an avid Rugby player with a passion for the game.

    The boys were good students, who were not involved in drugs, gangs, stealing, or bullying. They were just boys who made a bad and unsafe choice that night. We should also remember that “it is not always what we read or think!”

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