The Funambulist Correspondents 22 /// The Subaltern Spraypaints: Lessons from Urban Marginalia in Vancouver



Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts

Read the introduction /// Explore the rest of the series 

I. A Tale of Two Parks

On a bright-skyed September day, my partner and I attended the zucchini races (yes, real zucchinis). The event is a hallmark of the annual community county fair, and amidst the small-town charm and familiar faces, I looked around the East Vancouver park and felt affection for the neighborhood tinged with unease. Initially innocuous details — the sea of young and well-to-do, overwhelmingly white, families, and the realtor tent where representatives were plying attendees with cake — gave me a pause. They reminded me of the underlying forces of gentrification and displacement sweeping the city; more than the insidious banality of developers sponsoring community initiatives, the invisibilizing of those hit hardest by the housing and opioid crises, even in the pre-Covid times (poor and houseless people, many among whom are disproportionately Indigenous owing to the continued systemic violence of colonialism, survival sex workers, drug users, and others). Where I live is in a state of flux, or, more precisely, of being-flushed-out. These days, it looks a lot more like this park than that park, a few blocks down. At that park, bottle-picking popos methodically orbit the lively, Spanish-and-smoke-wreathed bocce pitch, one of the only remaining vignettes of the neighborhood in a different time. These are some of the park residents who served as the proverbial bogeymen for anti-poor NIMBYists rallying against a proposed detox centre and housing facility a few years back. After much hemming and hawing around building height and character during rezoning meetings, one homeowner laid it out plain: she “doesn’t want a ghetto.” Damn, Karen!

Across the way, there’s a small encampment with the warrior flag waving. The red and yellow Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) flag has become a symbol of anti-colonial struggle and Indigenous sovereignty since the Kanesatake Resistance (often called the Oka Crisis in Canadian media). In my recollection, this group of tents sprung up after the finding of mass graves at residential schools and the ensuing waves of awareness and action. Unlike white progressives in orange shirts, however, these residents never left. Even as “Every Child Matters” has entered the Canadian visual vocabulary, such spatial interventions materialize colonial ideology as it is actively produced. Subaltern signifiers like the warrior flag, graffiti, and guerilla art speak back to the dominant story of a city: urban marginalia that interrupts, interrogates, and invites stronger connections — between homelessness and land theft, tent cities and temporary autonomy, and the policing of public space. Who has a right to the city on stolen land? Why do parks close at night? What brutality lurks beneath the surface of urban planning jargon and bureaucratic processes? Under the institutionalized cruelty of late capitalism and neoliberal housing policy, all space is contested and nothing is benign. (Lesson learned: making something boring is a strategy of dispossession.) Tune in and talk back. Get me the decolonial détournements that undull the senses. Like the graffiti I have seen around lately, black spray paint defiant and scrawling on sidewalks, election lawn signs, underpass concrete: UNCEDED.

Illustration 1
Collection of urban marginalia. Image Courstey: Céline Chuang.

II. Against the Aesthetics of Monologism

In Vancouver, a city oft-obsessed with image, the aesthetics of displacement have become — to apply Bakhtin — the authoritative visual discourse. Street banners, signage, even so-called public art propagate a dominant narrative of “diversity” and multiculturalism, “revitalization” through greenwashing, criminalization through the guise of “safety” (for whom?), all while oiling the machine of relentless development that re-colonizes urban Indigenous communities and pushes out the racialized poor. For palatability, recuperation is employed in a kind of sanctioned and sophisticated phishing. Bougie restaurants in Chinatown add Chinese characters to their signage in the illusion of access. Real estate developers sponsor mural festivals that fund BIPOC artists and highlight historically marginalized neighborhoods while ousting longtime low-income residents from their housing in those same neighborhoods. It is perhaps a state of perma-ambivalence for artists thrown into the clusterfuckery, who, even in the clutches of such catch-22s, can still generate work that de-centres whiteness and makes noise. Recently, for example, murals articulating Black resurgence along Hogan’s Alley, home to Vancouver’s historic Black community, which was destroyed by the city’s only viaduct. I take issue not with the artists but with the dystopic system and its power-brokers: the appropriation of subversive mediums, the gatekeeping of creative resources, the mechanisms of tokenism and deceit paving the road for continued capitalist and colonial displacement. In some ways, this weaponizing of aesthetics mirrors the broader, slippery subjugation, consent-manufacturing, and “reconciliation” industry perpetuated by the liberal Trudeau government.

The neoliberal state casting gentrification as an inevitable reality can be understood in Bakhtinian terms as monologism — a monopoly of the imagination, or to use Bayo Akomolafe’s words, the incarceration of a single way. Under the tyranny of such monologism, four thousand people can have no fixed address while billionaires buy up entire blocks for profit, rebranding them for ease of consumption. Not far from the Downtown Eastside, ground zero for the housing crisis, a massive seacan-style development allocates a mere 24 out of 350 housing units at shelter/welfare rates. Concurrently, brightly-colored street banners, funded by the neighborhood business association, materialize promoting a “most walkable street” campaign (again, for whom?). This occurs in the same neighborhood where swathes of residents rallied to eject a tent city from the local park. Placemaking is a charged thing, unavoidably ideological and always political. I remember walking an elder home from an event and watching her scooter bump over pavement cracks; funny how mobility only seems to matter when it comes to the upwardly-mobile. 

Street banners are key aesthetic signifiers in other sites of struggle. In the Downtown Eastside, Gastown banners quietly infringe, block by block, in an act of geographical and ontological erasure. In one of Vancouver’s oldest working-class neighborhoods, Hastings-Sunrise, banners which incorporate the work of a local street artist inexplicably dub a collection of blocks “East Village.” Accompanying initiatives to “clean up the neighborhood” include erasing graffiti and partnering with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) via the Community Policing Center, whose website has a diversity statement next to a photo of smiling cops (Lesson learned: don’t trust business associations until proven otherwise.)

III. Counterpoint and Contradiction / Decolonial Abolition

Posters wheatpasted throughout this side of the city have been catching my attention. “WHEN SOCIAL PROGRAMS ARE FUNDED, WHEN PEOPLE HAVE JOBS, WHEN PEOPLE ARE PAID A LIVING WAGE, WHEN COMMUNITIES ARE SUPPORTED: A DECREASE IN CRIME AND THEREFORE POLICE PRESENCE IS NOT NEEDED,” reads one. “DEFUND THE VPD” is a tag that appears, at least to my eyes, more frequently these days, in tandem with renewed local abolitionist organizing such as the Defund 604 Network (and the less sexy, but just as integral, radically relational work of Indigenous initiatives like the Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Services Society, established in 1998). The polyphonic creativity of such interventions is itself abolitionist: a fracturing of the carceral monologism that demands borders, possession, and punishment (all, of course, imported colonial concepts) as a means of social control — over people and space. It’s not just humans making abolitionist art, either. In a fenced-off lot by Main Street, seemingly abandoned, stubborn wildflowers circumvent the chain-link and the “DO NOT TRESPASS” sign, rioting in yellow and gold. Our older and wiser relations know no borders. Why should we? 

Illustration 2
Abolitionist posters wheatpasted in East Vancouver. Image Courtesy: Céline Chuang.

Elsewhere in so-called British Columbia, on unceded Pacheedaht and Ditidaht territories, witness the logic of carceral and capitalist colonialism play out at the Fairy Creek Blockade, where Royal Canadian Mounted Police have enforced an injunction, pepper-sprayed land defenders and arrested almost a thousand people. Injunctions function as a legal tactic employed by corporations and the State to perpetuate Indigenous dispossession and assert control over space (land), from squatting sites to old growth forest and places marked for resource extraction projects (Secwepemc leader Art Manuel termed injunctions a “legal billy club” in Reconciliation Manifesto). But Indigenous resurgence will not be contained by colonial constructs. Camp spokesperson xʷ is xʷ čaa says, “We’re practicing everyday what it means to be quuʔas, we’re upholding what it means to be in relation to the laws of the land.” (Lesson learned: Indigenous youth are seeding the future.)

IV. Big Stonewall Energy / Tagging to Transgress

Back when I was new to the city, I was looking up feminist events when I stumbled upon the upcoming launch of the Vancouver Women’s Library. Unaware at the time that the library was affiliated with a trans-exclusive organization (one that actively lobbies against trans women and sex workers’ rights), I showed up uninitiated to a full-blown queer revolt: wine poured on books, ripping down of posters, later on, graffiti across the storefront: “NO TERFS ON UNCEDED LAND.” This was before I’d been schooled by trans friends, before a trans woman I knew was doxxed by TERFs en masse, before I’d seen up close the vitriol that was possible in the name of feminism. Then, I was uninformed and uncomfortable. Now, I see the fierceness of response as connected to protective impulse, love as rage. The library, which advocated for the criminalization of sex work, had opened on the same block as the low track where survival sex workers found clients — an assault to autonomy, with a dose of white saviourism. No wonder protesters were angry. Lives and livelihoods were at stake. (Lesson learned: believe trans women and trans femmes. Honour queer rage.)

Now when I see “TRANS POWER, SEX WORK IS WORK” spray-painted on the sidewalk, I think of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s words in As We Have Always Done: “[Indigenous] radical resurgence is then about the destruction of the colonial hierarchy that heterocispatriarchy embeds in us… restoring all Indigenous bodies as political orders.” I think of jaye simpson’s call to advocate for and protect Black and Indigenous trans women as part of showing solidarity with Land Back, in their words, to “betray the very patriarchy and transmisogyny that upholds the current colonial state.” I think of my 2S Gitxsan friend Silver from the house of Luus, who advocates for Rights Not Rescue as part of practicing body sovereignty. Decriminalization as decarceration as decolonization. The assertion of self-determination over space, bodies, and land, interconnected and alive.


In a city like Vancouver, the seemingly bottomless appetite of the gentrification machine swells the monologism mythos. The immanent singularity of a soulless city can be seductive at the worst of times. But to believe in this doctrine is to make it true. The subaltern spraypaints: tune in, and hear it talk back. Visual and spatial interventions, street art, and other hybrid utterances that bubble up from below bend the light: like prisms, they reveal multiplicity that refuses erasure, the world-making within — and beyond — the world we know.