Mural, mural on the plywood wall

Vancouverites are dispelling the dread of boarded-up businesses by painting up the coverings with affection

The digital adjustments are easier. The stream of news alerts. The statistics dashboards, anxiously refreshed. The gut-wrenching headlines. The Zoom meetings.

All of it takes place on devices that can be muted, switched off, tossed across the room. Your living room looks the same. You can still part the curtains and peer outside. It is possible to sit on the couch and pretend, for a moment, that nothing strange is happening.

That security blanket unravels as soon as you leave the door. Ambling down the sidewalk is now fraught with navigational challenges as neighbours trample the grass to swerve by each other in large, two-metre arcs.

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Once-crowded city arteries are unsettlingly quiet as pedestrians give them a wide berth. Almost every front door, locked, features hand-written signage. Closed indefinitely. Be back soon—we hope. Sorry, take-out only.

The urban grocery store has a socially-distant lineup. Its mask-wearing security guard offers hand sanitizer, spritzed from a plastic bottle, as patrons enter.

It feels dystopian, if not post-apocalyptic, until you see the boards. It’s the plywood that really screams that something is wrong. It’s the plywood that plants an image of broken windows and desperate looting in your mind. You may have sat on your couch, earlier, reading an optimistic take about a flattened curve, but now you are looking at plywood and imagining the rapid unravelling of our country’s social fabric.

“It was like a world war,” says Kim Briscoe, who owns a print shop in Vancouver’s busy Gastown neighbourhood. “That first week that we were told to shut down, it was empty. There was no one around. It was very lonely. Very dark.”

Briscoe decided to do something about the derelict aesthetic. She put a call out to local artists, who began splashing colour onto boarded-up buildings, starting with her own shop on Powell Street. At first, Briscoe thanked the painters with a free lunch and posts showing their work on social media. Soon, the neighbourhood BIA and the City of Vancouver got involved, offering supplies and stipends. The idea went viral.

Alongside a yellow cartoon of Little Miss Sunshine wearing a mask are portraits of Drs. Bonnie Henry, Deena Hinshaw and Theresa Tam, a cartoon depiction of a Corona beer bottle (“Keep Calm, Drink Rona”) and messages of thanks for essential workers.

Vancouver doctor Fergus To, with help from his wife, Jordanna Kapeluto, and his artist friend, Eric Puchmayr, added to the dozens of murals on a weekend in mid-April, just days after he walked by an artist spray-painting plywood and asked them what was up. To and company’s piece is a tribute to a famous Banksy image; it depicts a little girl in a surgical mask reaching her arm out in defiance to “stop” a red coronavirus balloon.

Next to it is a quote from Hippocrates:

Life is short
And art long
The crisis fleeting
Experience perilous
And decision difficult

For To, wandering a boarded-up downtown Vancouver had felt eerie, sad and dismal. “It has really changed with the murals. It’s a bit more cheerful. It’s bringing a different community together,” he says. “It keeps the spirit of Gastown alive.”

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