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Art or offense? Students debate whitewashing of Calgary university’s iconic graffiti stairwell

Debate’s been swirling at Calgary’s arts university after someone painted white over the school’s iconic graffiti stairwell late last month.

Is it in itself art, or is it blatantly disrespecting the school’s artistic past?

Victoria Durrie, who’s attending the Alberta University of the Arts (AUArts) school part time through a bridge program via Bow Valley College, said when she and other students first heard about it there was a “collective gasp” in her classroom.

“The verdict seems to be that these people are being inconsiderate – they’ve erased part of ACAD’s history,” she said, noting most students still refer to the school as ACAD (Alberta College of Art and Design), the school’s former name before becoming a university earlier this year.  

“Some people are saying it was done to get a reaction out of everybody and they sure did.”

Though the specific timeline the walls were painted is unclear, there’s some online documenting (ACAD Anonymous on Facebook) of it happening as early as Feb. 23, but Durrie heard about it more recently.

Treena Primmer, ACAD alumna and owner of Okotoks-based Twist Designs, said hearing that the graffiti stairwell was painted over is bittersweet news. She said it was already a long-standing tradition at the school, there years before she graduated nearly two decades ago.

“On one hand it’s kind of neat to keep something the same for generations of students to come, but also the school reinvents itself. And there’s always a progression of things, too,” Primmer said.

Photo of the school’s brightly coloured, graffiti-laced stairwell. SUBMITTED VIA KAREN DURRIE

Primmer said AUA has always encouraged artists to push boundaries.

“On one hand it’s really clever and one hand it’s disrespectful. So, you’re going to get a mixed reaction,” she said.

In a statement provided by AUArts, they said they support the “impermanence of the graffiti stairwell.”

“What may be on display in one moment does not guarantee it will exist the next,” the AUArts statement read.

“There is no administrative attachment regarding student artwork on the graffiti stairwell, this space is in a state of flux and it is constantly changing. That is the guerrilla-style nature of graffiti.

“Every student artist who makes the personal decision to do work in this space understands their effort, however small or large, will be covered up by another artist with a new vision.”

The statement goes on to say that the area has already been extensively covered by new work, “in a never-ending cycle of creativity.”

That’s ultimately how both Primmer and Durrie view what’s happened.

“It is (disappointing), although, it’s not permanent,” said Primmer.

The graffiti is just going to start fresh again and become a new layer. And I hope it does.  Everybody’s art work’s been painted over, whether it’s a whitewash or a new batch of colour.

“I wonder how many layers are on that wall?”

Durrie sees it as the next chapter in AUArts’ history.

“Somebody wrote in there that they erased a part of ACAD’s history, but the way I see it is that years from now people will be like, ‘remember when somebody painted the whole stairwell white?’ That’s just another layer to ACADs history,” Durrie said.

“It’s not like the paintings haven’t been covered up before, it’s just been with more… art.”