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Midnight Menders

Midnight Menders

Fighting graffiti with graffiti in iqaluit
By Peter Worden
Feb 01
2015
From the January 2015 Issue

It’s a routine mission in her spray war. Tonight’s targets: the odd two or three fresh obscenities that have adorned the walls of Iqaluit in the past few months. First is an abandoned shed behind the city’s well-trafficked Astro Hill complex. BITCH PLEASE it says in black. It’s a bit after midnight, minus-thirty-something and dead quiet. Only distant bar chatter and the squeak of snow under our boots disturb the silence—that and the unmistakable spray-can pea rattle as she gets set to tag.

“I prefer to call it ‘civil disobedience,’” says Janet Brewster, whiting out the b-word.

She’s a fighter-of-fire-with-fire, a self-avowed defender of public morale, a modifier of mean-spirited messages.

Brewster may not fit your stereotype of a tagger. She’s not an adolescent punk or mysterious Banksy-type; she’s a gainfully employed mother of four, an unassuming diminutive woman currently in dish gloves (spray paint is messy) that she keeps in a graffiti cleanup kit in the back of her pickup. Secondly, “Brewsky,” as I started calling her, only uses spray paint for good. She’s a fighter-of-fire-with-fire, a self-avowed defender of public morale, a modifier of mean-spirited messages.

She also need not conceal her identity. When police question her she states her case. Who’s going to bust a mom for the trivial misdeed of blotting out ejaculating penises, N-, C- and F-words with hearts, smiley faces and curlicues? She tries not to increase the mar of a graffito and only does so in public spaces. It’s the Gandhi-method of graffiti, promoting non-violence by spray-painting the change she wants to see in the world.

Leaving, we pass “Suck My Dick” which, last time, she made to read “Pluck My Qiiq.” (A qiik in Inuktitut is a grey hair—one of her prouder corrections.) Around town you can spot “F*** You”s turned to “Lucky You”s and “I Love You”s and, as of now, one “B**** PLEASE” plainly and politely saying “PLEASE §”

Iqaluit has a respectable degree of urban portraiture and sophisticated murals. But for a city of 7,000, it also features an inordinate mess of obscene, bullying graffiti. It’s more acute when it appears on the door of Nakasuk elementary school, or on a prominent election billboard.

“I consider it micro-aggression—the messages, they’re like little shards,” says Brewsky, expounding on her theory that negative graffiti—negativity in our surroundings, period—has a demoralizing, even angering, effect on society. In a territory struggling with high rates of abuse, suicide and alcoholism, the last thing she figures people need is some F*** YOU staring them in the face each morning. In her case, it was after one sleepless night en route to a difficult court hearing when the words pushed her over the edge. 

I took out a Sharpie and started over the f-word with a heart. There. That’s better, I thought, and left it for the next guy to know § Your Mom Is A Nice Lady.

“I looked up and it was like, yup, ‘f*** you, Janet.’ It validated in a really unnerving way all my concerns. I was in such a delicate state that it was hard to move beyond that. I didn’t want to see it anymore.” 

That day, she returned to correct the sight for her sore eyes, and started a habit. The back-and-forth in some cases creates its own eyesore, a less than optimal mash-up of badly drawn neither-nor, blurring the line between civil disobedience and just more vandalism. Brewsky’s tags may be clever, but they aren’t Banksy artistic. As we pack up for the night, we talk ambitiously about next time—giant stencils maybe, or a mural. For now she’s pleased with the night’s work, and besides, she has to be up early to take her kid to school. 

We split up and I decide to visit one particular public toilet stall that had micro-aggressed me long enough. F*** Your Mom, it read. (That could mean any of our mothers!) I took out a Sharpie and started over the f-word with a heart. There. That’s better, I thought, and left it for the next guy to know § Your Mom Is A Nice Lady.