This is the 22nd year in a row that Under Pressure Festival is held in Montreal from August 9th until 13th. Overview of a festival not like any other.
Under Pressure, or UP for those in the know, describes itself as a graffiti festival, but it actually is way more than that. At the beginning, in August 1996, the festival started as a big friendly jam organized by two Montreal graffiti writers, Flow and Seaz. Since then, a few things have changed. Flow hosts the radio show ”Off The Hook” on CKUT and Seaz is now a politician, city councillor Sterling Downey. The friendly gang got bigger and so did the festival.
It has become a major multidisciplinary annual event dedicated to the urban and Hip Hop culture. In the space of a weekend, graffiti writers, visual artists and muralists coexist with the breakdancers and other urban dancers, DJs and MCs (rappers), skateboard fans and this year even basketball.
”UP has become a dialogue. A conversation. An exchange between artists, who enjoy getting together year after year, but also with the general public, who get the opportunity to discover this culture while having fun. Initially what was like a big party remained a big party.”, explains Melissa Proietti, the Festival director.
What also gets our attention, is the ”particular” nature of this event. Particular in the sense that, EVERYONE involved volunteers (even the organizers). The festival takes care of the organization, the logistics, getting the walls ready, providing the infrastructures etc…
The artists, on their side, do not receive any salary either and have to pay for their own materials and travels. But, what then brings the artists back to the festival year after year? ”From what I can see, the artists come for the festival experience. It is a moment without pressure. It is a time to paint a wall straight downtown with their friends. They don’t do it for recognition. It is a privileged moment of sharing” states Melissa.
Questioned on the subject, let’s see what the masters of the brush or spraycan have to say.
Mark Esprit (18 participations) is a Swiss photographer and graffiti writer who has been crossing the ocean since 1999 to come to the festival. ”At first, the welcome, the atmosphere, the mentality of the local and international Hip Hop scene fascinated me. Since then, I have been back almost every year. UP is only an excuse to get together, share and create among friends.”
Wüna (5 participations), a local graffiti writer and one of the only female on the wall dedicated to graffiti, seems to lean in the same way: ”UP allows me to meet people, have a piece downtown and the organizers are friendly.”
UP is indeed localized in the heart of Montreal, a few steps from Quartier des Spectacle and around Ste-Catherine street. Visibility is definitely an advantage which comes back often in the participants discussions.
Maxilie Martel aka Mono Sourcil (4 participations) : ”I come back every year because the spots are located right downtown, it is good visibility. But also for the festive side of the graff scene, the friends and end of the day parties. It is always fun to have events that gather us all.”
Same comment from the members of the crew Tribu 203 who are participating for the second time officially. ‘‘UP, is the opportunity to be with friends and to have big walls. And here, we can do what we want. Like a jam for fun.” – Arnold.
“These past two years, Tribu 203 have been offered bigger and bigger walls so it’s interesting. It is an excuse to get together and to have a good time with friends and the community.” – Boris.
”Community” is a popular word in the answers from the participants and which reminds us that UP first and foremost a matter of heart.
123Klan (participent since 2007) :”Sterling was one of the first to welcome us when we arrived in Montreal. We do it for the community, UP is a graffiti jam. And the first jams happened there. People from the same community who unify to paint together, without any financial strategy. Just for fun.”
Hsix (participates since 2000) : ”In the first years, I used to go mainly to have the chance to see big names painting, observe the different techniques, especially from those that usually did it illegally. Now, I come because it is the chance to see and be among different actors of the Hip Hop scene that we see less, the bboys, bgirls, mcs, djs. And I also come to support Seaz and Flow who have supported me since the beginning.”
MissMe (participant since 2013) : ”I love the Under Pressure Family. They have always been there from me. I love the community and authentic sides. It is rare.”
And finally, for some, there is also the unique aspect that at UP, there are no restrictions or sketches needing approval. The artists are totally free to express their creative surge as they wish.
Monk.e (participant for the past 15 years) ”Under Pressure is a pillar of my personal evolution in the Montreal urban scene. I come back because UP offers me artistic liberty to chose my team of collaborators each year and to develop my artistic chemistry with different colleagues too busy during the rest of the year.”
However, we can’t look at everything through rose-coloured glasses. Many artists mentioned that they would like to see the festival evolve, while keeping its authenticity, towards a formula where artists wouldn’t need to pay for their material. Will we see in the next few years UP combining with partners, non commercial of course, with the goal of financing the festival and meeting artists concerns?
Answering the question, Melissa confirms that the financial question comes back every year. ” We are very conscious of the fact that everyone has needs and different realities.”
”The organization has barely enough money to keep the festival rolling and we support the artists however we can. It is hard to get paint sponsorship, at least in Canada. Permits, scaffolding, paint to put the walls back in a good state, it’s not free.”
”For me, the artists must be sensitive to the fact that the Festival pays a lot of money for it to exist.” ” And in the community spirit, we think that not everything should be supported by the organization alone. It is important to make a gesture when you invest yourself in something. Yes, it does cost money if you want to do it, but if it is important for you, you will find a way to do it. It is that feeling that we want to give to the festival. The festival, is also the responsibility of the community. Hence, if they want to have fundraisers or whatever to collect money, we will be there to support them.”
”And when the artists go paint a train, a wall or for a jam between friends, no one will give them material. It takes an investment on their part. And it is a bit the same thing. We give them the chance to paint big walls for fun. No contract, they can do what they want.”
Managing to keep its authenticity and integrity expressed numerous times and at the same time creating a momentum on the financial concerns, is a big challenge for UP and the Montreal artistic community. The next few years will be very interesting to see. –»
Under Pressure, August 9th to 13th
Note : The author thanks Melissa Projetti and the artists who accepted to take part in this article and makes a point of excusing themselves for those who were not quoted because editorial constraints.