Friday, May 13, 2011

Urban barnacles

Billy Mavreas walks down the street with his hands in his corduroy pockets, head swiveling as he  scans left to right and up and down. He checks everything along the sidewalk and its periphery, the utility poles, bike racks, stop signs, walls and mailboxes, looking for new additions.

"People add things. They accrete like barnacles," he says.

"Corazon," he notes, as we pass a scrawl of graffiti on an alley wall. "That's some kid writing 'heart.' That person is looking for attention. There's the listen bird," he points to a spray-painted bird and next to it, the word listen.

I follow a few steps behind, trying to keep up with everything he's seeing.

"I'm like a camera-less photographer," he says. "It's all collecting whether it's in your pocket or catalogued in your brain."

Billy is a cartoonist,  artist and collector. He and Emilie O'Brien run Monastiraki – a gallery, store, and collection of collections. Billy thrives on filing things away. He's been dowsing for found treasure since he was a kid in suburban Ville St. Laurent, who went out to look for interesting stuff, came across flat metal slugs and put them in boxes.

His website features a quizzical, sentimental catalogue of 20th century litter such as wrappers, bus tickets and bits of zipper, along with irresistible stories of their origins. He recently started a new series of tiny flat things that he laminates in plastic: half a five dollar bill; a leaf; a torn photo, among other items. A mental catalogue of the graffiti tags, street art and changes in the neighbourhood is just another dimension of his capacity for collecting.

We keep walking. I'm out and about every day but when Billy points stuff out, it's like I don't even live here, there's so much I never see.

Billy refers to the absence of the giant poplar by the church on St. Viateur as if it's old news. What?! When did that happen? He draws my attention to the disappearance of the evocatively faded old Navarino sign outside the bakery on Parc Avenue. I'd noticed the new sign (sort of), but hadn't registered the loss of the vertical vintage girl with cake. (She has moved inside to the back wall of the bakery.)

"Attention must be paid! Even though it's free," says Billy. "I don't know why, but I get a kick out of 'Afrika Bon Jovy.'" Now that he mentions it, I have seen those mysterious words printed all over the place.

Last year, when I wanted to find out more about the "i love you..." grafitti, Billy was the first person I consulted. He didn't know who'd done it, but revealed  that he'd been responsible for the small, happily waving  creature on a low wall near the Collège Français. (It's gone now, and I miss it.)

"I was always subtle," Billy says as we walk. "I did it for people who are looking –there. That's one of mine," he indicates a stenciled sunburst on Bernard, a thing of the past for him.

When he became a local business owner he realized he couldn't in good conscience be the guy who was putting stuff on walls and getting mad at people for doing the same to his. Now he keeps an eye out for the writing on the wall without  spray-painting other people's property himself.

Once Billy points out the corazon scrawl and heart, the little amoeba ghost stickers, the poles decorated in multi-coloured rings of duct tape, I start seeing them.

"I like these pills," he says, of an oblong-shaped blue and white capsule sticker on a pole. He has "harvested" one for his collection of paper ephemera. "What I don't like is scratchitti." Who knew there was a word for the scratched messages in the plexiglass of a bus shelter?  

In the alley, Billy pauses at a garbage pile and lifts up a small cork  bulletin board that someone has painted with red polka dots. "Because this is fun, I'm going to find a better place to put it." He carries the spotted board around the corner and props it by the sidewalk where it may find a new home.

"I'm not just pulling stuff off the street anymore. I stop myself. I don't want to be a hoarder. Or even a hoarder-lite," he says.

It's a constant battle for someone who notices everything.

Near my front steps he finds a rusty metal door part that he can't resist. He puts it in the pocket of his jeanjacket.  "There are always found things in my pocket," he confesses as he repositions two chess pawns to make room for the new acquisition.


The collections of Billy Mavreas will be featured in the show Bits and Pieces at the Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts

Billy Mavreas Inside The Face
new pencil drawings

5478 St-Laurent


Michelle said...

It's always great to see Billy in his father's old shop. The place has changed A LOT since Dad was holding court, but like father, son is friendly, and always good for a laugh. Cheers, Billy, for helping make Mile End that much more special.

Unknown said...

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