Painting Against the Grain

Cumberland artist creates colorful, eye-popping works of large scale art with spray paint

gillian brooks

What comes to your mind when you think of graffiti? Unfortunately, treatment what comes to mind for many is something negative—vandalism, tagging, crime, drugs. But there is a flip side to graffiti—beautiful, powerful, eye-popping works of art created by a growing segment of professional artists that use spray paint as their medium of choice.

There are many people who call themselves graffiti artists—people who grab a few cans of Krylon and head to the nearest dark alley. Then there are people like Gillian Brooks who take the medium seriously, and who strive to make graffiti art recognized for what it is—an up and coming art form that should be respected.

“It all comes down to vandalism versus art,” says Brooks, 33. “I’ve witnessed both sides—people creating crime and people making beautiful and original works of art. I use the same medium as the vandals, but I turn the negative into a positive.”

Brooks does so by creating beautiful murals that are full of vibrant color and positive imagery, and she’s doing so right here in the Comox Valley.

Brooks calls herself a muralist/spray paint artist—and since she’s a woman, she’s quite a rare breed. “I don’t know of any women here on the Island who do what I do,” she says. “I do know of a couple of female spray paint muralists in Vancouver, but all in all, the female graffiti artist is not common.” In fact, according to Brooks, graffiti artistry is mainly a man’s world. Brooks likens female graffiti artists to female break dancers or female tattoo artists—they exist, but they’re few and far between.

Though Brooks stands out as a female spray paint artist, she believes that standing out has made her better at what she does. “I had to work hard to prove myself in the beginning, and it always pushed me to do better,” she says. “Now I can hold my own with the best of them.”

Brooks recalls that she’s always wanted to paint big things. “I drew on paper and such when I was young, but I really wanted to paint the walls,” she remembers. “So when I was 11 my parents gave me my first wall to paint, a wall in the garage.”

For that first mural she copied a picture of a yellow house that she saw on an old Re/Max calendar. “They let me paint the entire interior wall of the garage with a big yellow house,” Brooks says. “It was pretty amazing that they let me do that!” And the mural is still there after 22 years. “My parents don’t own that home anymore, but one day I drove by and the garage door was open. I could see the mural of the yellow house as I drove by.”

When she was 14 her parents allowed her to paint a mural in her bedroom. “I’ve always been able to paint realistic images from what I saw. For example, I could take a small image and make it larger, but still keep the proper proportion. At the time, Disney characters were my favorite subject to paint. So, using normal paint and paint brushes, I painted my bedroom walls with scenes from Jungle Book.”

Brooks got involved with graffiti art when she was 17. She attended an art program for high school students called Bealart out of London, Ontario, her hometown. At the program she met many aspiring artists from various backgrounds who specialized in different forms of art. Particularly, Brooks was drawn to some boys who specialized in creating works with spray paint.

“I noticed their sketch books and I was really interested in what they were creating,” she says. “I began following them around so I could learn how they made their art.” It was fascinating to Brooks, and soon she was completely caught up. “It didn’t take me long to see that graffiti art was a great scene, and that there was really good art coming out of it.”

Specifically, graffiti art is a creative genre that uses spray paint and large surfaces. According to Brooks, spray paint is quite diverse as an artistic medium. “Spray paint can be used to create images that are extremely realistic or images that are just bold, bright and fun,” she says.

“I also like to use spray paint because it’s instant and it can be so big.”

The paint Brooks uses isn’t the kind you would purchase at the hardware store. “That wouldn’t work for the type of art I do,” explains Brooks. Instead, she uses paint that is formulated specifically to be used by professional artists. Since Brooks can’t buy such paints here in Canada, she orders all her paints from a supplier in California.

“All the colors are pre-mixed, so I just choose the colors I’m attracted to. The manufacturer comes up with new colors every year and they always have fun names attached to them. Actually, it’s a lot like choosing eye shadow,” says Brooks with a laugh. She should know—she is also a make-up artist.

To create her work, Brooks takes caps or nozzles of varying sizes and attaches them to the cans of paint. The different nozzle sizes give Brooks more control over the thickness of the lines created from the sprayer.

Brooks’ style of art is influenced by many things, but mainly she is inspired by images that some people would describe as retro. “More than anything, I’m inspired by things that are vintage,” she says.

Tattoo flash, Brooks’ major inspiration, comes from the old tattoo designs that would line the walls of tattoo parlors in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Sailors would go from port to port, and they’d often get a tattoo as a souvenir of the places they’d been. Remember Popeye and his tattoo of the anchor on his arm? Tattoo flash designs were created in such a way to be quickly done, so the tattoo artist could create more tattoos in a short amount of time. Over the years the sailors travelled around showing off their tattoos, the images began to repeat, and certain images became very popular. Eventually they became iconic. Roses, swallows, pin-up girls, tigers, anchors, scrolls and skulls are synonymous with flash tattoo.

Brooks uses many flash tattoo icons in her artwork, but her favorites are roses and swallows. She also likes to adorn her art with what she calls “ladies” and “gentlemen”—vintage looking characters complete with ribbons and pin curls, or top hats and monocles. It’s a design that is positive, upbeat and unique to Brooks—a design that can be relatable to kids and adults alike.

“My art isn’t really open for interpretation,” Brooks says. “I just like to create images that are beautiful, positive, and fun to look at.”

Flash tattoo art also has bold, thick lines to withstand years of wear. As Brooks explains it, these images mesh well with graffiti art, which uses a formula of solid lines and bright colors. Though it may sound like a simple formula, Brooks says it has taken her years of practice to get it right.

“I try to make my lines as clean as possible. I don’t use any stencils or masking tape. It’s part of the old school graffiti style to do everything freehand. It’s like painting without a safety net.”

Cumberland has been Brook’s home for the past six years. “I feel that the vintage feel of my work meshes well with Cumberland,” she says. “My art is vintage, our town is vintage—so it works.”

Cumberland is also the location of Brooks first mural on the Island. “It all started when my friends moved into a house that was right next to a partially completed mural,” says Brooks. “It had stood like that for years. The wall was gloomy and dark, and it just screamed to be painted.” The couple suggested that Brooks paint the wall to brighten it up—so she did. It took six long days, but Brooks turned the area into what she calls a secret garden. “People walk by and see the mural, and it makes them smile,” she says.

In fact, Brooks has only had positive responses from those who have seen the mural. “People really love it. It’s a definite improvement from what used to be there.”

From that humble beginning, things are really starting to pick up for Brooks. “I’ve got three projects on the go. One of the projects is to cover the complete exterior western wall of the Waverly Pub. It’s a huge surface, so we’ve got a big plan and it’s going to be amazing when it’s finished.”

As well, Brooks has received permission to paint a mural over some unsightly tagging that’s occurred on the back side of the Patch Big Store. “The owner is more than happy for me to create some art there to dissuade others from tagging that wall,” she says. “Though it’s the back side of the building it’s also quite visible from the street, so it will be an improvement that’s for sure.”

Lastly, Brooks has been asked to paint the side of the Corre Alice art gallery with a fresh and exciting mural that incorporates her favorite images—swallows and roses.
Brooks’ future looks as bright as her murals. However, she knows she has a long way to go before graffiti art is taken seriously. “Graffiti has negative connotations attached to it, so sometimes graffiti as an art form is not well received or understood,” she says. “Sometimes I just have to go for it, so people can see the potential.”

Though it isn’t the road most travelled, Brooks hopes that someday she’ll be recognized as a serious artist. “What I want most of all is to be paid to do what I love,” she says. “It used to be that sign making and such was a real trade. People would get out there with their paint and they’d paint big signs on the sides of buildings. I’d like to see that happen again. I’d love it if business owners contacted me to add some color to their spaces.”

Though she has big dreams for her future, Brooks points out that she wouldn’t be where she is today without the support of her friends and family. “I have been really fortunate to have supportive friends and family in my life who have never criticized or swayed my decision to go against the grain and spray paint on walls.”


To contact Gillian Brooks email: [email protected]


One Response to Painting Against the Grain

  1. Yeah Gillian! This captures your work and your essence so well! Congratulations!