Advocacy, education and outreach in support of Vancouver's public spaces


February 7, 2018 at 5:55 PM

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Public Art – iconic and instagrammable

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A-Mazing Laughter. Phot by Mike McHolm (Creative Commons)

Story by Anke Hurt.
Lead photo by Mike McHolm (Creative Commons)

Sometimes art is meant to change our view of the world — and public art, in particular, has the ability to make urban space “live” differently. It can be used to animate an underutilized space, act as discussion piece, or serve as a catalyst that encourages people to linger in a park or plaza. How we view and engage with art has also changed now that over three quarters of North Americans have instant access to a camera on their smartphones, and want that perfect selfie or daily Instagram picture.

Vancouver has a number of examples of what we might call instagram-friendly public art. These act as anchors in previously ignored spaces, and serve to provide a sense of place and connection to the community. At the same time, their popularity with social media enthusiasts ensure that they “live” beyond their physical location.
Here’s a quick – and very incomplete list of five of the city’s most instagrammable or iconic pieces.


1. A-maze-ing Laughter in Morton Park (Davie St. at Denman St.)

Initially intended as a temporary installation as part of the 2009 Vancouver Biennale, this piece by China’s Yue Minjun was purchased for the city through a donation from the Wilson 5 Foundation, and has now become a permanent fixture in Morton Park. The art is placed so the people can interact with the laughing images directly. The 13 figures, each about 10 feet high, are self portraits of the artist striking different poses. Together, they activate a previously underused park that links the Denman shopping district, and English Bay Beach. They are one of the most popular pieces of public art in the city, and tourists and residents alike can be found pausing in front of the statues to strike a matching pose for the camera.

2. The Birds (Olympic Village Plaza)

The Birds. Olympic Village. Photo by Randall Wade Grant (Creative Commons).

Currently being repaired, this art piece is a particular favorite of children – and is played on as much as it is observed (as evidenced by the wear on the birds’ tail feathers!). Myfanwy MacLeod incorporated a distinct sense of irony to the piece as these oversized house sparrows are actually an invasive species in B.C. Their giant size is suggestive both of the idea of immigration, and of the oversized impact that these species have on the local environment.

3. #KitsWings (Burrard St. at 4th Ave.)

KitsWings mural. Photo by Anke Hurt

The Kitswings painting at Burrard St. and 4th Avenue is an Instagrammers delight. Artists Sandy and Steve Pell brought to life an idea from the Kitsilano Business Association, and spent 200 hours drawing a mural reflective of the eagles nesting in the Kitsilano neighbourhood. This piece of art is sized specifically to fit into the viewfinder, and attracts many bloggers to this formerly vacant wall. The piece is captivating and looks incredible on camera when people stand in front of it. Photo: Anke Hurt & Anita Hamilton.

4. The Davie Village Heart (1025 Davie St.)

Davie Village Heart. Photo by Anke Hurt

Art often directly indexes a neighbourhood or locale. Lumiere Vancouver has recently created a temporary neon art installation at Davie and Burrard Street that acts as an icon for the West End and its LGBTQ2+ community in the same vein as the rainbow crosswalks at Bute and Davie. Designed by artist Jim Balakshin, the Davie Village sign has become a great spot for pictures, but is only slated to remain in the area until February 23rd. With a growing movement to make this piece permanent, it is a symbolic reminder of the supportive space this area has provided to all its residents. This is similar to the East Van Cross discussed below which is another Vancouver piece that also represents its neighbourhood struggles.

5. East Van Cross (Clark Dr. at Great Northern Way)

East Van Cross. Photo by AJ (Flickr user kardboard604).

In a similar fashion, Ken Lum’s “East Van Cross”, helps to mark the identity of Vancouver’s Eastside, and in particular serves as a gateway to the Commercial Drive area. Erected in 2010 as part of the Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program, the East Van Cross is best seen from Great Northern Way, around the VCC Clark SkyTrain station. And while the piece may be a little less accessible than other pieces mentioned here, it has become a recognizable icon that has found its way onto to t-shirts, prints, and other memorabilia. The original design predates Lum’s work – as he readily acknowledges – and the history of the cross has been variously attributed to graffiti artists, gang activity, and East Van’s post war catholic population. Regardless, it’s Lum’s work that has re-energized the symbol for a new generation of Vancouverites.

These are just a few examples of the city’s more enticing and instagrammable public spaces. Doubtless there are lots we missed – and we’d love to hear what your favourites are. What pieces of art engage you the most? And which ones have you posted to social media? What makes one piece of public art more instagrammable than another?

Anke Hurt is a recent graduate of the Applied Planning Program at Langara College, and is passionate about developing inviting and welcoming community spaces, and housing solutions.

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