Something strange is happening in Vancouver, the land of clean air, snowy mountains, and beautiful beaches: five cars stacked on top of a cedar stump on Expo Boulevard; a massive white poodle balanced on top of a stick on Main Street; two gigantic songbirds loitering in Olympic Village; a dejected Jesus painted on a concrete bridge piling.

What’s going on?

Simple: Art is going on.

In the 21st century, art is dusting off its cobwebs, climbing down from the walls, out of the attics, and going public.

Why?

At its core, art is a material expression of the human imagination. It takes the unreal and makes it real. It is both precious and vital. So by its very nature, art is a spectacle. It demands to be seen. Art engages.

Over the past couple of decades, Vancouver has developed a global reputation as a “public art city.” From condominium buildings to office towers to public spaces, from massive installations to smaller works, Vancouver has become “ratified.”

And it is not without precedent.

During the Renaissance, a wealthy family–the Medici’s–commissioned the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Brunelleschi, Donatello and Da Vinci to produce works of public art. Although posterity surely played a role in the Medici’s benevolence, the primary purpose of their patronage was aesthetic: to beautify Florence with great art and architecture. The Renaissance was more than a rebirth; it was perhaps the greatest era of art in human history. And the art was there for all to see and enjoy.

Our young century has seen a slow but perceptible return to the notion of art as public, as a vital piece of the urban landscape.

Then things changed. The production and purpose of art evolved: from the public domain to the private. The Industrial Revolution ushered in a new era of capitalism, greed and opportunity, while at the same time muting the benevolent spirit of the Renaissance. Patronage all but disappeared, and art was given a numerical value. Beautiful art was still being created, but much of it was not for public consumption, except at galleries where a cost was attached.

Pilcrow Trans Am Totem

Lucky for us, life is cyclical. Six hundred years after the Renaissance, art is going public again. Our young century has seen a slow but perceptible return to the notion of art as public, as a vital piece of the urban landscape. And this brings us back to Vancouver.

According to Bryan Newson, the City of Vancouver’s Public Art Program Manager, public art serves a vital purpose.

“Public art is a unique expression to city building,” he says. “It gives voice and identity to our highest aspirations as a modern, cultured society.”

But with a shrinking budget and the merry-go-round of bureaucracy, the city can only do so much. For a city to become truly Florentine, it requires patrons: local citizens and organizations who care about their city, and who understand the power of art to transform it. Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Donatello: these guys didn’t have day jobs or savings accounts to support their artistic endeavours. They had patrons.

Luckily, Vancouver has some patrons of their own. Westbank Corporation, for example, has become the leading private commissioner of public art over the past 20 years. More than 30 art projects and installations have resulted from the patronage of Westbank, including Stan Douglas’s stunning photo re-creation of the Gastown Riots in the Woodward’s Atrium, and the hugely successful Keys to the Street: 11 pianos, all painted by local artists, are placed at random public spaces across the city, free for anybody to sit down and play, creating an organic meeting place.

But sometimes art, even the best art, is not “official.” It is not bankrolled and produced by the city, or a corporation. It’s produced by a street artist with a lot of talent and a lot of time on their hands.

Art and Image by iHeart

Enter iHeart, a Vancouver street artist. No one is really sure what the artist looks like, or where the artist lives, or if the artist even exists, but if you live in Vancouver, chances are you have seen the art. Under bridges, on concrete walls and pilings, it’s there for all to see. It is pure street art: public engagement without an economic agenda. And it is art of the highest quality. iHeart‘s pieces are a mix of the whimsical, the political, and the cultural. Bansky-esque in style, they are both a portrait of, and a reaction to, our modern society and culture. Like the best art, they are simple and complex, reflective and ironic.

One piece, “You’re So Hawt Right Now,” shows a person completely engulfed in flames while aiming a selfie stick at himself, a commentary not only on the ubiquitous use of selfie sticks but also the human ego. Another piece, “Follow For Follow,” depicts a young woman adding a social media follower on her cell phone, while two dark men in hoodies follow behind her, a commentary on the our lack of discretion and security in a digital world. The images are simple; the messages profound. They engage. They make us think. They inspire conversations.

And in the end, that is what public art is all about. And in an age of isolation and uncertainty, why it is vital for our cities.

Art and Image by iHeart