It’s early in the morning on a Wednesday and Gene Martel is slowly driving through the streets of downtown Chilliwack in a white van.
He makes his way down alleys and through parking lots, going about 10 km/h, staring at the walls and doors of buildings. A storage shelf in his van creaks as the vehicle turns corners and goes over bumps. He looks up in his rear-view mirror frequently to see if he’s holding anyone up.
And then he spots it — graffiti. It’s small, about six inches long and reads #SMELLY or #SHELLY, but still, it needs to be removed.
“That’s a wiper,” he says.
He’s referring to how he’ll remove it. This one can be wiped off with lacquer thinner and a rag. Some graffiti gets painted over, some is removed first with lacquer thinner or xylene and then a coat of paint is applied.
Martel has been a painter for 52 years. He owned Martel Painting for about 17 years before retiring. When the Downtown Chilliwack BIA called him two years ago inquiring if he wanted to be part of making Chilliwack more beautiful, he couldn’t say no.
“I gotta have something to do or I’d go nuts,” he laughs. “When I first started, my goodness, what a mess this city was in.”
For two years he’s been helping fulfill one of the purposes of the BIA: “To help improve and beautify commercial areas.”
He recalls taking a walk around downtown Chilliwack when he first started the job and he could not believe how much graffiti was hidden.
“The deal I made with them is… I’m out there two hours, sometimes three, sometimes even more… but I will only charge you an hour and a half a day. Basically it’s just to give back.”
Martel typically starts his day shortly after the sun comes up, looking high and low for graffiti.
“I like to get out early. It’s much easier getting around everywhere if you don’t have to worry about so many cars being in the way,” he says. “I can pull over anywhere.”
He’s only “supposed” to do buildings, he says, but he often also removes graffiti from bus shelters, utility boxes and dumpsters — places the city is responsible for.
“If I see it, it’s coming off,” he says.
Taggers use spray paint, indelible ink, and even tar. Whatever they use, Martel knows right away how to get rid of it. Glass is the easiest surface from which to remove graffiti, brick and plywood are the most difficult.
“I don’t mind it. I enjoy doing it. You get to meet a lot of people, you get out every day, and being retired it’s nice to have something to do,” he says. “If I could afford it, I’d do it for nothing.”
When he first started, he’d be removing 30 to 50 tags during a two-week period. Now, he’s at about 30 in one month. Additionally, he’s noticed the size of graffiti has gotten smaller. Many used to be several feet long, the size you’d see on boxcars.
“That basically ended after about a year because they would do it, put all the work into it at night, and first thing in the morning it was gone,” says Martel.
Now the graffiti he sees is about the size of a dinner plate.
“As long as I can keep it off, it doesn’t get worse,” he says. “It’s like a challenge. I’m gonna beat these little buggers, I wanna beat them.”
Martel thinks graffiti is “senseless” and agrees the current system is working. He’s noticed graffiti in downtown Chilliwack has actually been decreasing over the past two years.
He’s even caught people in the act and when he does “I just tell them not to do that. I’ve been sworn at, told where to go, what flight to take.”
“I’ll just tell them to move,” and he cleans it up right in front of them.
On this day, he’s cleaning up a large piece of red graffiti on the vinyl siding of a downtown Subway restaurant.
The floor of Martel’s van is completely filled with paint cans, plus he’s built a shelf along the driver’s side wall which is also home to gallons of paint. He figures he has about 140 cans in his van, each marked with the name of the business. If he doesn’t know which business it is, he writes the address on top of the can. They’re in no particular order, he just sticks new paint cans in wherever they’ll fit.
Martel makes regular trips to Cloverdale Paint, where he gets help trying to match a building’s paint colour or finish as best he can.
“A mis-match of paint is a lot better than graffiti itself,” he says.
He’ll often ask businesses for samples of their paint, especially when it’s newly painted, so he has something on hand if graffiti shows up. He even keeps empty paint cans in his van in case he sees a building being painted, and asks for some.
“A lot of people are really grateful that [I’m] doing it.”
Today, he’s successfully matched the paint colour at Subway. He pumps his fist as he walks away, packs up his paint brush and drives down Williams Street looking for more graffiti.
Within 30 seconds, he sees a familiar sight.
“Hey I won!” he exclaims driving by a utility box and pointing. “There was one guy putting one tag on that every day, every day. And every day I would take it off. It’s not there anymore.”
What would he say to the taggers in Chilliwack?
“Keep trying. We’ll see who wins. It does look like I’m winning.”