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Quick on the draw 

Inspired by Japanese kaiju culture, graffiti artist Lucas Ridgeway’s new Utility Gallery showcases another side of the artform.

Lucas Ridgeway is the bear-suited man you may have seen around town. OK, so he's not literally running around dressed in fur, but if you've seen paintings of a little guy in a bear suit, you've seen some of Ridgeway's work.

The bear-suited man, as he calls it, is Ridgeway's fuzzy mascot, a self-portrait of the graffiti artist: A silly, Teletubbie-esque representation of creativity. "He's shrouded in innocence and ridiculousness at the same time," says Ridgeway. "It's a poorly drawn cartoon guy in a bear suit but as far as the art world goes, something like that is surprisingly tricky to draw." Ridgeway says he finds it more difficult to draw interesting characters like that than realistic faces.

The 23-year-old Ottawa native has been drawing and painting graffiti for 10 years. He dropped out of high school and floated around for a number of years, but credits graffiti with motivating him to go to NSCAD University—where he is at the top of his design class.

Graffiti, straddled between low and high culture has long been a point of contention and debate both, in the community and in the art world. "My art wouldn't be as interesting without that element of knowing that it comes from this culture that people don't know about."

Ridgeway knows how a properly composed painting looks, but likes to keep a playful element in his work, because that's the way he would paint a wall. "I'm trying to present the two mediums together and actually bring people into our world a little bit and show them what it is we do."

Bridging the gap between graffiti culture and the community is something Ridgeway believes in. He is a strong supporter of maintaining open dialogue between graffiti artists and the municipality. Ridgeway was involved in a recent community art mural project in Dartmouth Cove. One of the murals facing the new Harbourfront Trail now includes a graffiti wall that allows interested artists to paint freely. He saw the project as both an artistic and collaborative opportunity for local artists, HRM's Community Development department and Dartmouth businesses.

"There's this misconception that graffiti begets more graffiti. But that's not the case. Tagging begets more tagging, but the only thing painting a big fantastic mural is going to do is make you want to paint big fantastic murals," he says.

Starting December 3, Ridgeway will be showcasing a collection of his work at Utility Gallery. The show, titled Oppenheimer: A Conception of Discourse, is named after J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist and director of the Manhattan Project in World War II. Oppenheimer is better known as the father of the atomic bomb that was later dropped on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Stylistically, the show is a nod to kaiju culture and it also acknowledges the rebuilding process and creativity that came from the aftermath of the tragedy.

Kaiju is the Japanese word for monster. It also refers to a genre of films. Famous kaijus include the behemoth Godzilla, Mothra and King Kong. An entire subculture including vinyl toys, art, books, comics, videos and even wrestling has developed around various kaiju characters.

For the past year and a half, kaiju culture has been a major influence on Ridgeway's work. Kaiju is based on 1950s American films, so the show is Ridgeway's interpretation of Japanese culture's reinterpretation of American culture.

"The point of this is to show my reaction to the reaction to the reaction. There's a general understanding that graffiti is low art; it's low culture.

"It's important to realize it's a positive thing to embrace. There are smart people making it. We are making it for you, for young people. Not just to appease them but to enrich them."

Oppenheimer: A Conception of Discourse, opens Monday, December 3 at 7pm. Runs to January 5 at Utility Gallery, 5224 Blowers (upstairs).


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