Old names of familiar faces linger in Vancouver

Old Names

Negro, Chinaman, Half-breed and Tramp are some words describing the mugshots of long dead people at Granville and Robson - Photo by Jennifer Johnston

The 2011 Stanley Cup riots made mugshots a familiar sight on the corner of Robson and Granville. There’s new faces there now, and upon first glance, you might think the images in front of the downtown Sears building are yet another accusatory collage dedicated to shaming the participants of the riots.  But in reality, most of the subjects in this particular set of pictures have been dead for decades.

They are part of Rogue’s Gallery, the latest installation of InTransit BC’s (ITBC) Public Art Program, which is dedicated to showcasing local artists by letting them use locations in and around the Canada Line as free art space.

This installation by Jessica Bushey and Cam Andrews is comprised of sixteen different mug shots, each of them highlighting the purported crimes, backgrounds, and ethnicity of its subject. The photographs date back as far as 1899, with the crimes its unwilling participants are accused of ranging from chicken thievery, to prostitution, to murder.

The images were taken from a book of the same name that was found in the City Of Vancouver archives by archivist/photographer Jessica Bushey seven years ago. The piece was submitted to ITBC when her partner Cam Andrews discovered that ITBC had a space at their Robson and Granville location.

“They’ve always been in the back of my mind,” says Bushey talking about the mug shots. She added that the century old arrest records reveal a lot of information about numerous aspects of the history of Vancouver, including multiculturalism, prejudices, stereotypes, and port town socio-economics. Bushey says the location of the piece ties into its themes.

 “It (the corner of Robson and Granville) seemed to me the most ideal location for Rogue’s Gallery, especially in light of everything that had gone on with the Stanley Cup Riots,” says Bushey.

She says that the way people documented themselves using social media as a public domain to express themselves during the riots, offers a sharp contrast to the public shame that even something like a simple mug shot could invoke a hundred years ago.

Bushey is pleased with the reaction the piece has garnered thus far.

“The Canada Line program has been pretty brave, I think,” she says. “The art program is really willing to engage people.”

Bushey and Andrews had some concerns about possible vandalization of their installation, considering that some of the language like Chinaman, half-breed, negro…is inflammatory. But these were terms used in the original records and would be considered inflammatory today. But the couple resolved to let any such destruction serve as part of the piece. ITBC’s ancillary activities coordinator, Janice Fairley, shares Bushey’s excitement.

“I think what grabs people is that these people (the subjects of the piece) came here around the turn of the century to find their place in a new city, but just got off the track a little bit,” says Fairley when asked what she thought people were responding to about the piece.

Fairley says that ITBC knows that reaction can’t always be predicted when dealing with public art, especially considering that 110,000 people a day use the Canada Line. She also adds that while some people like certain art and some people don’t, the real goal is for people to be engaged.

“We don’t expect people to always love what we do, but this one (Rogue’s Gallery) hasn’t had anything but good comments so far,” says Fairley.

As Vancouver is a relatively young city (and one that tends to cannibalize its past) Rogue’s Gallery is an opportunity to explore both the good, and the bad, about our beginnings as a sleepy port town.

“We’ve got an amazingly rich history, and I think this will get more people talking about the history of Vancouver” says Bushey.

“Today people voluntarily give up their privacy, but here’s proof that pictures never disappear. What a shift in a hundred years.”