Starchild Stela is a prominent part of Montreal’s underground art scene, known mainly for their activist graffiti/street art, zines, and fine art. If you live in Montreal, chances are you’ve seen their work in the streets. If you haven’t, now you’ll probably notice them everywhere.
High-femme imagery and characters paired with bold slogans such as “support survivors” (of sexual violence) and “he won’t change, just leave” can be found painted on exterior walls, freight trains, and slapped on mailboxes/other public spaces in sticker-form. Fierce and powerful, they have a style that turns heads and makes a difference, from making drab infrastructure more aesthetically pleasing to making the world a better place.
Starchild Stela agreed to do an interview on how they got started, their relationship to DIY culture, giving back to the community, and their views on the Montreal graffiti scene.
girlplague: When did you start doing street art/graffiti, and why?
Starchild Stella: This is a question that comes up a lot for me in interviews, and it’s a bit odd to answer for me because it was still an era where street art wasn’t popular yet. It wasn’t an enlightened decision, it wasn’t really planned.
I started because other people I knew were tagging, everybody in my circle kinda did it (although not seriously). Everybody had their name & signature. At that time we didn’t have access to fancy sprays and it was niche and you got to really suck at first, just the type of stuff teens who spent lots of time outside would do.
I really had not much going on in my life at that time besides struggling and being angry at the world, I was drawing a bit but “art’’ wasn’t really a thing for me. I was a “bad kid” and went through a lot with the justice system, was on probation (for other reasons) during pretty much all my teenhood and pretty much felt untalented and useless. I think I was also looking for something to do to deal with myself.
My first “graff” was pretty much the same character as I do today but it was really bad. We stole sprays in a car and we did it, and I remember, ah – that’s really something I could be good at. (This would be circa 2002-2003).
You make personal/art zines. Do you find a correlation between the DIY nature of both zines and graffiti?
There’s a DIY connection with everything I do, it is my lifestyle. Coming from a low income background and still being poor, unfit for conventional “work” because of disability as well as a desire for independence led me to live “for free” as much as I can.
I think it’s also grounded in a hope for community. Zines were an inherent part of my recovery, and so is graffiti. I don’t like rich people graffiti – lol. I think consumerism and technicality within the “industry” of graffiti makes it feel inaccessible to people.
I see it as an illusion; you can add flares and robotically paint something fancy looking but it won’t be interesting if you don’t have a genuine style. The truth is you don’t need fancy paint to make cool things. I don’t know, for me graffiti that is not DIY is likely to be boring and I couldn’t care less for art by privileged university students or 30 something graffiti uncles. This may sound cocky but the scene is so oversaturated!
The graffiti/street art scene is very male-dominated. How has this affected you as non-binary and femme?
Honestly I was so unaware of feminism before – the way people acted towards me within these circles made me really self-conscious of my gender, how I was never gonna fit in. Experiences of misogyny made me learn about anti-oppression.
Graff is a scene where women are still perceived as either sluts or wifey. Since I don’t fit in either category that just makes me an oddity. But at the same time, graffiti has no gender. If you put the work in, the people that need to know will know, it’s not about pleasing people, so at the end you do you. It”s about you and your friends fucking shit up.
You do a lot of work fighting against rape culture, transphobia, racism, and other types of oppression. Is there a political agenda in your work, or is it natural to you because you are passionate about these topics?
At this point I don’t know if qualifying my art as “fighting” is correct; generally I explore in topics that affect me directly. For example, I do lots of work surrounding surviving traumas, especially in my writing.
I don’t see my art as activism but often people say that my work is political. But it’s fucking 2017 I think anyone’s work is political. As a white person, I think it’s inappropriate to call anything I do as anti-racist or anti-colonial, although I do my best to unlearn oppressive behaviours, to learn and pay reparations where it’s due. But these things are not a political agenda; I think we should all take the time to reflect in the ways we are complicit and support directly the work of people who are affected by these systems of oppression.
I try to “give back’’ to my community in various ways; however I tend to do work only about experiences I know. I’m highly interested in anti-oppression politics, read a lot, do my best to unlearn oppressive behaviours and recognize the ways I am benefitting from systemic oppression. I try to remain critical and humble.
You’ve been travelling a lot and doing a lot of work in other cities, including a residency at James Black Gallery (Vancouver) in July. What are your experiences with and feelings on doing work in places other than Montreal?
I have been here all of my life, so it feels good to get out. I am immensely privileged to be able to do that work. Montreal for me is my home of traumas. Going places I’ve never been, even if they are only a couple of hours drive away, makes the memories flow around and heal myself.
I am lucky. I want to meet new people and often feel stuck in Montreal. Travelling brought me perspectives. Right now I’m working on an upcoming show with Laurence Philomene to be held in Toronto.
You have a large following, including almost 10 000 followers on instagram. What do you have to say to fans who are inspired by you, and/or want to follow in your footsteps?
Don’t follow my footsteps is my main advice lol. I say that because I made lots of mistakes, learned some lessons the hard way. I’d just say do what you love with sincerity, be humble, even if you think you’re the shit there’ll always be people who will disagree.
Listen if you get called out, learn to take your space, and leave room for others. You don’t have to be under the spotlight all the time. Be aware of your privileges. Respect the people who support you. Have fun – you can’t have fun all the time of course, but if the work you do brings you joy, you are up to something.
Do you have any non-art related aspirations in life?
Live my best life. Getting my shit together. Baking the most delicious desserts on earth. Developing my practice as a witch. Being there for survivors. Develop strong friendships and travel if I get the chance. Being financially stable enough to support my family and my cats without stress. I want to put energy in healing & managing my PTSD, to live a healthy and joyful life.