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TRAVEL

Montreal’s gone mad for murals, and we’re here for it

People watched artists at work during the MURAL Festival in Montreal in June.PAOLA CHAPDELAINE/AFP via Getty Images

MONTREAL — “Why are you coming to Canada?” asked the fellow at the border crossing station. “To see murals,” we replied.

“Who’s Muriel?”

Obviously, this guy wasn’t aware of it, but Montreal has become a major zone for street art. How many murals does this colorful city have? Let’s put it this way: There are two murals devoted to native son, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Depending on how you count them up (if you include the small ones), there are approximately 1,500 to 2,000 murals in and around Canada’s second-largest city. One of them is 17 stories tall. And if you visit during the annual MURAL Festival, (www.muralfestival.com) you can see the artists in action.

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For 11 days in June, Boulevard Saint-Laurent (a.k.a. The Main) in the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood is closed to cars and becomes a lively corridor of art, music, dining, and pop-up shops. One of North America’s largest mural festivals, Montreal’s free event draws upward of 200,000 people to the streets. We visited this year, as the festival came roaring back post-pandemic. We had just missed “Obey” muralist Shepard Fairey, who produced a new mural and, we’re told, DJ’d a dance party.

A mural artist painted an artwork on Saint-Laurent Boulevard during June's MURAL Festival in Montreal.PAOLA CHAPDELAINE/AFP via Getty Images

See some art, eat some chicken

“Some people just want to come and soak up the atmosphere and eat some Portuguese chicken” (at hot spot Rotisserie Coco Rico), says Pierre-Alain Benoît, general manager of MURAL. “Other people want to see all the art and try to understand it.” MURAL is the nonprofit responsible for the event, now in its 10th season.

More than 50 visual artists attended the festival to make their mark on Montreal — on walls, on sidewalks, on large spaces and small ones. Artists who participated this year, besides Fairey, included Mando Marie, Dalkhafine, Burnt Toast, Hatecopy, Caitlin McDonagh, Vexx, and Project Tyxna. Musical acts (among them, Lil Yachty) kept things lively come nightfall. Artists’ workshops and drawing lessons were part of the mix.

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Inspired by the Wynwood Art District in Miami, the goal of MURAL is to bring street art into the mainstream, Benoît says. “Street art as a global movement has really taken off in the last decade,” he notes. Artists are paid for their MURAL Festival artwork, and typically, they can create whatever they like. Building owners at the mural sites are given sketches in advance though, so they know what to expect. “Most building owners understand that what we do is art, and it adds to the vitality of the neighborhood,” Benoît adds.

Painted by Buff Monster, this ice cream-themed mural revitalized a street corner. Now, the storefront is home to eatery Dirty Dogs.Diane Bair

“Murals can be a catalyst for positivity,” he says, indicating a mural by Buff Monster that attracted a cantina to its empty storefront.

Technology has become an important element, as artists experiment with augmented reality, sound, and projection. This year, the MURAL Festival unveiled augmented reality exhibitions in two of Montreal’s parks, Parc du Portugal and Parc des Amériques. These works of digital art, created by local artists and downloadable on the MURAL Festival app, offer a journey into the future of urban art, organizers say.

One of two murals devoted to Montreal native Leonard Cohen, this one was created by Montreal artist Gene Pendon and American artist El Mac.Diane Bair

Murals in other neighborhoods

While Boulevard Saint-Laurent is Montreal’s Mural Central, with art alleys and murals galore, there’s plenty of street art in other neighborhoods. Near Quartier des spectacles, look for “Dazzle My Heart” by Canadian artist Michelle Hoogveld, a 17-story mural on the front facade of Le Germain Hotel Montreal. Hoogveld painted the mural last August, incorporating 80 colors and working from a sling stage suspended from the hotel’s rooftop. (Yikes.)

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Head down toward the river to the Quartier Latin to see street art created during the Under Pressure Annual Graffiti Festival (www.underpressure.ca). Founded in Montreal in 1996 by graffiti writers Seaz and Flow, Under Pressure is the oldest urban culture festival still active today. With events throughout August, Under Pressure focuses on community development and artist empowerment, with live painting sessions, music, and skateboarding.

No matter when you come, outdoor art adds some wow to a Montreal visit. Some say it’s even better in winter: “The colors really pop against the white snow,” says Martine Venne of Tourism Montreal. Thanks, but we’ll take summertime, when outdoor terraces and rooftops, like Boris Bistro and Réservoir, offer wonderful dining, and you can linger over cool graphic tees and vintage clothing at the boutiques along Boulevard Saint-Laurent.

A man looked for 3-D virtual artworks using the dedicated app during the MURAL Festival in Montreal in June.PAOLA CHAPDELAINE/AFP via Getty Images

Must-see murals

It’s easy enough to plan a DIY mural tour (there’s a map and artist bios online at www.muralfestival.com). To dig a little deeper, book a guided walk with Spade & Palacio (www.spadeandpalacio.com.) Their two-hour Mural Art Tour ($40CAD) features about 20 works. Tours are offered daily in high season and weekends in winter months.

Tour guide/owner Danny Pavlopoulos recommends a couple of murals as must-sees. Look for a piece by Portuguese artist Vhils (Alexander Farto) at the corner of Rue Belanger and Avenue de Chateaubriand. The artist uses a bas-relief carving technique that lends a mosaic look to this work. “She’s a subtle beauty,” Pavlopoulos says. Another favorite is a mural found at 1215 Rue Saint Mathieu. Created by Montreal graffiti writer Dré, part of the A’Shop Crew, this piece appears to feature a boy and his mom enjoying a book. Standing at a distance, “I noticed the creepy corporate aura of Earth Crusher, preying on the family from behind the trees. I absolutely love it!” Pavlopoulos says.

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Artsy additions to your colorful Montreal trip

So, drive to Montreal — about five hours by car from Boston — and make it an art-themed weekend. Here’s what else to see and do, and the perfect place to sleep: an art-adorned hotel, right in the neighborhood.

Stay here: Situated at the corner of Sherbrooke Ouest and Boulevard Saint-Laurent (a great location for murals, nightlife, and festivals), the 136-room Hotel 10 (www.hotel10montreal.com) caters to the creative crowd. Past guests have included Shakira, Fergie (Black Eyed Peas), and Snoop Dog. Art from Quebecoise makers is everywhere, and each floor has a stylized optical illusion mural, featuring a martini cup, stiletto shoe, guitar, and so on. Suite 2116 is dedicated to musician Dédé Fortin, who lived here for a time. Hotel 10 is pet-friendly, and there are services galore on-site, including a breakfast room, a bar serving lunch and dinner, a night club, a hair salon, and a car rental agency. There’s a parking garage, too. Rates from $269CAD from May-October; off-season, from $199CAD.

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Artful dining: We stayed for three days, and never ordered poutine. “That’s really kind of late-night food,” Venne confesses. (She didn’t add “when you’re drunk,” but it was implied.) You will eat well no matter what; Montreal is a foodie wonderland. “Food and festivals are our DNA!” Venne says. Everyone loves the pizza at Moleskine (www.moleskinerestaurant.com); the Genovese, with pesto, artichokes, mushrooms, and red onions is a good choice. For tasty tapas and great beer, Réservoir (http://reservoirbrasseur.com ) can’t be beat. Duck heart with chimichurri and broccoli three ways mingle happily on the menu. All of these spots are within walking distance of Hotel 10. Heading toward the Old Port (and named for a dog), Boris Bistro (www.borisbistro.com) is certified gluten-free, and offers tantalizing dishes like veal cheek with carrot and onion puree and blueberry gastrique, and seared tuna with green beans and lemon rice in a zesty citrusy sauce.

Worthy addition: Add to your eye-popping itinerary with more art-filled stops, like the Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal (www.macm.org; $10CAD; 17 and under free). The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (www.mbam.qc.ca/en/; ages 31 and over, $24CAD; ages 21-30, $16; 20 and under free) has a wonderful temporary exhibition going on through Oct. 16, Nicolas Party’s “L’Heure Mauve,” featuring the Swiss artist’s surrealist work in saturated tones. “It’s like a painter’s version of ‘Stranger Things,’ season four,” a fellow museumgoer told us.

For information: www.mtl.org/en.




Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com