East Van Rules

TEXT + PHOTOS Tanya Southcott

It hovers over the corner of Clark Drive and East 6th Avenue, visible especially at dusk–a neon white cross floating four storeys above the street and the industrial lands to the west.

Known locally as the East Van Cross, or by its official title Monument for East Vancouver, this 18-metre piece of public art by Vancouver-based artist Ken Lum has confronted the downtown Vancouver skyline for just over a year and a half since its installation in preparation for the XXI Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.

Visible from several kilometres away, it delineates East Vancouver, traditionally a lower-income working-class neighbourhood that is increasingly considered as the cultural heart of the city. As public art, it meets with mixed reviews and is labelled both “a sacrilegious eyesore” and an “institution for Vancouver to be proud of.”

Lately, however, the monument has been the centre of a battle over ownership rights for what many now consider to be a public icon. As a graphic, the emblem boasts a rich history. According to the monument’s creator, the symbol recalls the geography of his early childhood, growing up in the parks and back alleyways of Strathcona and other parts of East Vancouver. Others recall seeing it as early as the late 1950s and early 1960s, and again in the mid-1990s during its renaissance as the mark of local gangs. Its roots are elusive. No one really knows where it came from and this is part of its appeal.

Yet it has always been recognized as a marker of East Van. Lum has essentially formalized the graffiti, elevating it both physically above the street plane, and culturally as an icon, bringing it into the realm of public consciousness in a way never achieved before.

Commissioned by the City of Vancouver as part of the Olympic and Paralympic Public Art Program, the art piece is now registered as an official trademark with the City and no one has the right to deny its use by others. From Lum’s perspective, “It’s part of the history of the city. So I don’t think anyone should be able to own that sign, not even myself.”1

What has become obvious throughout the evolving controversy is the potency of a symbol that allies with both the official and underground histories of a place. For architects in the business of making icons that enter into the public domain (anonymously for the most part), the epic of the cross is a compelling story. It questions ideas of creative licence and ownership, but also of authenticity, the origins of icons, and their longevity within the public realm. CA

1Cole, Yolande. “East Van cross symbol has been around for decades.” Georgia Straight. 12 July 2011. www.straight.com/print/403386

Tanya Southcott is a Vancouver architect who lives and works within a 3-kilometre radius of the East Van sign.