It was a brutal year for Smokey D.
The Downtown Eastside graffiti artist lost 17 friends to overdoses, including Dawn, his girlfriend of a decade. After being clean for “a long time,” Dawn died at a party where she smoked crack and heroin cut with fentanyl, said Smokey, 47, who asked that his real name not be published.
“It ripped a hole in my heart, man,” he said. “I always thought I would die before her.”
Since an overdose crisis began sweeping across B.C. — killing 755 people in the first 11 months of 2016 alone — Smokey has painted a dozen murals, memorials for those who have died in the community and warnings about the dangers of using fentanyl-tainted street drugs without others present to call for help.
Fentanyl, a toxic opioid, has been detected in 60 per cent of illicit-drug overdose deaths this year, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.
“It killed a lot of people in my world, so I have no time for it,” Smokey said
In an alleyway near Hastings and Carrall streets, where people use drugs with health care workers nearby, Smokey’s brightly-coloured tributes and fact-based murals have some people calling him the “Underworld Street Reporter,” he said. Before Postmedia located him, drug users heaped praise on his paintings for keeping them aware of fentanyl’s deadly toll.
Smokey’s obsession with graffiti began when he was in high school in North Vancouver. He credits the 1984 film Beat Street, a drama exploring New York’s hip hop culture, with exposing him to a style of art he would spend the next three decades making his own.
He eschews costly street-art spray paint for whatever materials he can get his hands on. Most murals take 30 minutes and many are painted in moments of anguish, such as an alleyway tribute to Dawn he painted in the twilight hours one morning in June.
“Bright colours are good in a dark place,” he said.
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But despite his tremendous loss in 2016, Smokey remains thankful for blessings in recent years.
In 1994, after a stint selling heroin and cocaine in Vancouver’s rave scene, Smokey found himself addicted, couch surfing and growing apart from his family. In the decade that followed, he was slapped with charges and jailed for his graffiti.
But he hasn’t seen the inside of a jail cell for eight years, he said. He believes Vancouver police are no longer bothered by his murals, which are mostly contained to the alleyways near Hastings. “Maybe it’s the messages, you know?” he said.
He’s grown closer to his eight-year-old son, who lives in Richmond, and in 2013, he became a participant of the SALOME prescription-heroin trial at the Providence Crosstown Clinic. He credits SALOME with helping him maintain his health and housing while keeping him out of trouble.
With tainted street drugs killing so many in B.C., he believes more drug users should have access to pharmaceutical heroin in a clinical setting.
He holds hope that his community can overcome the crisis taking so many lives.
“I just want people to stay positive,” Smokey said. “I don’t want people to see it all gloomy down here.”