Rebel music: the story of Victoria street legend Hans Fear
Fear was a prolific street artist, an avid skater, and the force behind Victoria's first skatepark
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Fear was a prolific street artist, an avid skater, and the force behind Victoria's first skatepark
A young graffiti writer, taking a shortcut through a Fernwood parking lot, notices the faded face of a vampire clown to the left of the takeout window at Cold Comfort Ice Cream.
Though the building has changed hands many times since the face was painted in 1994, no business owner nor vandal has touched it, out of respect. The young artist, who goes by the name Cusp, immediately recognizes it as the work of the late Hans Fear.
“My mind was blown. I didn’t think there was any more [of his work] left in existence,” Cusp says.
Hans died in 2001. His legacy, however, remains, plastered like his art on the memories of many who walked the streets of Victoria in the ‘90s. His work has transcended the inherently temporary nature of graffiti and cemented itself into Victoria culture.
Hans, known to some as ‘Hanner,’ was a well-known figure in the emerging music, skateboarding, and graffiti subcultures of Victoria during the ‘80s and ‘90s. With a crew of like-minded friends and artists, he was one of the first people in the city to take his art to public walls as the influence of graffiti made its way over from New York City. Though he was known to the graffiti scene by his tag ‘Ghost’ as well as his intricate characters drawn across the city, his influence spread well beyond that. Hans played a key role in Victoria getting its first real skatepark, and he designed shirts, stickers, and gig posters for many of the punk and hip-hop groups of the time.
“He’s like this mythical figure,” Cusp says.
This perception of the artist comes not only from the younger generation of Victorians who grew up hearing stories of him, but from old friends as well. “He had this mystique,” says Erik Volet, an artist who painted with Hans in the ‘90s. “I viewed him as literally like a wizard… as this otherworldly, mystical cat.”
It was 1984, and the hip-hop flick Beat Street had just come out. Youth across the world saw the DJ-ing, breakdancing, spray-painting antics of the teens from the Bronx, and did what any sensible teenagers would: try it at home. Hans and two friends, Rennie “Dubnut” Foster and the late James “Jamer” Lindsay started their own graffiti crew, the first in Victoria: PIC (Paid In Crime). The trio had been skating together for some time, and formed a close bond over their shared passions for drawing and music.
As rebellious teens that were already interested in art, it’s no surprise that graffiti appealed to them. The art form was a culmination of the worlds of skateboarding, art, and music they were already entrenched in. Graffiti presented a new opportunity for them to express themselves in a way that was still familiar: breaking the norms of the world around them. While their work was predictably met with some negative reactions from those that viewed it as ugly, or as a stain on their beautiful clean city, there were also many that were excited about the new art form. After his spray-painted characters caught the attention of Monday Magazine, Foster was offered a weekly comic strip, and the magazine funded a PIC mural downtown. Featured on the cover of Monday Magazine, the mural read: “NYC Style… PIC”.
Foster, the last surviving member of PIC crew, sits on his back porch in Burnaby as he reminisces about his days of subversive youthfulness. “I’ve got Jamer and Hans on here,” he says, motioning to his tattoos. On his right arm are Hans’s birth and death dates, alongside one of his gremlin characters; on his left, a tribute piece to Jamer. “Some of the most important people in my life,” he pauses. “It’s hard to explain, but I have to be thankful that I'm still here, out of the three of us—to say this, and to tell this story.
“We were very young and figured we were pretty badass,” he continues. “A lot of it was trying to be like what we were seeing in New York in pictures and magazines. We were absorbing movements that were happening around the world.” Around the same time, Foster had formed the first hip-hop group in Victoria, Sound Advice. The group put on a concert at Vic High, where he and Hans briefly attended school together. At this concert, Foster was expelled for making up a freestyle about the principal. This was the beginning of many rap battles, DJ nights, and hip-hop parties throughout the city, as the evolving genre made its way across North America. The emerging hip-hop movement in Victoria was a shock to many, and was unlike anything the city had seen before, contrary to even the predominant youth culture in the city, which Foster describes more as “hippies” than hip-hoppers. “We wore Polo head to toe; Hilfiger and gold,” he says. “We dreamed of New York streets and big-city life.” Sound Advice and their surrounding crew would become the precursor to well-known Canadian hip-hop acts such as Swollen Members and Moka Only.
Though Victoria is often better remembered for its punk music scene during the ‘80s and ‘90s, hip-hop groups would perform alongside the punk bands of the time, with Sound Advice even opening for Green Day during a concert at Beacon Hill Park. Present in both scenes, the members of PIC would often catch music, party, and hang out at places such as the Rat’s Nest or the Dayglo Abortions’ house on Mason Street. Drugs and drinking were ever-present, and Foster notes that during their PIC days, he and Lindsay were always looking to party; Hans, however, would never take part.
“Hans wouldn't even eat junk food. Me and Jamer would stuff anything into our face… Hans was so against that.”
The trio spent late nights wandering the city, not only catching tags, but discussing things they felt only they could discuss together. They shared their family problems, their fears of the future, their struggles with mental health. In his early teens, Hans was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and as the disease developed, he abandoned his straight-edge lifestyle.
“He started changing, a lot,” says Foster.
For the skateboarders of the ‘80s, there was no skatepark in Victoria to go to, so the corners of downtown became the de-facto meetup spots. After school, the streets would fill with youth on skateboards. “We’d skate spots all around the city, come back downtown and hang out with the punks, hang out with the skinheads, and the crazy, wild, downtown street people. That’s kind of what the lifestyle was,” says Jake Warren, a longtime skateboarder and friend of Hans.
He points out the downtown corner of View and Douglas, specifically, as a spot that commonly saw dozens of kids with skateboards hanging out and trying tricks. The downtown businesses eventually grew wary of youth loitering while looking for something to do, and the police began to confiscate skateboards and hand out tickets. “Hans was always the most upset about being hassled by police or security guards. He took it personally; it would really affect him. Whenever Hans got his board taken away, it was like a tragedy, Warren says: “It would mess with him emotionally. You wouldn’t see him for a few days until he got a new board. He needed a skateboard.”
Sick of the harassment and having nowhere to legally practice skateboarding, Hans and Lindsay organized a protest for a skatepark. With Hans as the ringleader, a group of youth made signs and marched into City Hall after school, demanding to see the mayor, Gretchen Brewin. This protest was a catalyst for the creation of the Victoria Street Surf Association, an organization for skateboarders in Victoria; Warren became the chairperson while the group took on the challenge of “convincing a bunch of people that all of us wild crazy freaks deserved a place to go.”
Hans was in attendance at all of these meetings. Already a legend as a skater and artist at 17, he was a uniting factor for the group, providing much-needed comic relief as they dealt with the drawn-out official proceedings. After years of meetings between the Victoria Street Surf Association and the city, the first official skatepark opened in Victoria in 1992, at the location that is now home to the bustling Vic West Skatepark.
By this point in the ‘90s, the Victoria graffiti scene had expanded. PIC had fallen from their dominance of the streets as Foster began to focus more on music, and Lindsay focused primarily on skating while dealing with his own mental-health issues and addiction. Hans continued to paint with newer and younger artists in the scene and became a member of IBC (Island’s Blessed Children), a Victoria-based graffiti crew consisting of many artists who now have successful careers in both street and canvas-based art, such as Erik “Arok” Volet and Peter Allen, or “Sper”.
In 1993, Volet was in grade 8 and just beginning to write graffiti. Already interested in skateboarding and drawing, he had begun to take notice of the artwork around him on the streets. One day while downtown, he saw some of the older skate kids with Ghost characters on their t-shirts. He asked about their shirts and who drew them. They answered, “This is Hans Fear—don’t you know Hans Fear?”
Not long after that, Volet would meet Hans for the first time, at one of his local haunts, Pagliacci’s Restaurant. Hans walked in with his girlfriend, and Volet asked to see his blackbook. “I looked at it for what felt like an hour, poring over it. This was my first chance to see, like, a professional person’s work up close, not just on a wall… I absolutely had my eyeballs popping out looking at them.”
His art was thriving, but as Hans entered his twenties, his schizophrenia worsened. He would stay up for days at a time, working on drawings, and he used drugs more frequently. Though he was still a prolific graffiti artist, it was not uncommon for Hans to be seen downtown standing atop a bench or planter downtown like a street preacher, speaking his mind to a group of passersby who would stop and listen to what he had to say. Hans was particularly concerned about the way the environment was being treated, with the “war in the woods” ongoing at Clayoquot sound.
Hans’s artwork has slowly disappeared from the city over the decades, dutifully scrubbed off the walls that still stand while others are demolished entirely. But he and his crew didn’t waste their energy rebelling against the city’s old-world stodginess, Foster recalls; in fact, they never felt that Victoria was boring, entrenched as they were in the new and exciting culture that they were helping to create. Today his art and life are a window into a bygone era of Victoria’s history: a time of weirdness, creativity, rule-breaking, and fun that has since faded to the margins. Venues, dive bars, and the people who ran and populated them are incompatible with million-dollar condos and skyrocketing rents.
“Logan's [Pub] closing is the tombstone on the legacy that is Fernwood: Vic High, punk rock, skateboarding, graffiti,” Allen says over the phone from his current home in New Zealand. “The other day, I was painting,” he continues. “You know what I decided to do? You know I like to blast my music, right? So I blasted Bob Marley, Rebel Music. I decided to call my piece Rebel Music, because it seems like nobody understands the art of being crazy in public, disrupting reality with insanity. I feel like Ghost and his legacy symbolizes rebel music. … We used to get wild on the streets of Oak Bay.”
He says it’s harder for people to live the way he lived in Victoria today. His advice to young artists in Victoria? Move. “If you’re an art student, and you can pay half the amount of rent you’re paying here, why wouldn’t you move to Montreal? It’s seriously affordable to live there. Montreal loves freaks.”
Volet still lives in Victoria as an artist. But he sometimes wonders, with the cost and cultural stiffness, why he doesn’t leave. “Sometimes it feels very ghostly to still be here. It’s a very colonial city, so no matter how hip it wants to be when it thinks it’s being hip, it’s surrounded and enshrouded by a colonial history that it really doesn’t seem to know how to shake. When I was last in Vancouver, there was tons of street music. Regardless of how good it is or not, someone was allowed to play their electric guitar pretty damn loud. That wouldn’t — from my perspective — happen here. I personally believe that it affects even the youth culture here, the youth become quiet. That environment doesn’t make people feel loose, or celebratory, or trusting, or warm.”
Though artists have always left the small city for bigger and brighter destinations, some feel the trend is picking up speed. Alter and Cusp, two of Victoria’s most prolific young graffiti writers, now live in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood. They explain that being in a new, bigger city, and living without the stress of Victoria rent has renewed their passion for art. “As far as doing art goes, like drawings and canvases and stuff, I’m way more inspired here,” says one. “I feel like I have more energy.” The other says that his time growing up in Victoria feels different than the stories passed down from older graffiti writers. “It feels like that whole era of Hans is kind of gone now. The city is just turning into this totally different thing.”
During my earlier conversation with Foster, I ask him, now a father and successful musician, if he has any regrets looking back on his law-breaking years as a rebellious youth. He pauses. “No regrets. It’s awesome that we did it, because it was the spark that was needed at the time, and that same kind of anger and rebellion was happening all over the place. Those times that I spent with Hans and Jamer, now that they're gone from this Earth, they're like gold to me.”
Foster descends from the back deck to his basement studio. “I’m so happy with my life as it is now. I mean, I’m not a massive superstar success, but I just do art for my life. I just do music,” he says, as he looks around his studio. The room is filled with production gear, stickers, and records, a number of them his own releases. “All that stuff is connected to my years of doing graffiti. It wouldn't be what it is without that. That was training, that was part of it. You can see it in everything that I do.” Grabbing a pen from his desk, the 49 year-old musician adds a tag to my notebook—“Dubnut - PIC”—with a handstyle so practiced it’s as if he never stopped writing graffiti. A track of his plays throughout the studio featuring Alfons Fear, Hans’ younger brother, on the trumpet. Alfons, he says, is “as good at playing the trumpet as Hans was at drawing.”
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Alfons Fear currently lives in Victoria with his wife and young child. Inside of his Hillside-Quadra apartment, he pulls out binder after binder of original drawings done by his older brother. “Talking about him, and looking at his art, it’s not only just a sadness, or feeling of loss, it’s also a feeling of inspiration. It’s kind of overwhelming,” says Alfons, dusting off another folder before opening it. “His art still has that energy about it.”
Some of the drawings are painstakingly detailed full-page fantasy scenes, which Hans would spend hours—even days—working on. Others are small caricatures and cartoons drawn onto torn off corners of paper, often drawn in the spur of the moment after a good laugh between Hans and a friend.
As the pages turn and we enter the magical world of Hans Fear, memories come flooding back to Alfons. He explains the tag ‘Ghost’ likely comes from a time Hans saw a spirit in their childhood home, a see-through woman with red eyes making strange noises. “He really saw those things. Ghosts, fairies, wood elves… I think that’s part of the name. With his illness, he was connected in a way that he could see other things, and he believed that they existed. And I think that had a profound effect on his art. He drew what was behind the forest.”
Alfons describes their upbringing in the 70’s as “quiet,” with lots of time spent outdoors camping, playing, and later skateboarding together. As Hans became more obsessed with art, he would completely ignore his schoolwork, instead choosing to spend hours drawing and listening to prog-rock records, especially from the band Yes. “It was constant,” says Alfons. “Like drawing on a scrap piece of paper and then giving it to you. His old room, he had drawn on the walls this whole scene of a haunted house..”
Not liking how his medication made him feel, he would be on and off of it periodically, spending more time in and out of the hospital. Eventually, Hans succumbed to his illness and took his own life in 2001, at the age of 30. “When he died, a hundred friends showed up at his funeral with their skateboards to honour him,” someone wrote in an online obituary post. Alfons says this is no exaggeration. “His funeral was at Christ Church Cathedral, it was full. Packed. Like, there were people from all generations. People from all different walks of life. People that lived on the street showed up. There was this huge community… I didn’t realize so many people knew him.”
Twenty years since his brother’s passing, Alfons still meets people who were touched by his brother’s life. When he started taking kung-fu classes recently, his instructor was speaking to a friend of his in the class, saying, “There’s something about Alfons, I can’t figure it out.” The friend replied, “Well, it could be that he’s Hans’s brother?” “He was shocked,” says Alfons. “He said, ‘I was a street kid, and Hans helped me get out. I looked up to him, and he helped get me out of that world.’ It still happens..”
I mention that on my way to his apartment, I noticed a Ghost tribute piece recently done by someone from IBC at Wildfire Cafe on Quadra. He hasn’t seen it yet but is excited to go check it out. “I always find that Hans appears... a Ghost appears again, at these times of remembering,” he says. Though Alfons was never involved in graffiti himself, he says he is fascinated by the young people and artists that look up to the life and work of his brother.
In the world of graffiti, one of the most important things a new writer has to learn is the history of those that came before them. Stories and names are passed down through the generations in order to preserve this history, and to fully grasp the culture of the art form that they are a part of. In such a temporary and often undocumented art form, particpants rely on stories from older generations to learn the origins of their cities’ graffiti culture. To any aspiring graffiti writer in Victoria, learning about Hans Fear is a required chapter in this lesson. Not being familiar with Ghost would be considered nearly blasphemous, akin to painting a canvas without knowledge of Picasso. In 2018, Allen and Alfons put together “The Hans Fear Book,” a full-colour collection of his artwork and stories from friends and family, and Allen painted a full-wall permanent tribute to Hans, recreating some of his many characters for the City of Victoria’s Concrete Canvas mural project.
Cusp stopped in his tracks in the cold Comfort Parking lot, taking it in. He recalls that he felt almost annoyed in the moment, that nobody had told him about its existence before.
“It’s really cool to be walking around the same streets as this legend. It makes you feel connected to something,” says Cusp. “I wasn’t even alive when he passed away, and I still know about him and look up to his work, and know all these stories.”
For an hour, he says, he sat there looking through a window into one of the last remaining vestiges of a Victoria that’s slowly fading away.