St. Clair grad cashed in steady business to become nomadic street artist

Street artist Justin Vallee takes a break while painting a building on Ontario Street. Glenn Ogilvie

Cathy Dobson

Did you ever feel like you were living a lifestyle that you didn’t want to live anymore? Justin Vallee did.

So five years ago, a s he approached his 30th birthday, he did something about it.

The Sarnia native gave up his comfortable life, a lucrative landscaping business and suburban home to try his luck as a street artist.

That took him to Miami where there’s a vibrant street art scene. He found a business partner and they travelled the world, sometimes working together, sometimes alone. At last count, they’ve painted more than 100 buildings as far away as Poland, Portugal, and Thailand.

They’ve also starred in a Fusion TV reality show called The Dukes of 2Square (see fusion.net), done some modelling, worked for Vogue, designed labeling for a winery, and held a few exhibitions of their work.

“I’ve always been an artist,” says the 34-year-old St. Clair Secondary alumnus.  “When I had the landscaping business I was making six figures. But then I went backpacking around Europe and saw these huge outdoor murals by some brilliant artists.

“It opened my mind.”

On his return from backpacking, he sold his business and abandoned a steady income to enter a tough, competitive world that doesn’t always pay.

The first 18 months, he was doing little more than graffiti – always pictures and never letters – but illegal all the same.

His second tour of Europe changed that. He and his business partner, Jeremiah Taylor, began earning a reputation for their massive street murals. These days, the building’s owners sanction their work. Patrons pay for their travel and materials. Frequently there is a commission.

If his phone isn’t ringing, Vallee takes his portfolio and starts knocking on doors, asking if the owner wants a wall mural.

“Generally, I’ll get an average of three no’s, then a yes.  It doesn’t take much,” he said.

Last week, while in Sarnia to visit family, a high school buddy offered up two walls to paint at 128 Ontario St.  Vallee has several themes in his work: roses, female dancers and cats.  The building at 128 Ontario is now covered in cats; cats hanging from windows and crawling over one another in vibrant purples, blues and greens. It’s signed by 2square.

“The five corners in Sarnia is a good location,” said Vallee. “You want to be seen. You want your work to be posted all around the world.”

His is not a get-rich-quick scheme. He just wants to have enough pocket change to travel with his girlfriend and have a place to hang his hat. There have been lean times and times of plenty.

Currently, he’s happy to be living somewhere in Miami where there is a shower, he said.

Street art is going mainstream, according to Vallee. Many communities are hosting annual street art festivals where entire neighbourhoods, like Miami’s famous Wynwood Art District, are transformed.

Street art festivals draw tourists and convert ugly buildings into works of art, said Vallee.

“Thousands do it but only hundreds tour and are paid to do big art,” he said. “I’m not quite in that elite group of hundreds but my goal is to get there someday.”

To see Vallee’s work, visit www.follow2square.com. To see it in person, check out the newly-painted walls at 128 Ontario St. or the side of Lola’s restaurant on Christina Street, which he painted a few years ago.

The Arts Journal reflects what makes the Sarnia Lambton community come alive culturally.  If you have a story idea, contact Cathy Dobson at cathy.dobson@thesarniajournal.ca or 226-932-0985.