The tag JERM IX is familiar in Peterborough, found almost everywhere around town. Sometimes, his stenciled poetic prose screams at you from gray and desolate walls. Recently, his arrest in Port Hope has prohibited him from creating street art again any time soon.
“Outside of my home, I cannot purchase or possess paint, oils, markers, brushes, and even a pen until my court case is resolved. I also can’t leave Ontario and I can’t enter Northumberland County,” says Jeremy Bertrand. Born and raised in Peterborough, the 39-year-old has been outspoken about how art has helped him cope with his struggles better than any form of therapy and medication.
In late August, Bertrand walked past a wall on the Ganaraska River in Port Hope, where he saw swastikas spray-painted over an old tag of his. He responded by painting a large-scale, three-dimensional tag in pink paint measuring 10 feet tall and 140 feet long. After the warrant for his arrest was issued Bertrand turned himself in, and by noon that day, the wall had been painted over by a city councilor and a group of volunteers.
So what is it about JERM IX that makes people react so strongly? In asking people in the community, I was met with a mixed reaction to the artist’s work, as graffiti is most frequently associated with vandalism. Last year in an article titled “Peterborough, Meet JERM IX,” published in The Peterborough Examiner, it was clarified that his street art is reserved for public and abandoned spaces.
In response to the reaction in Northumberland, Bertrand argues that what he did by painting that mural, and what those did by painting over it, were inherently the same thing. “Why is there not a manhunt for this city councilor and these volunteers? They went and purchased paint and painted over something they found offensive. That’s exactly what I did.”
So why should we care about whether or not this person can spraypaint a bridge somewhere? Bertrand openly discusses what it’s like to live with his diagnosis: “I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my mid-thirties. I have bipolar 1 disorder, anxiety disorder, ADHD, and suicidal ideation. I focus on suicide every day, all day. I think about it, I dream about it. On my wedding day a couple of weeks ago, it was the best day of my life. I couldn’t take the smile off my face. Between ‘I do’ and the kiss I thought about suicide.”
Bertrand sees a direct connection between his struggles, and the struggles of many wo experience poverty and homelessness in downtown Peterborough, and his art. “The graffiti on the wall is a microcosm,” Bertrand says. “It’s the same thing as when I talk online about my mental health issue and people say, ‘yeah fine you have mental health issues, but…’ When you want to clean up the graffiti and take it all away it’s the same thing as that: ‘mental health issues, but…’ Everyone wants to avoid the actual issue: that there are people in the streets suffering from mental illnesses, that there’s people living in poverty. Graffiti is part of that just like everything else is.”
This discussion with an artist who lived on the streets, who has been a victim of abuse and experienced prison, opened my eyes to the core of an issue. Graffiti can be an access point to the world of art, for those who weren’t introduced to it in a curriculum or at home.
For Bertrand, that introduction came by discovering Thesis Sahibs graffiti in a London, Ontario alley in the early 2000s. “How does a little poor kid find culture unless it doesn’t get put into his face? I would have never even found this outlet of art if I hadn’t found that wall in an alley in London. I may have never gone into an art gallery, I may have never discovered culture, I may have never grown up. I never would have found out who Norval Morrisseau is, I would not know who Arthur Erickson is, I wouldn’t know anything about Canadian history.”
Peterborough is the perfect place to open up a dialogue about access and art. What is art, and can what JERM IX does be classified as art? We have such a beautiful and supportive artistic community, rich with spaces and galleries and events. Then there’s this other side, growing up on the streets, on the train tracks where you’re spray-painting your anguish.
Whether you love JERM IX, or hate him, you can’t deny the fact that this graffiti artist makes you feel something. That is the essence of art. His poems might get ripped away, and he might get told to stop what he’s doing, but that won’t stop people from seeing it and asking what it’s is about.
“Nobody wants to deal with the systematic issues. Society just wants to clean the walls and make it look like it doesn’t exist,” Bertrand says. “They want to make panhandling illegal, they want to make aggressive panhandling illegal—they just don’t want to see it. They don’t want to see me, they don’t want to see sick people, they don’t want to see poor people—they just don’t want to see it. They want to see grey fucking walls that no one can interpret in any way other than ‘everything’s fine.’ I don’t think anyone gives a shit that I’m sick. They just don’t want paint on their walls.”
Though he is no stranger to criticism, JERM also sees people reach out to him on the streets. He receives regular messages from people who saw a poem or piece of his that resonated with them. “I’ve taken ownership for it,” he says, “and I’ve realized that the stigma is so bad, especially for men. I have the confidence to stand up and do something about it when my mental health allows, so I’m going to at every opportunity.”
JERM IX’s art will be on display at Star X from November 3 to 25 as part of the Salon des Refusés exhibit, part of the Precarious Festival (more info).
Stencil image by Gabe Pollock. Other images courtesy JERM IX.