Hamilton Should Commemorate Important Local Artists

We have stories in Hamilton, and we need to tell them to ourselves and to the world.

By Ryan Moran
Published April 16, 2014

this article has been updated

Teenage Head album cover (Image Credit: Wikipedia)
Teenage Head album cover
(Image Credit: Wikipedia)

When people talk about the Canadian punk movement, they are actually talking about Hamilton.

Few are aware of this outside of Hamilton, let alone around the world. Yet Hamilton ranks with London and New York City as the Canadian city with the most profound contribution to one of the most significant, international counter-cultural movements of the 20th century.

This should be recognized and publicly celebrated to both ourselves and visitors alike.

Divisive Criticism

When the story of the proposed Frankie "Venom" Kerr statue in Victoria Park broke this past weekend, it did so in a characteristically divisive way.

(Disclosure: I am one of the volunteers helping Brian McHattie's mayoral election campaign.)

The project is underway, but details have not been finalized. Proposals are still open to be received, the final price-tag has yet to be set, and public consultation is ongoing.

In other words, the important things are still in play, and this is unfolding as a discussion on public art should.

Yet the recent response has ranged from typical complaints about 'frivolity with tax-dollars' to more puritan concerns of 'celebrating a drug addict' all the way to the absurd 'not in a children's park!'

Regarding the drug-addict claim, this is purely subjective. Most people would have a harder time identifying monuments to famous icons who were not substance abusers, than those who were, let alone musicians. Moreover, vilifying someone for substance abuse is hardly constructive, and far from appropriate.

'Crumbling' Infrastructure

This initiative also faces the blanket claim that 'our crumbling infrastructure' should take precedence. However, our infrastructure is always going to be crumbling. That's what infrastructure does.

The most fruitless way to spend $200,000 of community re-investment is to pour it into roads, where will it be a drop that evaporates before it even reaches the bucket.

Infrastructure is a depreciating asset to every city in the world. If it is always prioritized over other investments, what we will be left with are temporarily pristine roads with little of interest on them.

This misplaced concern for tax dollars exists in spades in this city. We are prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the Aerotropolis, but a $200,000 proposal to recognize part of our culture draws public ire in a single weekend.

Shared Cultural History

Maybe it won't end up as a statue, and maybe it won't end up costing $200,000, but Hamilton needs to do a better job of celebrating its icons and history, both to visitors and to its own citizens.

What does not exist in Hamilton is our public recognition of a shared cultural history, let alone the recognition of Hamilton's leading contribution, on Canada's behalf, to a global counter-cultural movement.

We're so afraid of things that might seem even remotely frivolous in this city that the High-Level Bridge has had empty gaps where statues should go for the better part of a century.

I can count on one hand the number of monuments or non-functional recognition pieces (i.e. not hospitals or conference centres) that exist in Hamilton.

How many artistic tributes to John Lennon do you think there are in the world? Lennon was a counter-cultural icon who abused drugs and who expressed beliefs and exhibited behaviours that are contradictory to how we would like to remember him today.

I'm not suggesting Venom's cultural contributions are equal to Lennon's, but Venom should be at least as important to Hamilton as Lennon is to Costa Rica's San Jose Chinatown, where Lennon is immortalized in a seated bronze statue.

Would people in Queens be so opposed to a statue of any of The Ramones? Many such monuments do actually do exist - and not just in Queens. Would the people of London oppose commemorating the Sex Pistols or the Clash?

Regardless of musical tastes, these bands are icons, and Teenage Head was Canada's answer to them.

Grand Public Art

Beyond recognition of cultural icons, cities around the world have taken on projects ranging from memorializing local street-performers to grand public art pieces - such as Denver's 32 foot tall, lightning-blue, demonic, and quite anatomically correct stallion.

Each of these projects range in price from low to exactly what you'd think the aforementioned horse would cost. More importantly, though, these pieces create meaning, both to those who live in the community and to those who visit it.

A great example is the statue of Ignatius J. Reilly in New Orleans. Reilly is an obscene fictional character in John Kennedy O'Toole's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces.

He is someone who has no redeeming qualities, and never even existed. Yet he adorns a street because he is seen as a quintessentially New Orleans character. He is there not because it matters, but because it brings meaning and story to a community, and that's what matters.

We Have Stories

Whether it is a monument to Frankie Venom, Teenage Head, or someone else, this sort of recognition is important. We have stories in Hamilton, and we need to tell them to ourselves and to the world.

We all have flaws, but skill, talent, and deep cultural contributions that originate within our community need to be proudly and publicly celebrated. It enriches our civic story, and reminds us of what we have, can, do and are capable of contributing internationally.

We will never be world-class city unless we believe we can be, and act like it. This is what a world class city does.

Update: updated to add a disclosure that Ryan Moran volunteers with Brian McHattie's mayoral election campaign. RTH regrets the oversight in not including this right away.

Ryan Moran was born and raised in Hamilton's Strathcona neighbourhood. After obtaining an MBA in strategic marketing at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, where he also did a Bachelors of Arts in a combined major of Political Science and Theatre & Film, he joined the staff of factor[e] design initiative as their Marketing Communications Specialist.

Professionally, Ryan has been engaged with a number of consulting projects, particularly pertaining to topics of youth community development, marketing and social engagement, through both electronic and interpersonal means. He has previously worked for the McMaster Students Union, and ArcelorMittal Dofasco, and is a former chair of Hamilton Hive.


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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 16, 2014 at 16:11:08


Being a complete jerk seems practically required for greatness, somehow.

Even horrifying things like spousal violence... would anybody argue that world-changing men like Richard Feynman or John Lennon were unworthy of a statue, even one in a park? And yet John Lennon would have been the first to admit that he was once a terribly nasty and violent man who was utterly brutal to his various girlfriends and wives. Feynman was no saint either, who once choked his wife for arguing with him while he was trying to work through a challenging physics problem (also, he liked hookers).

That said, many of these projects do generally get some private or crowd-funded backers these days, at least partially.

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By the other side (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 16:33:27

I totally get what you're saying here in this blog post. I mostly agree with it too... however, I just couldn't care less about Punk (rock) or Frankie Venom. I am a huge fan of music of all genres I must add. I love art, I cherish what very few publicly displayed art pieces we have in our parks (we need MORE of that). As a life long Hamilton resident (who has lived all over the place and has come back time and time again), I really don't see what the hoopla is all about. I can think of several other more worthy names to put forth if we're talking about erecting monuments and public art as it pertains to important figures from our city's past. Music related or otherwise. IF this does pass, I hope the design of this sculpture is impressive and the artist chosen is TOP notch -- and most importantly I hope the artist gets the bulk of the asking fee as it should be... But Frankie Venom? Really? Oh my.

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By To err is human... (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 16:54:33 in reply to Comment 100345

Well, right now in Gore Park there stands a statue to an infamous alcoholic, fraudster, and racist, who to my knowledge never in his life visited Hamilton. He also happens to have been our first Prime Minister. Should there not be a statue to Sir John A? Should we not name schools after him?

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By RPMoran (registered) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 16:47:12 in reply to Comment 100345

I don't disagree, I mean I am definitely NOT punk, myself, but this sort of recognition is something that Hamilton should engage in. The conversation about with whom it should start is something else, I think it is just important it should start at all, and why not with someone who helped put Canada on the map of this counter-cultural movement.

Comment edited by RPMoran on 2014-04-16 16:47:39

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By surebut (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 17:16:42

You forgot domestic assault. The right place for the right work is part of the artistic process. People have a right to respond to what they feel is an inappropriate location for this work. Teenage Head important? Sure. But to bring John Lennon into the discussion really only serves to heighten the disparity. Lennon worked on improving himself. Frankie, not so much. And really, the Beatles vs TH?

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By RPMoran (registered) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 17:31:59 in reply to Comment 100350

I think you missed the point of why Lennon was brought in (aside from the fact that it says they're certainly not equal). It's about relevance, and being proud of the stories and contributions to a global culture that have come directly from us.

Then again, if that's the biggest point of contention with this article, that's fine.

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By surebut (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 17:39:41

"The right place for the right work is part of the artistic process. People have a right to respond to what they feel is an inappropriate location for this work."
or "domestic assault"
or how you don't disclose you are McHattie's campaign manager?

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By RPMoran (registered) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 18:04:17 in reply to Comment 100353

Wow. You mean, because I am not? I guess I could take that as a compliment.

I would happily say I do support his campaign though! Also, did you notice the part where this article has nothing to do with that? It was in the part where the article is ...if you wanted to check again.

Good try, cheap, but good.

Comment edited by RPMoran on 2014-04-16 18:22:07

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 17:47:41


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By RPMoran (registered) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 18:20:12 in reply to Comment 100355


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By Let's Go Frankie (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 18:04:04

I have no problem with the statue so long as they put it at city hall as a replacement for the headless worker.

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted April 17, 2014 at 22:19:53 in reply to Comment 100358

That headless worker is there to remember all those who have been injured in the work-place. Now, with the tightening of employment-insurance regulations, the investigation of injury claims, and, even in these last few months, injuries and deaths at Maple Leaf Foods, that headless statue is more important than ever. It's not an either-or question, as if we're running out of room to put statues someplace, but it's a both-and.

And, hell, if we rid ourselves of every musician who was a complete arse, we'd have to get rid of Richard Wagner, Alan Lomax, the folklorist who paraded Leadbelly all over the States, among others. Remember lines from W. H. Auden's poem, At the Grave of Henry James:

Into this city from the shining lowlands Blows a wind that whispers of uncovered skulls And fresh ruins under the moon, Of hopes that will not survive the secousse of this spring, Of blood and flames, of the terror that walks by night and The sickness that strikes at noon.

All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple, Pray for me and for all writers living or dead; Because there are many whose works Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end To the vanity of our calling: make intercession For the treason of all clerks.

Because the darkness is never so distant, And there is never much time for the arrogant Spirit to flutter its wings, Or the broken bone to rejoice, or the cruel to cry, For Him whose property is always to have mercy, the author And giver of all good things.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 18:16:49

What happened Ryan? You got quiet all of a sudden. All you McHattie supporters have hands in each others pockets, it's so obvious. Just like the completely biased CHML interview with Tom, little Madison and The SCC.

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By RPMoran (registered) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 18:20:38

Oh, sorry, replied to your comment too.

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By BB (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 18:21:14

Let's have a vote on a choice of several. McHattie likes participatory budgeting. Who else should be included on the ballot? It should stay music themed. Or at least be kind of artsy.

My nominee is Boris Brott. He'd make a jolly statue.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 17, 2014 at 15:10:46 in reply to Comment 100363

Yes, art by committee!

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By Stinson (registered) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 18:43:19 in reply to Comment 100363

Sports theme! Paul Osbaldiston - Kicker - 1986-03. "Kick for the stars kids!" Oskee wee wee

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By anon (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 18:42:41 in reply to Comment 100363

Richard Alfred Newell "King Buscuit Boy" is my vote.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 21:53:35

Ryan, the fact that you are a volunteer for McHattie's campaign makes you partisan and this article is invalid on this website. The website claims to be non-partisan. I call BS.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 22:36:51 in reply to Comment 100372

The website can be non-partisan, you silly goose, and still accept contributions from people working for campaigns.

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By Nuh uh (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 22:00:22

Or how about a song he wrote and sang saying he was going to rape a woman? Sorry, right there we don't have someone we need to celebrate in our community.

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By surebut (anonymous) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 22:29:46

coun-mchattie-is-first-to-officially-enter-hamilton-mayoral-race on the cbc
Ya, you're right Ryan, not campaign manager, I stand corrected, but there for him at his launch and mentioned in the CBC (memory failed me) - but nevertheless, this op ed in support of a flawed idea and flawed process - with a distracting mention of Lennon (seriously) - the whole defence is pretty weak. TH was important in the early punk movement in Ontario/Candad, but never "made it" in the way the bands you put them against did - Ramones and The Clash were HUGE infuences, TH was locally significant but outside of Canada arguably unknown. Some recognition locally is worth pursuing. Maybe not here, this way.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 16, 2014 at 22:36:12

Punk rock is about doing stuff yourself. It's not about fame, glory, or sales. None of that stuff matters.

Punk rock doesn't want statues to itself. If we're going to spend $200,000 as a city to commemorate Frankie Venom, that is FANTASTIC. Because Frankie Venom is the kind of figure that makes this city a great place to live. We should celebrate our Frankie Venoms.

So it should be something for music, and not a big, dumb, stupid statue that won't do anything for anybody. I spit on your statue, and Frankie Venom would too.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted April 17, 2014 at 00:56:07

Frankie was a local in ward 1, strathcona neighbourhood.

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted April 17, 2014 at 08:20:18

I’m no connoisseur of punk music, so am grateful to the article for informing me about how important Teenage Head was to their genre. I don’t think that I appreciated it very well after reading the initial article in the Spec last week.

It seems to me that there are two issues. The first is whether art is a legitimate public expense; and the second is whether Mr. Venom in particular is worthy of a public expense, and in particular a $200,000 expense, to commemorate him. I suppose this article is trying to address both issues.

The title of the article is “Hamilton Should Commemorate Important Local Artists.” Not everyone agrees with that statement. There are some people who think that no art should ever receive public funding, and that art and the recognition of some artists is so subjective that there’s no fair way to do it. And there is the Tall Poppy Syndrome we can suffer here, too.

I wouldn’t know what irks people most: that it’s Frankie Venom (wife abuser, musician in a genre that only appeals to some people), or that it’s any art at all. I bet a lot of them don’t know themselves. Until we know which we’re talking about, it would be hard to convince anyone. I suspect a lot of people are being a bit disingenuous when they say that Frankie is objectionable to them; really, they would not want any statues built, ever.

The only disagreement I really have with this article is this:

“This misplaced concern for tax dollars exists in spades in this city. We are prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the Aerotropolis, but a $200,000 proposal to recognize part of our culture draws public ire in a single weekend.”

Of course, concern about tax dollars ear-marked for something that one likes is always misplaced. We all know that. But if this argument is equal to say “hey, it’s only $200,000, and if it’s OK to waste on ABC, certainly it’s okay to waste on XYZ,” I don’t think that’s a very meritorious argument. Any project should stand on its own, and you won’t win support from me by saying that you think it’s less wasteful than something else. I don’t care for this “drop in the bucket” (or drop that evaporates before reaching it); your bucket could overflow, and not a lot of people would realize that it’s the sum total of a huge number of drops.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted April 17, 2014 at 09:48:39

Honestly, I'm kind of disappointed in Councillor McHattie on this one... regardless whether you think Frankie Venom is worthy of a statue (or the punk fans who seem to think that a statue kind of contravenes the punk movement) it's not exactly a great idea for a mayoral candidate in a cash-strapped city to suggest $200k of spending on something comparatively frivolous like this.

Seriously, McHattie needs to keep his mayoral aspirations in mind. I like him. I want him to win. And he's never going to win if he keeps shooting his mouth off like this. I mean on the bus lanes he mislaid blame for the ticketing thing and the fading paint, hating on the Red Hill when most commuters on the Mountain love it, and now this.

Mr McHattie has my vote right now... but if he bungles his elect-ability, I'll be perfectly happy to vote for Mr. Eisenberger if it looks like Fred has a better chance of winning. Blame FPTP, but that's the fact.

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By JayRobb (registered) | Posted April 17, 2014 at 10:40:14

Highly recommend everyone read Reimagining Greenville: Building the Best Downtown in America by journalist John Boyanoski and Mayor Knox White. It's a playbook for downtown renewal.

Public art is one of the strategies for the renewal of Greenville's downtown. Art helps define a personality for downtown and gives pedestrians another reason to keep walking the next block.

Greenville has bronze statues throughout its downtown of local heroes, including Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Nobel Prize winner who created lasers.

All of the statues are privately funded. Donors and friends raise the money. The city finds a prominent place downtown to put up the statues.

Hamilton should adopt this approach and cluster the statues in the core. My shortlist of local heroes to immortalize on our streets would include George Hamilton, Lincoln Alexander, Nora Henderson, Clifton and Frank Sherman and Fraser Mustard. As for artists and musicians, Daniel Lanois and Jackie Washington would be pretty cool.

The Hamilton Gallery of Distinction would have no shortage of worthy candidates.

Fold privately funded statues into a broader strategy for downtown renewal and I suspect there'd be far greater support.

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted April 18, 2014 at 11:38:34 in reply to Comment 100391

Bertram Brockhouse received the 1994 Nobel in Physics but the most prominent local marker to his legacy is an internal access road.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted April 18, 2014 at 11:07:02 in reply to Comment 100391

I think this is a great idea. There is a lot of room around City Hall for this type of use. I'm not a native Hamiltonian, so never followed Teenage Head, but I don't imagine Frankie Venom would really protest a statue of himself in his hometown.

And crowdfunding sounds like a good idea too, with some funds available from the city on a grant basis for up to one-fifth of the cost.

Public art is an investment in our history and ourselves. It's definitely worthy.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted April 17, 2014 at 16:49:33 in reply to Comment 100391

Well put, Jay.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted April 17, 2014 at 15:33:03

The Spec mentioned that this began two years ago under the Art In Public Places program, but if that's the case, why was the councillor obligated to personally earmark these funds?

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted April 17, 2014 at 21:42:35

Request has reportedly been withdrawn by the Kerr family. Project will not proceed.

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By Moving forward (anonymous) | Posted April 19, 2014 at 12:20:04

I don't think someone convicted of domestic abuse and I know hurt at least one other woman I know, and happily sang of rape is someone worth such permanent glorification by the city. If you want to memorialize his work? fine the community that most appreciated it can do so.
Was he an absolute horrible guy? I doubt it given the raves from friends. It's also tough since he is not around to defend himself.

But this would be a permanent tribute to the man and all his actions are a part of his legacy and if we cannot collectively agree this is a good decision then it should not go forward.

And it appears it will not, at least not in this form.

The worst of it is no one at the City took a complete stock of what may come out about this man before jumping publicly forward on it. If we are going to hold someone up in such esteem, they need to stand up to that scrutiny.

Past improper tributes or speculation on the celebrity of other famous people are irrelevant. This was not or should not be an absolute on the idea of paying tribute to someone or about public art or honouring among the local music scene.

Nor should it be about scoring political points either for or against people running for political office.

This was one idea that found sufficient disfavour and controversy that it is not proceeding as originally planned.

Where it goes now is now up for discussion. We need to let this man's memory rest in peace and move forward.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted April 19, 2014 at 20:17:26

So Moving forward, I would like to challenge your view, we as taxpayers paid for a state funeral for a person who destroyed many lives in this province. the powers to be in this city seem to follow the dictate of the official line.

So where is your stance on the issue I have brought forward? Why should we as a socity pay homage to someone who destroyed the lives of many in this province who could not defend themselves?

I do know that the folks at the Poverty Roundtable have disparaged those who express their views that the one who was given a state funeral whcih was not the norm.

It tells me that the 1% have far reaches into our local community and those who are put into place to enforce that are not what we could deem as supportive to the common cause.

If the Poverty Roundtable adopts the format of no blame, then how it can it defend those who did obliterate the lives of those who could not defend themselves under the mantra of no blame?

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