Meet Ottawa's tattoo artist for walls

Ottawa muralist Robbie Lariviere poses in front of one of his murals on Somerset Street. (Cassandra Yanez-Leyton/CBC - image credit)
Ottawa muralist Robbie Lariviere poses in front of one of his murals on Somerset Street. (Cassandra Yanez-Leyton/CBC - image credit)

The name Robbie Lariviere might not sound familiar to you but if you've ever walked around downtown Ottawa, chances are you've already come across some of his work.

An artist at heart since his early 20s, the 39-year-old muralist only started painting full time when the pandemic forced him to expand beyond his day job managing the Vans store inside the Rideau Centre.

"I was waking up at five every day semi-stressed on what is going to happen to my career," said Lariviere.

He now wakes up at the same time each day to keep up with the week's workload.

Lariviere credits the support of local artists in Ottawa for driving his career to where his signature wallpaper-like paintings can be found virtually everywhere in the city. Businesses, museums, and even the U.S. Embassy are adorned with Lariviere's hodgepodge of original cartoon characters typically painted in black and white.

Cassandra Yanez-Leyton/CBC
Cassandra Yanez-Leyton/CBC

"It's all in the moment," Lariviere said about his process. Like a tattoo artist, he usually presents his clients with a sketch the morning of. "And when things change [it's] because it's supposed to and that's the originality of it."

At the end of 2022, he finished his largest mural yet: an almost five-metre long hallway lining the offices of Inside Edge Properties on Bank Street.

"It's very layered. There's a lot of different little images and big images so you're always looking and finding new things," said Vanessa Ervin, the company's marketing co-ordinator.

Where tattoos and graffiti collide

Lariviere said he finds inspiration from Montreal muralists En Masse and Tim Barnard, but credits the Ottawa skateboarding and tattooing scene for igniting his interest in art in the first place.

Originally a graffiti artist, he first transferred his skills to mural art when a friend asked if Lariviere could upgrade his living room wall. Eventually he got used to working for free.

"It was always just a pastime for a long time. ... No one really told you that you could make it a career."

At the time, he said street art was still very much equated with vandalism. Though the community has always been supportive, it's taken the city some time to embrace the art form.

The City of Ottawa now has a full-fledged mural program and grants encouraging local artists to make their mark on city streets.

"The City of Ottawa recognizes that public art plays an important role in beautifying and enhancing our community to reflect and depict culture, history or visions of artistic expression," read an emailed statement from Jenn Carreira, the city's program manager for public outreach.

Carreira said the city is expanding mural permissions to include all zones under the Ottawa mural bylaw and permitting painting at long-established graffiti walls and some skateparks, as well as a few other initiatives.

"We've got so much room, [like] every building [downtown] should have something on the side of it," said Lariviere. "Maybe five per cent is covered, so we've got lots of work to do."

This year, he hopes to reach new heights, literally, and tackle larger buildings and weirder canvasses. Last summer, for example, he was commissioned to paint a farm silo.

"Being on a boom lift or a skyjack and kind of going larger than life, so stepping out of your comfort zone, I guess is kind of the dream as well," he said.

Photo provided by Robbie Lariviere
Photo provided by Robbie Lariviere

Giving back to the community

After putting in the work for several years to make a career out of art, Lariviere said he wants to slow down to make more time for personal projects.

Specifically, he wants to offer street art workshops tailored for youth similar to a program he ran at the Jack Purcell Community Centre before the pandemic.

That gig was about more than money, he said.

"It was more about the passion and that's what I want to take into 2023, more of that giving back type art where we're working with the community," said Lariviere.

"If there was a class like that when I was growing up, like, I think I'd be the first in line."

Where to find Robbie Lariviere's work: