Article, Urban Issues, Community, Social Justice

Recap—Smokey Devil: Underworld Street Reporter

July 20, 2023
Screencap from Smokey Devil: Underworld Street Reporter.

On June 29, 2023, 200 guests turned out for the world premiere screening of Smokey Devil: Underworld Street Reporter, a feature length documentary by Nathaniel Canuel, co-hosted by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. 

In the opening moments of Nathaniel Canuel’s documentary, Smokey Devil: Underworld Street Reporter, the titular graffiti artist pulls up curbside, across from street-level construction hoarding in Chinatown. He arrives in style in a silver Chevy Bel Air driven by his friend Ashtrey, and after surveying his inventory of spray paint and sketching up a design, he gets to work creating a missing person mural for Chelsea Poorman. At the time, Chelsea had been missing for a year, and her family, friends and wider community were making efforts to keep her case in the news and a priority for law enforcement. 

The artwork that takes shape centres on Chelsea’s likeness, and is surrounded by her description, the known details of her disappearance, and instructions for reporting relevant information. “Somebody knows about something,” he writes. 

In this initial sequence, Canuel offers a peek into Smokey’s process and the place he and his work hold in his community. Much of what Smokey paints is informational, providing updates that are specifically relevant to people who live and work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In a neighbourhood where access to traditional media may be limited, and its content largely irrelevant to the lives of residents, Smokey’s artwork speaks directly to the community. And in doing so, his work is a utility and an affirmation—each mural acknowledges the concerns of the community, signaling that those concerns matter and are deserving of attention.


The impact of Smokey Devil’s work as a means for information sharing gained recognition within and beyond the Downtown Eastside throughout the pandemic, in a critical moment when public health orders prevented communities from gathering and maintaining regular contact with personal networks and services organizations. Two public health emergencies were colliding in a devastating way—toxic drugs were flooding the Downtown Eastside as increased isolation meant that more people would be using their drugs alone. Smokey’s murals were a place to speak directly to what mattered most to the community at that time: COVID-19 updates and safety measures, information on how to use drugs safely, missing persons reports, and heartbreakingly, when necessary, commemoration of dear people the community had lost.

The toxic drug supply crisis looms large over Smokey’s story, and the topic is personal to him. He’s lost around 150 friends, he says early in the film. But the impact of his work is made not only by approaching his community’s concerns with the seriousness they deserve; Canuel’s documentary is also a testament to the gravitational pull of a person who finds joy in community relations. While Smokey commemorates those that have been lost or are missing, and affirms the value of the vibrant community in the Downtown Eastside, the film is also a demonstration of care and appreciation for Smokey. Friends and fellow artists extol their appreciation to the camera, while others shout out at him while he’s walking around the neighbourhood. As Ashtrey puts it, “Smokey is legend… if you walk around with Smokey, you can’t really go five feet without someone acknowledging him.”

The world premiere screening of Smokey Devil: Underworld Street Reporter was another demonstration of that appreciation. A full house was in attendance at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts and as Smokey entered the cinema, the room erupted in cheers. The energy remained palpably high throughout the screening, and as soon as the credits rolled the audience were on their feet, offering a resounding standing ovation.

If you missed the world premiere screening of Smokey Devil: Underworld Street Reporter, you can catch the film’s virtual premiere on July 27, 2023. Tickets are free or by donation.

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