Kyshia Osei |

Ontarians all know Hamilton as a bit of a hit or miss, and the town often gets a bad rap. For some, Hamilton is where you can find art in its rawest form.

The streets are home to an ocean of graffiti tags, and to the untrained eye, it is really hard to tell the difference between tags and pieces of artwork. 

It’s an issue that’s been affecting real graffiti artists for years. Sure, any person could pick up a can of black spray paint and deface public property, but that’s not the point. The point is freedom of expression.

“I mean, I’ve always been exposed to it, growing up in downtown Hamilton.” says Joey Campanella, owner of The Writer’s Den, a graffiti art studio based in his hometown. “It was always an interest of mine. You know, you see it, you think it’s cool. You try it, you suck at it. But then as you get older, it’s something that doesn’t really take precedence if you’re not really in the whole graph world.”

He knows the city like the back of his hand, and his ability to make friends with everyone on the block is more than commendable. His gruff smile and infectious laugh are immediately disarming, just like The Writer’s Den. 

The shop is an extension of Campanella, and in some ways replicates his very being. Don’t let its outside appearance fool you. Its blue exterior is roughened by the elements and years of perseverance.

It’s the crisp white walls, colorful pieces of art, and ample space that are reflective of the love and care Campanella has put into the studio. Much like getting a glimpse into his heart and soul, its open windows are the eyes that give way to pouring sunlight.

Joey Campanella pictured holding a can of (Montana) MTN MADMAXXX graffiti paint. [Credit: Kyshia Osei]

Added to his infectious laugh and bright eyed smile, this is the charm of The Writer’s Den.  

“It’s a play on words. A lot of people just call us graffiti artists or you know, graffiti people. But we’re called writers because we write words. That’s what we do,” Campanella explains.

But the idea for The Writer’s Den wasn’t a childhood dream that came to life, things just seemed to unfold that way.

“I found myself flying off an eight-foot jump at Kelso in Milton, where I completely destroyed myself and got into a pretty bad mountain biking crash. I was bedridden for six to eight months,” Campanella says.

Passing his time at his parents’ place binging TV and movies just wasn’t going to cut if for Campanella. So he turned to his adolescent interest in graffiti during his recovery and discovered a long lost passion.

But Campanella had a challenging road ahead of him in his later pursuit of his shop.

“I’ve done many, many retail jobs throughout my life. At the time, I was working at a really shitty job that I absolutely despised. And I just needed to get away from it. So at the time I actually took a stress leave from my job when I opened this place and – Yeah, I figured why not,” he says.

A lot of people tried to dissuade Campanella from this venture, but to no avail. Still, within his first year of business, things didn’t go as planned.

Spencer Schmalz was a student at the school Campanella used to work in. The two had often talked about their artistic passions but had lost touch when Campanella left his job.

Shortly after the two reconnected again, talks of the creation of The Writer’s Den came about and Spencer was one of the few people to encourage Campanella’s endeavour.

“I thought it was a super cool thing. Having my parents own a small business for like 10 years I understood that there would be some things that failed and some things that would succeed. It’s a learning process,” Schmalz says.

The crowd The Writer’s Den tends to bring in are your everyday skater types, and graff artists. It’s a spot for people to be themselves, improve their ideas, and create freely. 

Joey Campanella reflects on how graffiti has impacted his life. [Credit: Kyshia Osei]

Julie “Fazooli” Marquis is a multidimensional creator, and friend of Campanella. The two met through a friend at the local skate shop when Fazooli was looking for studio space, and the two quickly hit it off. 

She describes Campanella as one of the most positive and inclusive guys that she’s met in the scene today.

“His love for the community and passion for creating spaces for people to thrive has been nothing short of inspiring and he’s got a lot of heart. I don’t think I’ve ever passed by the windows of the Writer’s Den at any random hour without seeing him busy at something. The kid doesn’t sleep,” she says.

The graff community is a family in its own right. They all help one another, and try to better each other. 

“It takes a village to get creative ideas like ours off the ground – we’re very collaborative, so remaining collaborative about running a space like The Den has been essential to its survival,” Fazooli says.

Graffiti is rebellious in nature. It follows no rules and flows from the deep well of the artist’s imagination.

Joey Campanella roaming John St. – one of Hamilton’s many graffiti alleys.
[Credit: Kyshia Osei]

The act in itself is all very hush hush. Under the cover of night watching over your shoulder, heart beating, and adrenaline pumping. The sound of a rattling can, the hiss of its release, and the shallow breathing that follows through until that can has sprayed its last drop of paint.  

It’s territorial.

But when tragedy strikes, art follows suit. Everyone puts their differences aside to create their best work when driven by emotion. And with the recent tragic passing of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, the streets are already brimming with memorial pieces for the two. 

When asked what graffiti means to him Campanella shared: “It just means freedom. Graffiti is freedom, graffiti is taking your ability to create and doing it where it fits.”

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