Graffiti is becoming a growing problem in Toronto…but not in the way you may think. Certainly, the mayor and the police are of one mind when it comes to graffiti in the city: there’s too much vandalism and it’s time to crack down. Recently, the city launched an iPhone app that allows users to take pictures of graffiti and report it to the police instantly. A fact sheet on graffiti on the Toronto Police Force’s website gives you several reasons why you’d want to report graffiti:
- It costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove it from buildings and structures.
- This cost takes funding away from school programs.
- It defaces public and private property.
- It generates fears and leads to more crime.
- It sends the message that private and public property are not respected or protected.
At the same time, a rather progressive plan emerges to preserve and regularize (the city’s term for “register”) graffiti deemed to be “street art”. In addition, the city has even started to provide funding on commissioned graffiti art based on submitted proposals. Which bring us to the first of three problems connected to graffiti in Toronto: what is street art and what is vandalism?
So Should We See it as Art or Not?
While the question can be debated endlessly, the city has decided to appoint a group, the Graffiti Panel, to paint a clear line. Starting in September, the Graffiti Panel will look at pictures of graffiti reported by police officers and the public, and deem it art or vandalism. Following the language in the Toronto Graffiti Bylaw Municipal Code, the Panel will determine whether the markings in question “aesthetically enhance the surface they cover…having regard to community character and standards,” or simply deface the building it’s found on.
The exact membership of this panel has yet to be revealed, though it will probably consist of at least three city planning officials, each purported to have a background in urban planning or public art. Presumably, this makes their judgments more objective, though as graffiti artist Angel Carrillo succinctly points out, “How do you judge graffiti art when none of you (the Graffiti Panel) do graffiti?”
If it’s determined by the panel that what’s on a private building is street art, it can stay and the artwork gets regularized, entered into a municipal database. If, however, the panel rules it vandalism, the property owner has to remove the graffiti or hire someone to remove it. Otherwise, the city will send staff to remove the markings and then bill the building owner for the work via their property tax, in addition to a possible fine for non-compliance up to $700. Read through the article on Graffiti Enforcement by Openfile. And what a bill it is: graffiti removal can cost anywhere from $500 to $5,000.
Punishing the Victim?
Herein lies the second problem: why should the victims, the property owners who have graffiti on their walls, have to pay for the illegal act? Is this not a strange and unfair case of punishing the victim?
Graffiti writers who are caught vandalizing property are indeed made to remove graffiti around the city. However, there’s probably not enough of them arrested to clean all instances of “bad” graffiti in the city. Making the cost fall on property owners to remove graffiti will perhaps make Torontonians more vigilant in stopping and reporting graffiti writers; we’re probably more likely to stop this vandalism if it puts a serious dent in our bank account. However, since a cleaned wall often acts as a new blank canvas for writers with spray paint, there’s the risk that the city will end up not only antagonizing graffiti artists, but also landlords and landladies who have neither the desire nor the money to clean fresh tags over and over again.
As a small consolation, the city has put together some graffiti prevention and removal tips. Another option for property owners is to request the Graffiti Panel to look at the markings, in hopes it is deemed aesthetic rather than destructive. Finally, a landlord or landlady can commission a graffiti artist to paint on their walls. A commissioned piece approved by the city is automatically deemed street art and thus legal; a painted wall is also much less likely to attract illegal writers.
The Challenge With Commissioning Graffiti Art
But there’s a problem with commissioning graffiti as well; namely, getting it approved by the city. This year, the city launched the StART Partnership program, whose mission is to “counteract graffiti vandalism by developing, supporting, promoting and increasing awareness of street art.” There’s an official application and approval process, which accepts graffiti art requests from non-profit or charitable organizations; individual artists must apply through a sponsor organization. The commission proposal then gets judged by the StreetARToronto panel based on creativity, neighbourhood enhancement, community involvement, training of emerging artists, and anti-vandalism effectiveness. This criteria determines whether the commission proposal is approved or rejected.
In other words, it’s a lot of paper and hoops to get legal graffiti on a wall via StART. The upside is that once approved, the partnership program provides up to 50% of the commissioned project’s funding. The downside? As of writing time, there are no upcoming proposal submission dates for the year. Since the program only started in 2012, some time is probably needed before it can meet the volume and variety of graffiti commission requests throughout the city.
It’s also possible to commission graffiti artists personally and directly, without going through the StART program. There is the risk that, since the process and the artwork is not regularized by the City, the commissioned work could still receive a citation for vandalism.
However, it seems to be a relatively low risk: the owner of a local street art paint shop, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that as part of an art collective, he has never had any of his mural work deemed “graffiti vandalism” in the six or so years that he have been doing them. In fact, he’s seen more personally commissioned murals than before Rob Ford came into office and started his anti-graffiti campaign. He added that the neighbourhood where the street art is found plays a big part in whether it is deemed art or vandalism, which fits with the City’s stance of “having regard to community character and standards”.
When asked about the StART program, the shop owner answered he did not know much about it, having seen and done commissioned murals without going through the City’s program. He did say he is somewhat worried that “eventually only murals commissioned through it (StART) would be acceptable, and anything else would be cited as ‘non-art’.”
So, where does this leave Toronto’s graffiti scene? Rob Ford’s war on graffiti is well underway, while hope does exist for street art. Meanwhile, the arbitrating Graffiti Panel is untested at best, problematic at worst. While the city should be applauded for taking steps to deal with the graffiti issue, and making an attempt to legitimize certain forms of it as valuable art, it seems we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to managing the tags and murals that colour the city.
The whole visual part of this article is the body of work that was photographed in the streets of Toronto by the talented Bella Manu.