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“Graffiti is Art, yes. But is it good?”

posterchild_obeyyy.jpg
Yes, Posterchild is at it again, this time remixing “OBEY” for the Stencil Revolution Stencil Challenge, letting a smiling cop with a stencil do the work for him. This, however, is not yet another hey-look-at-this-cool-graff post; instead, Posterchild sent us his graffiti manifesto that accompanied the stencil, a lengthy document “about how we deal with graffiti and Illegal ads, and a proposal for change.” In a city as obsessed with graffiti as we are—for it and against it—Posterchild’s extensive examination of the history of graffiti, its problems, and its potential solutions is an important document, especially, coming as it does, from a street artist.
After the fold, Posterchild’s article in full (without edits but with some reformatting), which we’ve reprinted with permission.


(Note: You can also read this article, including the missing appendices, in .pdf form. Torontoist is very grateful to Posterchild for the permission to reprint his original article.)
It has been argued that fine art and graffiti have the same ancestor: the prehistoric paintings that decorate caves throughout Europe and North America. While it may seem unfair to categorize these ancient records of rituals and teachings as graffiti, they are similar in every way but intent. Indeed, both graffiti and cave art are just marks made on a wall with whatever materials are available. “So what?” you say. “So graffiti has links to handprints on a cave walls and the Mona Lisa. Big deal. By your expansive reasoning, so does my kid’s colouring, so does every drawing ever made- it doesn’t make them good.”
True. Absolutely true! People argue endlessly and fruitlessly over whether a work is or isn’t art, when what they are really arguing is whether or not it is GOOD. The word “ART” is loaded; it comes with the value judgement that “Art is good.” But I think you’ll agree that not all art actually is good. Everyone has heard terrible songs, seen awful dancing, and paid admission to view unmoving paintings. When you see someone in a gallery exclaim “This isn’t Art!” what they’re really saying is “This is Shit!” So let’s all agree to move on from the unhelpful “Art, Not Art” argument.
Graffiti is Art, yes. But is it good?
This is a much better question- but regardless of how you might answer it, you should know that the program that we have to deal with graffiti in Toronto, and many other cities, is ineffective and unproductive. This broken system effects every citizen, and its costs concern each of us. First and foremost, an ineffective system costs money, taxpayers’ money – your money. Money that could be doing other things in your community. This system also effects you as a landowner. As a potential victim of vandalism, you could be re-victimized by a program of mandatory cover-up. If you refuse to clean up the graffiti on your property, you could be charged by the city for them to do it (and face possible criminal charges if you don’t pay). And finally, you should have an interest in the policies about graffiti as a person who values liberty, freedom of speech, and democracy.

History of graffiti

posterchild_pq2.jpgRegardless of its purpose or meaning, graffiti has been with us since people discovered that they could leave their mark. Ancient Romans were particularly famous for graffiti, and it is from the Greek verb graphein (to write) that we get the word graffiti. In our modern times, graffiti is everywhere you look. People from all age groups, races, and socio-economic backgrounds have been known to write something on a wall now and then. Even the most respectable among us will pass by an irresistibly wet slab of concrete in the sidewalk with a pang of regret.
Modern graffiti, as a cultural movement with firm customs and practices, is generally agreed to have started in the mid-70s in New York City. Using spray cans and markers, people scrawled their names, nicknames, and street numbers all over the city. A whole sub-culture developed, and those who did it called themselves writers. You gained fame and notoriety in the writers’ world by writing your name as much and in as many places as possible. This is the simplest form of modern graffiti: the “tag,” a quickly scrawled name. Tags were originally quite unattractive and crude, but writers began to evolve their styles and techniques into something more calligraphic. Different typefaces were used, more colour was added. Tags grew larger until they became “pieces,” (short for masterpieces). They began to cover subway cars from top to bottom, and then from end to end. Soon people were painting whole subway cars. These pieces became more technically advanced, with colours skillfully blending and fading together.
The New York style continued to grow and evolve. Formal art shows were organized in bohemian galleries, and when the city declared a “war on graffiti,” the whole situation gained international press coverage. The best of the early writers have been idolized like outlaw rock stars. The lore, legends, and styles were spread across the world in newspapers, books, movies, music videos, and now, the Internet. Anywhere in the world today, you can still see new graffiti that looks like it was drawn on a NY subway car in the early 80s. It is a testament to the strength and endurance of the graffiti movement that it has travelled across so many geographic and cultural borders and remained so largely unchanged.

Politics of Graffiti

Graffiti has never been respected, but it has been particularly vilified in modern times. Even as its style and aesthetic has been incorporated into mainstream culture to a staggering degree, it is considered a serious criminal offence in most cities. Tagging is seen as especially offensive. While it is generally done by individuals, tagging has nevertheless become linked with more severe crime and gangs. A lot of people don’t make a distinction between gang signs and tags, and this is a line actively blurred by the popular media. It’s true that a gang will sometimes use spraypaint to mark the edges of its territory, but gang signs, unlike most tags, tend to very unrefined. Gang members have little interest in aesthetics; they are more concerned with marking territory. Furthermore, serious writers tend to distance themselves from gangs, because it limits their movement around the city. (Gang members can be attacked, killed, or start gang wars by tagging in an enemy gang’s territory.) Writers actually tend to look upon themselves as doing the city a public service. As Banksy famously said, “Graffiti writers are not real villains. I am always reminded of this by real villains who consider the idea of breaking in someplace, not stealing anything and then leaving behind a painting of your name in four foot high letters the most retarded thing they ever heard.”
In addition to the gang link, studies have been published establishing graffiti as a gateway crime to theft and other more serious crimes, and not without good reason. The underprivileged youth who comprised the largest demographic of early writers usually did not have the financial means to buy their paint, so they would steal it. Even writers who came from very wealthy families would steal their supplies so they would have street-credibility. It was considered a faux-pas to buy your paint.
But these are all secondary issues. The biggest issue for cities and governments is that the average person who sees graffiti feels that there has been a loss of control. They associate graffiti with drugs, gangs, prostitution, violence, and an overall dissolution of society into anarchy. Cities obviously want to limit this feeling, in order to attract tourists and new business to their areas. Which leads us to the “war” on graffiti.

War on Graffiti

Since the early 70s, when modern graffiti became an issue for the government of New York, not much has changed in public policy or perception. The “War against Graffiti” cost the New York government millions of dollars and is even thought to have cost the Mayor his Presidential candidacy.
The problem was that graffiti suggested a loss of control, making subway passengers feel less secure. The city’s answer? Clean the graffiti. But the clean-up process was slow and expensive. To clean one car required the work of 20 labourers and over $1,800 in labour and paint, not including the loss of income due to interruptions in service. Also, it simply did not work, as cars that were painstakingly cleaned were returned to service to be almost immediately re-covered. In 1970, subway graffiti cleaning costs were estimated to be at $300,000. One year later it doubled. In 1973 it had reached 2.7 million, still with “unsatisfactory results.” In 1974, a new $10-million-dollar program designed to finally eliminate graffiti was unveiled. This program included special graffiti task forces, known as “Czars,” and German Shepherd attack dogs. Again, it failed. The writers continued to take incredible risks. Climbing around subway tunnels was never a safe environment: writers have been electrocuted, hit by trains, horribly burned when sparks from passing trains ignited spray paint cans, and so on.
posterchild_pq1.jpgThe “war” continued, tactics changed, and the subway company unveiled special trains coated with a paint-resistant sealant. This coating allowed the train to be driven through an acid shower that removed the graffiti, but left the base coat of paint intact. It took two showers to fully remove graffiti paint from a car, at $80 a shower, and $9 million to coat all the cars with the special sealant. This project also failed: the graffiti artists reacted by spraying a clear base epoxy first, spraying their image on top of that, and then finishing with a coat of clear shellac. Such a tag was almost impossible to remove. One worker said “You’d need a hammer and chisel to get it off.” They had spent millions of dollars on research, but the artists stayed ahead of them. Then, stubbornly, they tried simply racing the taggers, repainting the cars (at $3000 a car) quicker than the taggers could re-write over it. Of course, this too failed. The public became very dissatisfied with the programs. In addition to the programs’ ineffectiveness, people were more concerned with muggings and violent crime on the subways and wanted more money directed towards those problems. Finally, the graffiti programs were scaled down to “normal graffiti maintenance,” costing approximately 6 million dollars a year. It should be mentioned that, during these years, approximately 1000 writers were arrested per year, which also had a limited effect on the amount of graffiti. Little to no effort was made by the government to study or understand the issue, instead they just threw money around to try and simply eliminate it.
The City of Toronto also has an aggressive graffiti policy, which seems to be based largely on the failed policies of New York. We have a graffiti “Czar,” plenty of punishments, and even more promises of total graffiti removal, but little change on the streets – except, of course, the creation of a lucrative graffiti-removal business.
(See: “http://www.businessedge.ca/article.cfm/newsID/9593.cfm)
Here are the Bylaws:
(See: “http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/municode/1184_485.pdf)

§ 485-3. Graffiti prohibited.
A. No person shall place or cause or permit graffiti to be placed on property or on a
wall, fence, or other structure or thing in a highway or other public place not
included in the definition of property in § 485-1.
B. The owner or occupant of property shall maintain the property free of graffiti.
C. The owner or occupant of a wall, fence, or other structure or thing, in a highway or
other public place not included in the definition of property in § 485-1, shall
maintain the structure or thing free of graffiti.

§ 485-4. Notice to comply.
A. An officer who finds a contravention of this chapter may give written notice the owner or occupant of the property, structure or thing, as described in § 485-3, requiring compliance with this chapter within the time period specified in the notice but no sooner than 72 hours after the notice is given.

§ 485-5. Failure to comply; removal by City; costs.
A. If an owner or occupant fails to comply with a notice given under § 485-4A or is
refused an exemption and fails to comply with the second notice given under § 485-4E(7), the Commissioner of Urban Development Services, or persons acting upon his or her instructions, may enter upon the lands at any reasonable time for the purposes of doing the things described in the notice.
B. Costs incurred by the City in doing the work required to be done by the notice may be
recovered by action or adding the costs to the tax roll and collecting them in the same manner as taxes.

§ 485-6. Offences.
Any person who contravenes any provision of this chapter is guilty of an offence. 2
(2 … a person convicted of an offence under this section is liable to a fine of not more than $5,000.)

Basically, you get 72 hours to remove to graffiti, or the city sends a company to do it and then sends you the bill, or just adds the charge to your taxes. If you refuse to pay, you become guilty of a criminal offence. However, the streets of Toronto don’t reflect the severity of these rules. (Just go through my archives and look at all the graffiti.) This foolishness has been going on since 2000 – they arrested 122 taggers in that year alone, but there seems to be just as many tags on our streets as before. So, predictably, and like New York, they’ve damaged lives and wasted money, but made no visible impact on the streets. Nevertheless, they’re calling it a success and continuing with the program.
From their website:

“Our officers’ enhanced awareness of graffiti issues resulted in the arrest of 122 graffiti “taggers” and significant intelligence leads regarding street gangs.
“This highly successful program has since been presented to members of other local police services such as Peel, York, Barrie, Hamilton and the CN Police.”

From the graffiti removal article I link to above:

“Bowman’s optimism is bolstered by a new Toronto bylaw that came into effect in February and requires property owners to clean up graffiti within six days. If they fail to comply, the city will do it for them at a cost of $500 or more for large defacements.
“People are understandably very frustrated because they end up being victimized twice,” Bowman says. “We are sympathetic toward that, but there are a lot of absentee landlords who, as long as their rent cheque is coming in, may not care what their building looks like.
“They believe that even if they pay to have it removed, three days later they will have it again, so what is the point?” he says.
Bowman says the most effective deterrents to new graffiti are consistency and the speed of removal.”

That might be true, but I’m sure Bowman also realizes that “consistency and the speed of removal” is also the most effective way to make money. Also, if the landlord, absentee or not, doesn’t care about the Graffiti, isn’t that his right? Under these laws, an owner couldn’t make his property open to any artist that wanted to paint it, even if he wanted to. He could have a mural painted, or sell it to advertisers, but absolutely no graffiti allowed! If a landowner insisted on making his wall a free wall, he would be charged as a criminal, but if he installed an ad, even an illegal ad, no one would care.
Speaking of which, check out the number of illegal ads in Toronto.
And, of course, there are no government-legitimized clean-up squads who profit from removing all of these ads – the illegal ads stay up. And most of these ads are huge billboards and wall-sized vinyl hangings. But an artist can be arrested for putting an 8 x 12 stencil on a wall.
It’s clear that little has been learned from the lessons of New York or Toronto. The same old ideas appear again in Detroit (See appendix A and B: Two short articles from Detroit News): waging a “war” on graffiti, linking it to gangs, drugs, even terrorism. The media seems to eagerly reinforce the negative image of graffiti: “Graffiti artists use concrete walls, freeway overpasses and any other flat surface as their canvas for profanity, bigotry and social commentaries.” And the officials concur, “If you allow graffiti, the next thing is the neighborhood goes, the schools go and then you have crime and drug problems.” These articles, just like the graffiti style they criticize, look like they could have been written in New York during the 1970s. It’s time for an updated attitude. As another example, I used to live in Windsor, a much smaller city than Toronto. I knew from local writers that the police had a zero-tolerance attitude towards graffiti. They would harshly penalize any kid they caught, and use McCarthy-era tactics on him to flush out any other writers he knows. The result? Writers in Windsor do not have the time or the confidence to do large pieces in public spaces. But this does not stop them from covering the city in quick tags, which are perhaps the least visually-appealing graffiti of all. The large and wonderful pieces go up in alleyways and under bridges, where the only people who will see them are other taggers and perhaps the homeless, drunk, or curious urban explorer.

The Problem of Graffiti

So, the current anti-graffiti program is ineffective, but what’s the answer? The best place to start is with this kind of discussion. There is very little public understanding of graffiti, what artistic heights it is possible of achieving, or what is to be done about the problem it represents. There can be a great deal of artistic merit in the work of graffiti artists. (Who are often untrained and very young kids who show a great amount of boldness and tenacity for 14-year-olds.) But the pieces they do can represent a great amount of property damage. One suggestion I have is to create scores of free walls for use by graffiti artists. Not mural walls, since a mural only closes that spot to writers and forces them to other walls, but open walls where anyone can express themselves in whatever fashion they choose. Freely, and without risk. There are many potential walls in Toronto that could become free walls. Their owners should be approached for their consent, and if they give it, the wall could join a publicly accessible, frequently updated list of free walls. It could be a great online resource, for taggers and tourists alike, organized in a similar fashion to the map of illegal ads I linked to above, with clickable locations that bring up a photograph of the wall in question, perhaps with marks to show where the wall begins and ends. These free walls will also encourage self-regulating controls, limiting things like hate messages, for example, that go against our values as Canadians.
The only barrier to a free wall program is the bias of the area residents and property owners. Promoting graffiti is seen as promoting crime. To that, I would argue that this “Broken window theory” is largely an effect of conditioning, a matter of perspective. Watson’s Rabbit and loud noise. Given the media’s portrayal of graffiti, it’s not surprising that the negative ideas about graffiti are so pervasive in our culture. But it is changing! As I mentioned, Graffiti has been embraced by the popular culture and devoured voraciously by advertisers and designers. Advertisers have even begun hiring taggers to paint ads on the streets. Graffiti, good graffiti, is more a cause of gentrification than degradation. It won’t be long before areas start actively encouraging the best artists to visit. Indeed, if Toronto was the first major international city to launch a large, well publicized free wall program like the one I’m suggesting, it would do wonders to promote our city and enhance its cultural reputation. In addition, it would likely save us money! We may even tempt a few fine artists to come out of their studios and make some work that isn’t precious because it’s scarce, or immortal, or made without any consideration to an audience – but precious because it’s common, fleeting, and made to be shared.
Ultimately, the best defense of graffiti is the many fine works that represent the practice at its finest. To that end I would recommend taking a look at the works of Roadsworth, Banksy, Mark Jenkins, Jace, Adam Neate, Swoon, or David Choe. There are many more excellent artists out there. The website, www.woostercollective.com, is a good place to start, but it certainly doesn’t represent the entire street art world, so keep exploring, and you’ll be rewarded.
And when you encounter graffiti on a website, or better yet, on the street, ask, “Is it good?” not, “Is it Art?”
Thanks for reading,
-Posterchild

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