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When Can Graffiti Be Tolerated?

Photo by Dimsumdarren from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
A long-running question on Torontoist asks when graffiti can be tolerated.
The sticking point isn’t whether graffiti artists occasionally produce good art. Toronto’s best-known piece of graffiti—a rainbow painted on a tunnel by the Don Valley Parkway—inspired Peter Doig’s painting, “Country Rock,” which in turn became the cover piece for an acclaimed exhibition in London. Worldwide, consider these murals, three-dimensional chalk drawings, and dirty window art.
Rather, the sticking point is whether graffiti artists—excluded from this discussion are memorial vandals, purveyors of hate, and other unworthies—may express themselves on property that they don’t exclusively own. Graffiti admirers subordinate property rights to expression; graffiti opponents don’t.
This article suggests a framework for balancing the two concerns. It is unlikely to please the hardliners: admirers may resent the assertion that property rights matter, and opponents may criticize the finding that property rights aren’t supreme. But it tries to address the impasse.

Photo by Blaine Kendall from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that both sides have a point.
A city where people temporarily turn dots at a streetcar shelter into a Pac-man scene, paint birds on a wire on an abandoned door, or anthropomorphize (monsteromorphize?) a dumpster is more interesting than a city where people don’t. And a city with a Draconian attitude toward the occasional manifestation of non-violent political expression, whether against surveillance cameras or illegal signs (though some regard such graffiti as hypocritical), would be an unpleasant place to live.
Conversely, there’s something wrong with graffiti that targets people’s residences, requires public bodies to spend their limited resources—our limited resources, actually—on cleanup costs, or defaces other people’s expression.
In searching for the middle ground, we might take inspiration from legal concepts that recognize the rights of owners to use and enjoy their property but also assert that their failure to uphold these rights diligently may lead to their erosion. Adverse possession holds that property owners may eventually lose ownership rights if they acquiesce to another person’s (non-violent) use of property in a way that contradicts their own intentions for the property, while rights of way over land may be established if people use them over a long period of time without force, secrecy, or permission, and the property owner neither objects to it nor moves to extinguish such claims, such as by registering title to it. These seem like archaic concepts, but they exist in many jurisdictions and are still applied today. Underlying them is the principle that property owners have a right to use and enjoy their property, but also a corresponding duty to care about it, even if just to a minimal degree.
Photo by Spotmaticfantic from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
While this priniciple doesn’t apply directly to graffiti—i.e. artists can’t acquire a right to a property just by painting repeatedly on it—it may apply indirectly by suggesting that properties exist on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, graffiti on property that owners care about—stores, public vehicles like buses and subways, or private vehicles like cars and bicycles—is rarely if ever tolerable, and graffiti on property that owners care deeply about—residences being the obvious example—is never tolerable. At the other end of the spectrum, graffiti on property that, to a reasonable observer, is abandoned or uncared for, may be more tolerable, as with the dumpster and the door mentioned above.
In between, of course, lies the mushy middle. Reasonable people can disagree on where to draw the line, but one might ask whether tolerance should be shown to graffiti on property that is neglected or under-maintained, provided that it does not interfere with the use of the property and that the artist respects the right of the owner to remove it easily at a later date. Examples include these game cubes or this bear-woman: while they were installed without the consent of the property owner, the property is under-maintained, the graffiti does not interfere with use of the property, and the graffiti could probably be easily removed. Other borderline cases include graffiti on property that is marginal or generally underused, like these saloon doors on a Bell telephone booth.
Photo by Moonwire from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Where does all this get us? Two conclusions might be drawn.
The first is that our tolerance of graffiti should depend in part on the property where it occurs. When confronted with a piece of graffiti, our reaction should be influenced not only by the artistic or political merit of the piece, but also by the question of whether a reasonable person would think that the property owner cares about it sufficiently to object to the graffiti.
The second conclusion, slightly broader, is a call for change in official policies toward graffiti. An idea that we can presumably all get behind—admirers because they would like to see more good graffiti, and opponents because they would like to minimize graffiti on property without the owner’s explicit consent—is the creation of more spaces where graffiti is legal. This might take the form of free walls (as Posterchild advocates), graffiti alleys (like this disused tunnel in London), or community-approved painting of public items.
Graffiti sits at the intersection of two tough questions: whether something is good art, and whether property rights can be subordinated to expression. No way of looking at graffiti will please everyone, but an approach that appreciates the rights and duties of property owners seems overdue.


  • temporaryaccount

    One of the reasons BlogTO is better than Torontoist is that they don’t have this constant stream of pro-graffiti posts.
    For some reason, graffiti vandals never offer up their own homes or property to be scrawled upon. They can talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk.
    The playground equipment at Trinity-Bellwoods Park got hit recently – every piece of equipment covered with someone’s scrawling. Looks like some sort of ghetto park now. I guess I can call the Parks Department and have someone come and spend tax dollars trying to remove the graffiti – you’ll see the results in your property tax bills next year.

  • Ben

    BlogTO had a post about graffiti very recently in fact.

  • torontothegreat

    >BlogTO had a post about graffiti very recently in fact.
    >One of the reasons BlogTO is better than Torontoist is that they don’t have this constant stream of pro-graffiti posts.
    Read much?

  • toddtyrtle

    One of the reasons I like the internet is that I can choose to read what I want and to skip those articles I’m not interested in. And hey, sometimes I see posts I don’t agree with but I still find it interesting to see the other side.
    Site owners/writers who are too concerned with writing what won’t upset someone or result in negative comments may never write anything interesting.
    If you want pablum that supports only your limited worldview, stick to television or the sites of your choice. It is not the job of a contributor to a site to write articles to please you, or in my opinion, to please any one person. It is a sharing of information and individuals opinion.

  • David Topping

    Arguments over whether Torontoist posts “pro-graffiti” articles too often are sort of moot here, aren’t they? This article is very adamantly and intentionally neither pro- nor anti-graffiti.

  • atomeyes99

    i agree with the initial post. seems like Torontoist has a constant hard-on for graffiti.
    i don’t want to see an american type of disclaimer before its weekly (yes, weekly) graffiti-related articles, but i do find that most of Torontoist’s articles have a pro-graffiti slant. and its tiresome.
    if i owned a business and someone tagged my building – whether it was beautiful art or someone’s stupid graffiti artist name – i would be pissed.
    if a graffiti artist wants to make a statement, i personally would hope they would talk to building owners and ask for permission. and yes, the Kevin Bacon heads did make me laugh, and there was graffiti in my former home town that was hilarious (the huge JR “Bob” Dobbs face painted above a city overpass), but the bottom line is: its illegal and its on someone else’s property.
    so Torontoist should consider easing back on its graffiti articles which tend to promote unlawful public art and perhaps focus more on lawful public art or something more consumable, like…food discussions.

  • spacejack

    What’s the difference between a piece of art and that same piece of art put on someone else’s property without asking permission? Answer: asshole factor.
    Really, that’s the only difference. Yet some philistines seem to think it adds a whole other dimension or meaning to the work.

  • Bias

    jesus im tired of all the anti graffiti people cry in the comments. Torontoist makes posts about graffiti because its one of the few interesting things going on in Toronto the bland.

  • Vincent Clement

    Bias, I don’t see you offering your property to be used by graffiti artists. Let me know when we can come over and spray paint your computer. After all, doing so will make things “interesting” in Toronto.

  • Robin Rix

    It’s funny. When writing this piece, I thought that the pro-graffiti people would be the critical ones. Think about it: the piece says that property rights are important, less tolerance should be shown to graffiti on property that owners care about, and no tolerance should be shown to graffiti on property that owners care deeply about. Homes were specifically mentioned as no-graffiti zones. I am forced to wonder whether some of the above commenters have actually understood the piece.

  • davedave

    Whether or not you believe a particular act of graffiti vandalism is beautiful is entirely irrelevant. Tagging and “ugly” vandalism is unacceptable, but the nice stuff? Oh, the owners should be happy about it – it makes their property much more cool in the eyes of hipsters everywhere. Utter horseshit. It begins and ends with property ownership. And there’s nothing in this city that is not owned.
    Trinity Bellwoods is a disgrace. Who’s supposed to clean that up?
    It comes down to respect, of which graffiti vandals have none.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    A couple things:
    First, temporaryaccount and Vincent mention ‘offered’ property. Any painting done on such property would be solicited (if pro bono) art; not graffiti. Further, if I offered my home as a canvas, no one elected to draw on it, and I then proceeded to tag bomb the Legislature, the offer would not make the tagging any less justifiable. Please don’t attempt to muddle the issue in order to make your point.
    Second, this is a good opportunity to play “Supreme Court Justice for a Day (Hour?)” and consider how anti-graffiti law looks with respect to the reasonable limits and fundamental freedoms clauses of the Charter. We are lucky to have (relatively) simple and clear laws on this topic, so we ought to perhaps look at them.
    Graffiti artists exercise their freedom of expression. The Criminal Code limits that right (and others) with the objective of preventing “obstruct[ion], interrupt[ion] or interfere[nce] with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property.” (Note there is no fundamental right to use/enjoyment/operation; it is merely permitted, if lawful) The Oakes test requires that:

    1. There must be a pressing and substantial objective
    2. The means must be proportional
      1. The means must be rationally connected to the objective
      2. There must be minimal impairment of rights
      3. There must be proportionality between the infringement and objective

    In my amateurish legal opinion, the law passes the test, but that’s not the end of the story.
    Good graffiti improves the enjoyment of property, does not impede its operation, and extends the use of non-cultural property to the artistic. It would seem (to me) not to be mischief.
    On the other hand, bad graffiti (e.g. tagging heritage buildings) is mischief, and punishable.
    Robin asks if “graffiti artists may express themselves on property that they don’t exclusively own.” The law does not seem to forbid that. A law that did forbid it might well be unconstitutional.
    Further, as long as actual mischief is condemned, discouraged and prevented where possible, I find it hard to see the harm in exhibiting or even promoting graffiti.

  • Paul Kishimoto

    Looked at another way, I could also say that because property with good graffiti on it is enjoyed differently, the enjoyment has been been interfered with (even if it has been increased), and therefore the graffiti is mischief… but that feels like a weak argument.

  • davedave

    “operation of property” means me, owning my property, operating it. i.e. controlling it and what happens to it. My right to NOT have you mess with my property absolutely trumps your right to self-expression.

  • rek

    temporary said: For some reason, graffiti vandals never offer up their own homes or property to be scrawled upon. They can talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk.
    I don’t think you understand how graffiti works; nobody offers up their walls. That means a street artist’s apartment building is just as likely to be hit as any other structure. (It should be noted that actual houses usually aren’t seen as fair game for street art, tagging, paste ups, or anything else. Outbuildings on allies are another story.)
    torontothegreat said: Read much?
    BlogTO also doesn’t seem to suffer from a constant stream of jackasses and trolls more interested in slamming people than discussing anything.
    Vincent said: Bias, I don’t see you offering your property to be used by graffiti artists. Let me know when we can come over and spray paint your computer. After all, doing so will make things “interesting” in Toronto.
    There is a pretty big difference between the types of property targeted and I think you know it.
    But I digress…
    Obviously I’m a proponent of graffiti* so it shouldn’t be a surprise when I say I’ve given a lot of thought to what surfaces I consider fair game, and Robin pretty much got them. I wouldn’t do anything to obscure signs or impede the function of something by damaging it (in the actual sense of damage, not the anti-graffiti sense), I wouldn’t do a surface that couldn’t be restored to its previous state with a fresh coat of paint or a quick scrub down (wooden fences, unpainted brick walls, that sort of thing), and I wouldn’t do it on TTC/GO/etc vehicles. There are other factors too, like location and access. I see graffiti/street art on the same spectrum as Lost Dog/Garage Sale posters: expressions of our essential freedom of speech, which should be recognized, protected (4th paragraph), and allowed for.
    I also wouldn’t go into someone’s home and spray paint their computer, as Vincent seems to think is a common part of graffiti culture.
    I’d like to hear Posterchild’s input on this.
    [*Not all and not everywhere, so don't pretend otherwise.]

  • andrew

    Jeez. If someone wants to come over and do free decoration for me, well…let’s talk. I may ask you not to use aerosols, and we may have some interesting exchanges about trends in hip hop art and graf painting, but for FREE?!! Hells yeah. Do you know how much it costs to get graf art? Take a look at EGR’s stuff – I aspire to having the disposable income to purchase something of her’s.
    Robin, “legal” graffitti is actually just permitted graffitti-inspired art. I think the whole point of it being graf is that it isn’t legal or permitted, from the “Kilroy was here” ubiquitous bathroom scrawls across post-WWII Europe to TrikOne’s sprawling signatures to Fauxreel’s paste-ups.
    Davedave’s comment is interesting: nothing in this city is not owned. However, the City of Toronto owns a lot of real estate and property. Maybe a solution would be to make the permit process for public art installations an easier and faster process. Provide access to young artists to create art on City owned-property that would otherwise end up adorned with tags. Also, why not pilot a program that provides artists the opportunity to decorate branded surfaces that are frequent graf targets, in such a way so as to add value to the property and not detract from the brand? I’m sure the hippies and latte-drinkers at OCAD and Ryerson would be good for some mentorship/direction on the whole process. I mean, Canada Post mailboxes suffer a lot, but taggers generally don’t tag on art.

  • torontothegreat

    >BlogTO also doesn’t seem to suffer from a constant stream of jackasses and trolls more interested in slamming people than discussing anything.
    I discuss enough on this site to not warrant your insult. Wait a second! what was your point again?
    Maybe you should stop shilling out the insults to others on a daily basis if you expect the same for yourself, you dumb shit.
    A troll is only a troll to those that feel they belong to some sort of ‘elitism’ of certain social groups on the internet. I’m not baiting anyone, I’m expressing my opinion and personality on a site called ‘Torontoist’ as in Toronto, as in one of the most diverse cities in the world… get it?
    On the other hand, it’s okay to feel that way about me b/c it’s clear you’re starving for some sort of validation.

  • rek

    tgt, it’s odd you’ve latched on to the ‘trolls’ part. Your comment was clearly that of an asshole, not a troll. There are much better ways you could have replied to Ben, but you didn’t.
    But let’s get back on topic.
    Davedave’s comment misses the point of this article. It may all be owned, but even the law doesn’t say that’s where debate ends.

  • x_the_x

    While this is certainly more illuminating than the regular David Topping italics-fest of mundane observations, I don’t think it recasts the debate over graffiti as you intended.
    Your position, if crudely summarized, is: property rights are relative. To buttress, you talk briefly about adverse possession and rights of way. Both are misstated as both are not legal doctrines which require owners a duty to maintain or care about their property. Rather, both doctrines merely provide a limitation on the rights of a property owner to exclude others based on a title claim if the boundaries of the title claim are inconsistent with use (over a long, historical period). In that sense, they are aimed at protecting the legitimate expectations of adjacent property owners or users of property; if I have been using a pathway next to your house to get to my backyard for three decades, it is unfair for you, having gotten a title opinion that says that pathway belongs to you, to exclude me from using it. In all cases, my right as property owner to exclude you from using my property is absolute, baring these minor exceptions.
    Which raises a larger point which is glossed over, the essence of my property right is my right to exclude others from using it. I struggle to see how that can be reconciled with any non-consensual use of property by a graffiti artist, no matter how neglected or whatever the property becomes. I’m not trying to beat you with this point, but I think that it is germane to your proposal to acknowledge that it requires a wholesale rethinking on anglo-saxon property laws.
    Since your framework is flawed, it questions your derivative assumptions re: property one cares about and property one doesn’t care about. Quite simply, there is no such duty. More to the point, I don’t think you have given adequate consideration to the costs imposed on holders of neglected or vacant property when you declare it a free surface. Fundamentally: why should vacant lot owner bear the cost of graffiti? If we except your premise that graffiti provides value (to the artist who is given a surface to display their expression, and presumably to the audience as well), and they bear none of the costs of clean-up etc., they are free-riding. A fairer legal regime is one where the party obtaining a benefit pays for it (and/or the party incuring a cost is compensated).
    Thinking about it this way, there is nothing in our current regime to prevent me as property owner from selling access to my property to artists for their use under the current legal regime (or determining that the art provides them with some value and “donating” the property). I am sure it happens in the minority. Isn’t this a better way to determine what property should be permissible to graffiti on than your framework, since, in your terms, the value we place on the property and on the expression is express?
    Your second conclusion is about permissible surfaces. I think the claim made by graffiti proponents that they would respect a regime where certain property was turned over for their use is disingenous. First, if this was public property, certainly there would be some limitations imposed on the types of expression. If it was run by the city (at least our city), there would be an expensive bureaucracy and panel of experts and other wasteful mediators to determine what is acceptable. Soon we would find that the establishment types on these panels would not find pac man art or whatever as valuable as the hipsters, and the hipster graffiti artist would again be denied a surface for their expression (I am being very generous here on purpose, since your article attempted to be fair-minded).
    More fundamentally, as another commentator noted, this sort of permissible use is anathema to the graffiti artist – part of the medium is the taking of property that is not theirs. If there were the respectful boundaries that you espouse (and rek suggests already exist), then I would have thought that the ratio of tags to hipster art in this city would be somewhat more flattering to the latter. In the end, your piece only considers an objection to graffiti on a property rights level, which ignores the objection on the basis of aesthetics (or lack thereof). Two problems: I don’t think its realistic to expect that “good” graffiti can come without a whole lot of tags and other doggeral, and second, its very difficult for anyone in any art form to agree on whats good, and this debate is amplified when the art in question is public (which is why debates about architecture are always more lively than those about sonnet poetry). And therefore there is an objection to graffiti on the pure, aesthetic level that it isn’t good which won’t be met by any change to the property regime. Moreover, some of us are quite willing to sacrifice the “good” pieces in order to avoid the bad.

  • davedave

    Andrew – it’d be great if certain walls were saved for art that was changed every few months or so. For me it’s all about permission and respect. Problem is most graffiti vandals refuse to ask for the permission and don’t have the respect so waddayagonna do.
    tyrannosaurus_rek -
    so, do you go back a month after after having damaged someone else’s property and restore it with “with a fresh coat of paint or a quick scrub down”, or do you just fuck off and force the property owner to clean up after your selfish act?
    You also don’t seem to believe going into someone’s home and spraypainting their computer is the same as spraypainting on their garage or wall, when in fact it couldn’t possibly be more the same: both acts are the trashing of something someone else owns. Hopefully someday you’ll realize the world isn’t your little canvas.

  • ked

    I hate tagging
    just dull and ugly and well tosh.

  • RealityCheck

    Graffitti is in the same class as voting NDP, supporting US Army deserters, or ordering Pabst Blue Ribbbon: absolutely requires an instantaneous death sentence. The city should mandate that property owners not only clean up graffitti but hunt down and administer punishment to the vandals as well.
    But then Torontoist is an urban website that doesn’t like urbanism, commerce, or anything that a city requires for existence. Filthy freaking hipsters.

  • atomeyes99

    tyronsaurus_rek said:
    ” I wouldn’t do a surface that couldn’t be restored to its previous state with a fresh coat of paint or a quick scrub down (wooden fences, unpainted brick walls, that sort of thing), and I wouldn’t do it on TTC/GO/etc vehicles.”
    of course, we don’t see you out there with this paint or graffiti-removing tool kit you mention, nor do we see you forking out the money for someone to powerblast or sandblast a wall to remove grafitti.
    perhaps you should point the aerosol can at your face instead of pointing it at someone else’s property? that way, we can identify you and your illegal art when you walk down the streets of toronto.
    and, of course, you would cry if someone tagged your car or bike (or, in your case, your Metropass), wouldn’t you?

  • Svend

    Pointless article, trying to find middle ground to show each side has merit.
    Will an agreement be drawn up now so that residential buildings are official no spray zones if we celebrate the transformation of an ugly abandoned bridge?
    It would be meaningless, these pea brains will continue to spray anything that has a surface, even the bark of a living tree.

  • Robin Rix

    Some interesting points have been made, and I am grateful to rek and x_the_x for chiming in.
    I dislike almost all graffiti: I don’t care if I never see another tag again, I have no time for graffiti on homes, stores, ads, or vehicles (or playgrounds in Trinity Bellwoods Park, people’s computers, or trees, for the record), and I am disappointed with the celebrations that accompany certain Vandalist posts (exhibits A, B, C, D, and E). This probably places me to the right, for lack of a better word, than rek, though for what it is worth I happen to think that rek’s submissions are less intolerable than most.
    That said, I like seeing that rainbow whenever I drive along the DVP. And at the risk of going out on a limb, I suggest that most people—both on this blog and in the mainstream—share my feelings: we strongly dislike most graffiti, but we tolerate its most benign examples. I dare say that a poll of DVP commuters would reveal that most of them would choose the rainbow over grey paint, even if informed that the rainbow was technically illegal.
    This creates an interesting tension, for as soon as you tolerate even just one piece of graffiti, I think that you have an intellectual duty to explain the limits of your tolerance.
    Some pro-graffiti people explain it by aesthetics: they tolerate pretty graffiti, and they don’t tolerate ugly graffiti. I think this explanation is unsatisfactory, or at least incomplete. Aesthetics play some role—i.e. if it weren’t a rainbow but a swear word, I’d favour painting it over—but it’s not the only one. The other key factor is property rights, which I think gets ignored too often by the pro-graffiti faction.
    Like x_the_x, I struggle with the notion that non-consensual graffiti can ever be tolerated. I get there—and just barely—by acknowledging that property rights are in fact relative, and that the non-absolute nature of property rights is actually a key component of our property laws. We place restrictions on the rights of property holders over their property (e.g. zoning bylaws, planning requirements), and we impose duties on property holders toward their property (e.g. mow the lawn, don’t create hazards, and show even just a smidgen of interest in preventing trespassers). We also vary the extent of these rights and duties depending on the type of property: homeowners have more rights and fewer duties than storeowners, for instance.
    I repeat that neither of these two principles—that property holders have duties, and that different duties attach to different types of properties—applies directly to graffiti. But it may be possible to discern from them a very, very narrow basis for tolerating extremely good graffiti, specifically in cases where the property holder has shown clear neglect for the property and where the property is not intrinsically important to someone personally.
    It is worth repeating that graffiti should never take place on someone’s residence. But painting eyes on a rusty dumpster? I don’t know that I, or most people, would come down as harshly on it as we would on tagging people’s homes, and I can only think that the reasons for this discrepancy lie in the fact that, first, the dumpster owner doesn’t seem to care about the way it looks, second, as a general rule people care less about their dumpster than their home, and third, the graffiti is aesthetically nice, or at least quirky.
    x_the_x raises two other good points.
    First, graffiti artists effectively pass the costs of cleanup to someone else—or, put in economic terms, artists don’t internalize their externalities. One could respond to this question by distinguishing between graffiti on property where the property holder would not have otherwise incurred cleanup costs (and the graffiti is therefore wrong) versus property where the property holder would incur cleanup costs regardless (and the graffiti is therefore not objectionable). It might be worth asking whether this concern would disappear with respect to graffiti on purely temporary structures like construction hoardings, on property that is due to be demolished, or on property that is objectively likely to be refurbished (and provided that the graffiti is very easy to remove, like these blocks). (A response that I bring up only for fun would note that all sorts of people impose external costs on others (e.g. drivers, smokers, drinkers) but that society recoups these costs by other means. Somehow, though, a tax on spray paint just doesn’t sound like it will be sufficient…)
    Second, it is questionable whether graffiti artists would respect permissible spaces if more were made available to them and/or whether, over time, divisions within the graffiti community (such as it is) might exclude certain artists from these spaces. I can’t definitively answer this question, so perhaps one of the graffiti artists who frequents this blog might be able to do so.

  • kactus

    i will never understand why people sign garbage bins
    is that the way you are leaving a mark on the planet? your lonely voice crying out!
    ” i am a bin, this is my name ”

  • rek

    davedave/atomeyes99: What makes you think I’m out there spraypainting walls?
    But no, I wouldn’t be the one repainting/scrubbing the surface. Are you shocked? We are talking about “selfishly” “stealing” property and then “damaging” it. Would you expect serial killers to obey speed limits on their way home from a spree? (Where is my tongue? Ah, in my cheek.)

    I think it’s obvious that issues of property rights are immaterial to the majority of street artists. So taking the property rights approach to it, either in favour or against, is ultimately futile. All the same, there are some natural boundaries observed depending on the type of street art you’re doing, and while taggers will tag pretty much everything, you probably won’t wake up some day and find your Sedan scrawled on or the front door to your detached bungalow defaced with something illegible. (I don’t think anyone, even taggers, consider tagging to be a form of art though.)
    I’m not convinced that anyone should have to explain why they like a particular piece just because it was done on property the artist doesn’t own. Would you do this at art galleries and museums too? Think of all the harmful chemicals, animal skins, denuded mountains, oppressed cultures and slave camps that went into the paintings, old books, sculptures and gold nick-knacks you passively appreciate on the aesthetic level. If we dispose of graffiti for violating property rights, shouldn’t we empty our galleries and museums for the harm done in creating their contents? Or is this hypocrisy only in the minds of the overly sensitive?
    Robin you mention internalizing external costs, but this does not apply across the board. I’d venture to say the majority of surfaces targeted (by anyone above tagger level) are so because they are temporary (construction hoarding, demolition, as you mention), are abandoned or already show neglect/decay (ibid.), or are paid for by virtue of public property taxes (as discussed way back). This is a weak justification, I realize, and as I said it’s not one street artists are likely to observe anyway. But what does that leave? Surfaces that are permanent, private, and don’t already require fixing up — aren’t most of these be out of sight, down alleyways, up on roofs, and the like? So do these spaces actually fall into the ‘neglected’ category because they aren’t out in the open, and don’t factor into whatever aesthetic the property owner enforces at grade?
    I approach street art/graffiti from a different angle than most, as a free speech issue. So while I have argued in favour of public walls and postering pillars, I’m not deluded into thinking this will “solve” the graffiti “problem”. (I don’t believe it is a problem at all, I think it’s perfectly natural since we’ve been doing it forever.) Public walls would give artists a somewhat protected canvas to work on (street art will always be ephemeral regardless of legality), and plenty of street artists would ignore them (the purists), but more importantly it would lower the entry barrier so just anyone with something to say can get involved. That idea probably angers the shit out of traditional graffiti writers, but as I said it’s a free speech issue for me and would go a long way to resolving the unequal protection granted to corporate speech.

  • temporaryaccount

    A silly debate above, on largely false pretenses.
    99.9999% of the graffiti in Toronto are scrawls done with markers, on any surface that is visible and briefly unpatrolled by armed guards. No consideration is given for private property; no consideration is given for houses or for surfaces that are incredibly hard to clean; in fact those seem to be the preferred surfaces. No one scrawls on temporary wooden walls if there’s a permanent brick wall available nearby. Glass surfaces – hard to draw on – have messages scratched into them with keys. I’ve seen an increasing number of CCTV cameras going up in front of businesses that are trying to protect their storefronts at night.
    None of this is art. Might as well throw a brick through the storefront if you’re going to scratch the glass, the glass replacement cost is the same.
    And of course there’s no freedom of speech issue. I cannot come into your house, take your pen and paper, write a letter with it, and then claim it’s a freedom of speech issue. No court has ever agreed with that, in any country. You simply have zero legal right to take someone else’s property in order to make your illegible scrawl upon it. You pay to put up your own billboard and then draw on it, and then you’ll have a reasonable freedom of speech claim if the city makes you take it down. You write on my house – no freedom of speech claim. Why limit it to property? Why shouldn’t I be able to draw my message on your face?
    If your graffiti was good – if you were actually beautifying property – you would be able to seek and receive the property owner’s permission. Try it. If the property owner refuses, obviously you aren’t, in fact, improving the property.

  • rek

    I think your 99.999% figure is far too high to be realistic. I’d say it’s closer to 50%. By surface area and by number.
    You intentionally misrepresent my argument that it’s a freedom of speech issue by introducing breaking & entering and then physical assault. Hardly a reasonable rebuttal.
    And lastly in your trilogy of wrong: street artists generally don’t consult the property owner because they don’t feel the need to justify if with “I’m improving this property”. Do painters try to make their canvases look nicer? No, they try to create something interesting or beautiful or convey a message on the canvas. The wall and its ownership are incidental to the street artist’s or graffiti writer’s attempt to do the same in the public space adjacent.