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When Can Graffiti Be Tolerated?

070308grafitti.jpg
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.


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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.
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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.
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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.

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