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Mayor Rob Ford Launches New Graffiti Initiatives, But Not Everyone is Pleased

Art non-profits and property owners face uncertainty as the City continues to implement the mayor's graffiti eradication plan.

Rob Ford addresses the media in a laneway on Wednesday afternoon. That's Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport) to his left.

Today in a laneway near St. Clair and Lansdowne Avenues, Mayor Ford stood behind a podium in front of a semicircle of reporters and talked about the latest development in his campaign against graffiti vandalism, which he has pursued with near-obsessive fervor (seriously) since shortly after he took office: a smartphone app called SeeClickFix that lets residents report tags directly to 311 Toronto.

“Starting today, residents will be able to use their smartphone to take a picture of graffiti vandalism and send it directly to the City department, on a down,” Ford said, and then paused weirdly for a second. “Loadable,” he continued. And then, at last: “App.” He went on: “This is remarkable, folks. This is as efficient as it gets.” In the background, as Ford was talking, two guys with rollers who had obviously been planted as part of the photo-op were using white paint to cover up some tags on a garage door. It was an appropriate symbol, but not for the intended reasons.

Whitewashing of that nature is really all the app is designed to do. Reporting graffiti doesn’t deter vandals; all it does is stick property owners with cleanup bills. That’s how Toronto’s graffiti bylaw works. If someone’s property is vandalized and the City notices, that person either pays to fix it, or they pay the City to fix it for them. Catching the person who actually held the spray can is a matter for the police.

There is a fairly effective means of deterring graffiti vandalism: murals. Taggers show reluctance to write over the work of skilled street artists. The City knows this, and that’s partly why, in 1996, it created something called the Graffiti Transformation Project—a grant program to help outside agencies hire youth, who might otherwise turn to vandalism, to paint murals in their neighbourhoods. Last year, the GTP paid out a little more than $350,000 to about 20 different local arts organization. This year, as part of the City’s ongoing Ford-inspired overhaul of its graffiti abatement strategy, the program was canceled.

Yes, canceled. And replaced with a new program called StreetARToronto. The move has some mural advocates scratching their heads.

Grants under the GTP paid the full cost of hiring youth to paint murals. StreetARToronto, meanwhile, requires organizations to put up 50 per cent of the money using other public or private grants, or in-kind contributions. “Now it’s a public-private partnership program,” explained Lilie Zendel, who is managing the program for the City. “Our goal, eventually, is to do fundraising on our end as well.”

This is worrisome to Liz Forsberg, managing director of Art Starts, a not-for-profit that received about $20,000 per year under the old program. She isn’t sure her organization can raise the $10,000 required to keep their funding stable, and, what’s more, she says the City didn’t inform her of the change.

Art Starts used its Graffiti Transformation money to execute one project per year (out of the 30 to 40 projects they undertake annually using other funding), but Forsberg believes that the money made a difference. “It was small, but totally significant,” she said. “It’s our major project that we do, and we’ve done it for at least the past 14 years.”

StreetARToronto also differs from its predecessor in that it will be administered through the City’s Public Realm section, which means it will emphasize prominent placement and technical skill to a degree that the GTP didn’t. “We’re certainly trying to raise the profile of the program and raise the level of the work that’s being done,” said Zendel, the City manager.

Joshua Barndt, co-director of Whippersnapper Gallery, thinks this new focus could cause needy communities to miss out on grant dollars. Last year, in partnership with Art Starts, he used GTP money to execute projects in Alexandra Park, a co-op community south of Kensington Market. He’s not sure funding for projects like that will be available this year.

“This new program is focusing on high-profile walls,” he said. “But it might not make sense for that artwork to happen on a huge artery. It might make more sense for it to happen somewhere within the internal space of a community.” Barndt and Forsberg are orchestrating a meeting tomorrow between Zendel and the leaders of some community organizations to discuss these and other issues.

Back in the laneway near St. Clair and Lansdowne, Mayor Ford wrapped up his press conference by picking up a brush and whitewashing a little graffiti for the cameras, which was charming in a Tom Sawyer kind of way. But if he’s serious about doing something substantial (and cost effective) about vandalism in Toronto, he’ll forget the apps and concentrate on making sure that StreetARToronto doesn’t disappoint the organizations it’s supposed to engage. There’s no cure for unwanted graffiti, but engaging youth in making murals is probably the best preventative we’ve got.

Photos by Steve Kupferman/Torontoist.


  • Anonymous

    Sweet scam! Get graffiti artists to paint up properties, have them use this app to report the crime. Property owner gets taxed, er, I mean fined. The artists come back whitewash the wall and start the process over again.

  • Anonymous

    Let me be the first to say it won’t work. The down.


    App might be free, but it costs money to run around the city painting over those tags, it costs money to fill out the paper work that unfairly passes the cost along to property owners, and it costs money for someone to sit there sorting out the shots of graffiti from shots of legal artwork (among other things people will send photos of). The backlog of reports will grow and grow until our next mayor scraps the initiative. Meanwhile, all that paint does is reset the canvas for the next guy with a can.

    • Anonymous

      It apparently costs 1.99

      • Anonymous

        It’s free. I had to download it so I could complain about it on iTunes.

        • Anonymous

          I stand corrected. BlogTo is saying it cost’s 1.99. I wish I had an iPhone so I could also complain on iTunes about it lol

  • Spraycan

    1 The high school kids who walk down my back alley tagging their stupid coolguy names on everybody’s garage aren’t interested in doing murals. Tagging is far more prevalent than vandal murals.

    2 Why does the city have to provide walls for the vandals? Why can’t these a-holes take it upon themselves to get their won walls? What’s so difficult about approaching property owners and asking if they can paint a mural on their wall/garage?

    Or organizing – putting samples of their work on a website and leaving flyers in doors so property owners can select what kind of art they want on their property?

    Is that too much work for the widdle vandals? Awww.

  • Anonymous

    Newsflash: every alley in the city is full of tags. You don’t need an app to tell you that. This is an attempt to look like something is being done about the (unsolvable) tagging issue.

  • Joshuabarndt

    If you are an artist, community worker, or general Toronto who is at all interested in learning about the history of the GTP program as well as the new StreetARToronto program,,,, feel free to join WHippersnapper, Art Starts and Neighbourhood Arts Network tomorrow afternoon for an discussion about “Innovation and Community Engagement in Public Art”.

  • Anonymous

    Load the app. Then only shoot city-owned properties with tags. When those are cleaned up, we can move on to private property. Or before that happens, the program will have run out of money and get cancelled.

    • Anonymous

      I’ve put your suggestion up on Boing Boing. Good idea!

  • Anonymous

    Will it go after the vandals themselves. Very unlikely, unless the authorities catch them in the act. It goes after the victims.

    Better to inform the city of the vandalism done to city property, not private property.

  • MostlyCivil

    I look forward to the inevitable rush of fake reports rendering the app pointless. Shall we set up the pool to see how long it takes?

  • Anonymous

    “Reporting graffiti doesn’t deter vandals; all it does is stick property owners with cleanup bills”
    Graffitists (particularly taggers) want people to see their work. If it gets covered up quickly, then you choke off the publicity they crave. That’s why painting out mindless graffitti ASAP will help.

    Dealing with the effects is also a seperate issue from catching the cuprit. If a person gets stabbed, we don’t complain that the taxpayer has to fund the emergency treatment, even if the cuprit doesn’t get caught.

    Property owners have the option of painting over graffiti themsleves – paint and a brush doesn’t cost that much. If they cannot deal with something affecting the public realm in a timely manner, then they City has to do it instead.

    It is unfair that someone has to pay for the effects of criminal behaviour, which is why convicted criminals should pay for the cost of cleaning up after their crimes.

    • Anonymous

      “Graffitists (particularly taggers) want people to see their work.”

      Graffiti writers are generally happy if other graffiti writers see their work, even if that means the underside of a bridge or a rooftop stairwell, far from the public eye.

      “If it gets covered up quickly, then you choke off the publicity they crave.”

      You have to cover it up quickly, every single time. That will work for small areas and high profile areas, but the city can’t afford to sustain that from Etobicoke to the Rouge.

      “Property owners have the option of painting over graffiti themsleves – paint and a brush doesn’t cost that much. If they cannot deal with something affecting the public realm in a timely manner, then they City has to do it instead. “

      If they choose not to deal with it, why does the city have the right to overrule that choice? Does the city step in when it’s a decrepit storefront, a weed-choked fence line, or pigeon shit on awnings and sidewalks?

      • Anonymous

        “Graffiti writers are generally happy if other graffiti writers see their work, even if that means the underside of a bridge or a rooftop stairwell, far from the public eye.”
        Other graffiti writers are still people (!), so that means you agree with my point that graffiti writers want ther work to be seen

        “You have to cover it up quickly, every single time.”

        “If they choose not to deal with it, why does the city have the right to overrule that choice? ”
        Because the democratically-elected council voted to give City officials that power.

        • Anonymous

          “Other graffiti writers are still people (!)”

          Obviously, but you’re being a little shifty here. Graf writers will continue to put up pieces no matter how many shots of graffiti in highly visible areas get sent to 311.

          “Because the democratically-elected council voted to give City officials that power.”

          I didn’t ask how they got the ability, I was making a point of the double standard it shines a light on. Property owners are under no obligations to keep up the appearance of their property… unless spray paint is involved? Come on. Either include pigeon shit and the rest, or scrap this graffiti exception.

  • Anonymous

    There’s only one way to deter tagging if we as a society want pristine unpainted walls: law enforcement. Spend whatever it takes to monitor paintable walls and nab the taggers when they’re caught in the act.

    Does Rob Ford want to pay for this? Didn’t think so. Sure, stick property owners with the bill. That’s been such a remarkably effective strategy so far.

    Actually I don’t particularly care whether tags get removed or not. They don’t bother me. If they were on my property, they might, but that’s my business, not other people’s.

  • Sean Connors

    Since no one has mentioned or linked to it the $2 APP is called TDOT311 and is created by a company called Public Leaf. This again shows why Ford is a failure, this announcement has done more to advertise the Free See Click Fix App Toronto 311 has been using since 2010. Here’s the 2010 announcement –

    • Nick

      Ha, that’s great – Ford promoting something that Pantolone announced in 2010! He probably voted against the development of it at the time, no doubt.

  • Sting Sting Sting

    What if we used this app to report illegal billboards and advertising?

  • Anonymous

    Commenters at BlogTO are calling the graffiti showcased in this PR stunt suspicious. I don’t know why Ford’s handlers would stage fake tags instead of finding some real ones, but “my turf” doesn’t look like something an actual tagger would bother writing.

    • Anonymous

      So horribly yet. Not to mention the entire garage is coloured in the same colour (black) and was obviously all done with the same hand. Odd for tagging especially.

  • Anonymous

    I hear Fergus is mostly graffiti free (sorry it really DOES exist everywhere). Housing is cheap there too!

  • Asda

    LOL to even think this is a good & effective program. If I hate a business I’ll just tag up their shit and report it. Then get them to pay for it, come back again and do it up again, and again, and again. OMG, whoever came up with this idea needs to be fired.

  • Jacob

    Someone should tag “ROB FORD” all over the place.

  • Anonymous

    Why don’t we make it legal to do graffiti in alleyways and lane ways, but just not on street facing store fronts? Then we don’t have to spend money trying to clean most of it up. Taggers and artists get a space to do things that isn’t your shop front door, likely wouldn’t have to give out grants for deterrent programs, and maybe we’ll end up with another tourist draw like graffiti alley on Queen Street.

  • Anonymous

    The new program certainly doesn’t look promising, but it will be interesting to see whether mural painting increases or decreases under it. This mayor’s silly little media events are all fine and good, but we’ll need to know what actually resulted from his initiatives if we are to hold him accountable at the next election.

  • Yonge

    Why don’t we use criminals in our jail downtown to go out and paint over these tagged walls… use the free labour and make them work. Chain them all up and start painting away.

  • Kpollockphotos

    There is a cure for unwanted graffiti. By commissioning artists to paint murals, that’s how! Its worked in kensington market for years. Everyone hates tags, people love colourful art work. This helps bring our city some light.