The producer of a forthcoming film about local street art discusses our ongoing, tense relationship with graffiti in Toronto.
A little over a year ago, Mayor Rob Ford took out his magic wand in the form of a power washer at a photo op and declared war on graffiti in Toronto. The unintentional consequence was that he created a backlash: by not understanding the difference between public art and vandalism, he escalated a growing battle over public space in Toronto.
In June 2011, sparked by the fallout from Mayor Ford’s graffiti eradication campaign, we embarked on a film project, Between the Lines, to document the subculture of graffiti in Toronto. Once we started to get to know the artists and understand some of their motivations, we became more convinced than ever that there are real differences between vandalism, graffiti, and street art. The notion that graffiti artists are either gang members, vandals, or criminals lurking in dark alleys is really just a stereotype, and simply not true in most cases. Many graffiti and street artists are serious about their work, have art degrees, and curate exhibits in major galleries and museums.
One of the artists, Pascal Paquette, recently had a show at the AGO along with fellow artist Sean Martindale (whose other project you may have seen on Torontoist). In a recent interview we did along with him, Paquette explained the difference between types of graffiti:
In graffiti there are four levels. The first one is tagging—just quick, a signature. The second is the bubble letters that we call bombing, that can involve a roller. The third one is piecing: that means those intricate spaghetti-like graffiti pieces. [They may be] wild style or not, but they have multiple colours and shines and are very finished. Then there is production, which [are] the bigger walls with pieces in it, [and] with backgrounds and characters.
If you are going to wipe out an art form, as Ford would literally like to do, you should understand it first. Some graffiti artists have tried to work with the City to promote an understanding of the difference between graffiti art and vandalism. The City has tried to create a program, StreetARToronto, to promote graffiti and street art, but it is not widely lauded by the artists or the general public.
In the process of making our film (which was recently selected to partner with the Hot Docs Film Festival’s Ignite crowd-funding initiative), we’ve seen widespread support for and interest in graffiti and street art. It has been very interesting opening our project up to the public and hearing the views of Torontonians about the subject—which are certainly more varied than the mayor’s.
In interviewing artists, the thing that comes up all the time is the role of corporate advertising versus public art, and the possibility that people don’t think about how they are affected by advertising in public spaces. People complain about graffiti and street art on public walls, but they don’t consider whether billboards and other forms of public advertising are desirable or even legal (in many instances, they are not). Toronto itself has instigated an ongoing conversation on this issue, particularly around illegal billboards in Toronto, heightened by the recent passage of a consolidated billboard bylaw and the creation of a new billboard tax—one that was challenged in court, though it has since been upheld. The graffiti writers and street artists we have been speaking with have repeatedly asked: “If outdoor advertising is legal, does that mean it is good?”
This art-versus-advertising debate was highlighted in a really creative way last weekend when an eclectic group of concerned citizens, artists, and activists belonging to the group cARTography Toronto engaged in an artistic intervention, taking over Astral Media information pillars and transforming them into miniature interactive art exhibits.
The most noteworthy thing to us about the intervention was Astral’s reaction. Instead of embracing the artists, their message, and the fun the public was having, the company took a punitive stance—not just removing the artwork but calling for a police investigation. This is a classic example of how public art and urban forms of expression that bring culture and splashes of colour to our cities are often persecuted and criminalized.
It will be interesting to see where things stand in Toronto next year, when our film is released, and if our collective conversation about what public art really is and includes has advanced in that time.
Torontoist has partnered with the makers of Between the Lines to develop Graffiti Talks, a series of web shorts profiling some key figures in the Toronto graffiti scene. Some are sympathetic, some offensive; hopefully all are thought-provoking. You can view the episodes we’ve released so far right here.