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The City’s New Graffiti Panel Renders Judgment on Murals

The panel decides whether markings on buildings stay or go.

The City’s new graffiti panel held its first meeting last Friday morning. There, the fates of nine murals on the exteriors of Toronto buildings were decided.

The owners of the buildings had submitted applications to the City requesting that the murals be declared “graffiti art,” or “art murals.” Either designation exempts a painting from enforcement under the City’s graffiti bylaw, which mandates that vandalism be removed at the property owner’s expense.

It used to be that city councillors decided whether to grant “art” exemptions to murals, but thanks to some reforms that came about as a result of Mayor Rob Ford’s graffiti blitz, the task now falls to the graffiti panel, which is made up of City staff. Of the nine pieces up for discussion at the panel’s inaugural meeting on Friday, three were spared from the power washer while decisions on the other six were bumped to the panel’s next meeting on November 30.

Recent pictures of the graffiti in question were displayed on projector screens for the committee to consider while its members expressed their thoughts and concerns. The first three pieces had their exemptions approved with little argument, but committee chair Glen Sharp took issue with a mural at 155 Augusta Street, which features a cartoonish drawing of chubby guy in a baseball cap. For Sharp, the image’s obscure facial expression and pointing finger didn’t bode well. But Jane Purdue and Carolyn Humphreys disagreed. In the end, the panel members decided it was better to deal with the question at their next meeting.

The most contentious item on the agenda was the mural near the roofline on Jerry Stone’s property at 1255 Queen Street West. Stone’s application for an art-mural exemption only covered graffiti on the east wall of the building, but photos revealed that numerous tags reside on the south wall as well. Stone wanted to revise his application to include both walls. But this turned out to be not so easily done, even after the committee tried to work it out with their legal counsel.

Stone had problems with sloppy graffiti tagging before, the kind that would be considered vandalism, but found removing it to be effective. He had tags buffed off of the north wall of his building, which faces Queen, and he hasn’t seen any new ones pop up there since. Murals on the east and south walls, however, he wants to keep.

When the meeting reconvened, even Stone’s lawyer, Owen Winterson, couldn’t persuade the panel to make a call. They decided they needed more information on exactly what the tags on the south wall meant before they could go ahead with lumping the two walls together. Stone will have to wait to see if he can keep the decorative murals where they are.

But it wasn’t all hushed deliberations and quiet huddling with lawyers and officials. James Lafazanos sat before the panel and defended a mural at 899 College Street, which is one of those that had its exemption granted. “If you get a skilled and respected graffiti artist to do a piece or a mural, you don’t have people tagging the walls over top of it. And since August, when it was put up, there hasn’t been a tag since. It’s not uncommon for people to take pictures of this wall,” he said.

The popular mural depicts the anime character Totoro: a big, fuzzy, smiling creature who loves kids and adults. “I guess I’m just all for expressions of art that make people happy,” Lafazanos said.

All photos screencapped from City staff reports.

CORRECTION: November 5, 2012, 2:30 PM This post originally misidentified the address of a building with a mural of the anime character Totoro on one of its walls. It’s 899 College Street, not 899 Queen Street.

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