City Says: Say It, Don't Spray It?
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City Says: Say It, Don’t Spray It?

image008.jpgToronto city councillors don’t like graffiti. So what? Torontoist doesn’t like paying $2.50 to ride our underfunded and ailing transit system and we don’t like riding our bikes over the streets’ many exposed potholes. Oh, and we especially don’t like our city councillors deciding what does and does not constitute art. A new bylaw will require store owners to remove unsolicited graffiti from buildings within 72 hours of discovery by enforcement officers. If it’s not cleaned up the city has the right to enter on to the property and remove the graffiti at the owner’s expense.
Most graffiti in Toronto are vivid and colourful works of art that brighten up the decrepit back alleyways of our city. For those city councillors that don’t believe graffiti is art let us consider the thriving and often influencing New York art scene. Earlier this year one of that city’s most prestigious modern art galleries, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, held an exhibit devoted entirely to graffiti. East Village USA was one of the first exhibitions dedicated to displaying and celebrating the 1980s New York graffiti art movement. The show opened to rave reviews on December 9, 2004 and just ended last month on March 19. Torontoist was in NY at the time and had the opportunity to see this vibrant show highlighting artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. But wait, that can’t be right, Basquiat and Haring are “real” artists, not graffiti “taggers” or “bombers” (terms commonly used to denote the work of graffiti artists).

Merriam-Webster defines “art” as “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects…art implies a personal, unanalyzable creative power…” Jessica Nicholson, store manager at Astro in Kensington Market, believes that the graffiti adorning the exterior walls of her store is “artistic and it doesn’t bother her,” as reported by Jeff Gray in his image009.jpg
article Graffiti-blitz blues, published in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. The article goes on to say that she may not be forced to remove the graffiti – even under the new bylaw – as it will allow her to ask for an exemption to declare her wall an art mural. However, and a big but here, that requires approval from Toronto’s city council / art critics. It is interesting to learn that under this new bylaw, city council will have the authority to constitute what is art. Isn’t that the same as saying they are entitled to determine whether or not one’s conscious use of creative imagination is deemed acceptable? Since when did we entrust our elected city councillors to make this decision on behalf of us?
The Toronto Police Services (TPS) defines graffiti as “any writing, drawing or symbol applied to any service without the consent of the property owner…” Torontoist recognizes that not all graffiti is good. Some store owners do not appreciate having their property graffiti-alized and many may not be as fortunate as Ms. Nicholson who, most of the time – according to the Globe’s article – is asked permission by the local graffiti artists to spray paint her walls. We also recognize that graffiti can come in the form of hate crimes. The number of reported incidents of hate crimes in Toronto increased by nine per cent last year, according to the Toronto Police Service’s 2004 Annual Hate/Bias Crime Statistical Report, and the most frequent occurrences were “Mischief” offences which consists mainly of graffiti. Blatant acts of defacing property (e.g., on store fronts and signs) should not be tolerated, but does it really hurt anyone if it’s on an exterior brick wall behind or on the side of a building, so long as it is not an act of malice?
For the most part, the city’s graffiti – and its urban artists – usually lie hidden in back alleys, abandoned buildings, and high above the street on rooftops, bridges and passing freight trains. It is unfortunate that we are not more accepting and embracing of some of the truly talented artists that we have who contribute to Toronto’s vibrant culture. Instead, we are opting to shoulder the penalty of creativity on to the store owners who are trying to make a living, and in turn, contribute to the city’s prosperity and its economy. Are we really saying that there should be a trade-off between art and wealth? Torontoist doesn’t think so and encourages the city to continue to support and promote such programs as its community mural program and the TPS Graffiti Eradication Group which allows youth to paint approved designs in various parts of the city.
It appears that this bylaw unfairly prevents this colourful and often innocent creative expression of art. We encourage you to write to your city councillor with the simple message to allow creative forms of expression such as graffiti. Save the graffiti!