If Appreciating Graffiti is Wrong, We Don't Want to Be Right
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If Appreciating Graffiti is Wrong, We Don’t Want to Be Right

Graffiti pieces on the southeast corner of Bloor and Ossington, on the back of the LCBO. The LCBO attests that the piece was not commissioned by the store, although the artist may have applied for an independent permit from the city.

The premise of graffiti art is that it’s not supposed to be there.

Its appeal comes from being unsolicited and out of place, which is what makes the art form, at times, so unexpectedly beautiful. It’s also what makes graffiti, by definition, illegal. Toronto’s graffiti bylaw [PDF] defines the illegal art form exactly in these terms, as non-commissioned:

GRAFFITI: One or more letters, symbols, figures, etchings, scratches, inscriptions, stains or other markings that disfigure or deface a structure or thing, howsoever made or otherwise affixed on the structure or thing, but, for greater certainty, does not include an art mural.
ART MURAL: A mural for a designated surface and location that has been deliberately implemented for the purpose of beautifying the specific location.
(City of Toronto Graffiti bylaw, 485-1 [PDF])

Most graffiti artists would agree with this definition, although they’re bound to take issue with the rest of Toronto’s Graffiti Abatement Program. If the criminal aspect weren’t so intrinsic to graffiti itself, then perhaps Rob Ford and the graffiti artists of Toronto could come to a compromise involving some brightly-primed, designated brick walls. But the illegal nature of graffiti defines the art form and its culture even more than the use of spray paint or stencils, and the work and message of graffiti artists wouldn’t be the same without the challenges and codes imposed by making illegal art.

A suspected Banksy piece in Toronto, from his alleged visit to promote his documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. Photo by Gary Smithson.

Toronto was visited last spring by British graffiti legend Banksy, whose work and biography is probably the best example of the art/vandalism dichotomy that is graffiti art. Toronto allegedly received its first Bansky pieces while the famed artist was in town to promote the release of his documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, although the preserved anonymity of the artist makes it hard to prove he was here at all, let alone that the pieces are his work. Like his art, Banksy’s documentary makes a great case for the illegal nature of graffiti.
Exit Through the Gift Shop highlights the appeal of the underground artist’s mystique by juxtaposing him against a joke of an artist who is only in it for the spotlight. After seeing the terrible copycat work this artist produces, Banksy says: “I used to encourage everyone I knew to make art; I don’t do that so much anymore.” This gets to the crux of the graffiti debate for any city: graffiti art is often disgraceful and worthless vandalism, but in the case of some artists, graffiti is a powerful form of artistic expression.
But whether you’re Banksy or the other guy, your work is equally illegal. All we are left with is a totally subjective aesthetic judgement about what should be preserved as art and what should be whitewashed as vandalism. Still, within this wide, sprayed-on spectrum, as within any other art form, we’d like to think there can be some degree of criticism and assessment of artistic merit.

Top: an accumulation of tags in the Ossington and Queen West area. Bottom: an expert graffiti piece in the same area.

Toronto’s Graffiti Abatement Program acknowledges this by allowing property owners to apply for an “art mural exemption.” This means that the city will review graffiti works that, although not commissioned, the property owner appreciates and doesn’t want removed. Although this measure accounts for the wide range of artistic merit in graffiti art, it doesn’t clear up the blurry line between vandalism and art—it only categorizes after the fact. By allowing for these exemptions, the City is conceding that beautiful works of art can indeed be created out of illegal circumstances. And even if it’s unintentional, these exemptions legitimize even the crudest of tags, which are part of the visual language and heritage of this art form.
Even in its own publicity, Toronto’s Graffiti Abatement Program can’t avoid the inherent contradictions within value judgements of illegal art. The Toronto Police Services Graffiti Eradication Program, an arm of the Graffiti Abasement Program, uses a scrawled graffiti font in its slogan: “Combat Graffiti.” The stiff block letters of the word “combat” are livened up by the appropriation of a vandal’s hand for the word “graffiti,” which gives the slogan some visual appeal. Even this simple use of typography lends credence to the graffiti art form and its aesthetic influence. The photo gallery of this same initiative displays images of Toronto graffiti that are conceivably meant to motivate a clean-up effort, but even within these four images there are colour combinations and line work that many might consider more than valid grounds for an art mural exemption.

A stoned Luigi and some artful tags, also near Ossington and Queen West.

The firmest middle ground between Toronto’s Graffiti Abatement Program and the city’s graffiti artists might just be the illegal identity of graffiti itself. After all, a big part of a graffiti art’s appeal, other than the medium and circumstances, is that the work itself is temporary and vulnerable. Without the threat of eradication, a particularly eye-catching piece of graffiti becomes less valuable to both artist and audience alike. The escalating instances of graffiti taunting Rob Ford that are popping up around Toronto make it clear that, rather than being a deterrent, the crack-down can’t help but fuel the art form and the artists. Surely Banksy doesn’t want any officially sanctioned exemptions for the work he may have left here. Idealistic as it may be, graffiti culture has a built-in model of respect as insurance. If your work is good, other artists won’t mess with it—even though Mayor Ford might.
The City of Toronto, in conjunction with Direct Engagement, will be holding a Graffiti Summit Town Hall on Tuesday, May 31, to discuss a community strategy for graffiti. The Drake Hotel (1150 Queen Street West), 7 p.m., FREE.
Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist except where noted.