No Easy Solutions at the Graffiti Summit
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No Easy Solutions at the Graffiti Summit

Zion, Jeff Melanson, Rob Sysak, and Michael Thompson sit on a discussion panel at Tuesday graffiti summit at the Drake Underground. Photo by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.

“Enforcement is not the solution, I can tell you today,” Jim Hart, executive director of Toronto’s Municipal Licensing and Standards division, told a roomful of people who’d gathered in the Drake Underground for a summit on the City’s ongoing graffiti eradication blitz.
“We want to get to less enforcement for graffiti, because frankly we have higher priorities in the City of Toronto, rather than going out and addressing graffiti on businesses throughout the city,” he continued. “So we want this solved, and we want to get this solved fast.”
And that’s the essence of the City’s puzzling Ford-era message to vandalism’s perpetrators, and its victims. The City knows enforcement of its graffiti bylaw isn’t a solution, but until it finds a solution, it’s going to keep on enforcing.

Municipal Licensing and Standards, by Hart’s reckoning, has issued about two-and-a-half normal years’ worth of graffiti violations since December. The City is working on a revised graffiti policy, but it’s not scheduled to come before committee until June 29.
The summit at the Drake was supposed to help ease some of the tension created by this situation. It included not only civil servants and municipal politicians, but members of the graffiti and business communities. The business people were the most aggrieved of all the groups.
Here’s why they’re pissed off: graffiti enforcement in Toronto puts victims in an awkward and expensive position, because the intent of the bylaw is to keep walls clean, and not to punish perpetrators. (Punishment is a job for the cops.) When a property owner’s building gets tagged, they can be issued a notice of violation by the City. Then, it’s the owner’s responsibility to pay whatever it takes to clean up the graffiti, otherwise the City can do it, and bill them.

Graffiti alley. Photo by marty_pinker from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Jeff Melanson, Rob Ford’s soon-to-be-former arts advisor, acknowledged this during a panel discussion that took place on the venue’s velvet-curtained stage: “It’s a strange crime,” he said. “A crime that’s committed against you, and yet you’re billed for its removal.”
Rob Sysak, executive director of the West Queen West BIA, who was also on the panel, agreed. He said the BIA pays dearly to remove graffiti. “It’s probably about a third of our levy,” he explained. (A BIA’s levy is the money it receives annually from business owners within its borders.) Sysak added that the removal costs over five years were something like $150,000.
Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre), another panel member, echoed a proposal that was popular with several speakers at the event. He said, in the same no-time-to-breathe speaking style he uses on the floor of council: “We can designate, obviously, areas, where young people and others can actually, if you will, ply their craft, in a format that allows them to be expressive, and so on.”
Such designated areas, the thinking goes, would give youth an outlet to practice their art, in a way that wouldn’t cause problems for property owners. This was of a piece with the room’s general sympathy toward the notion that there are positives to graffiti. In fact, the City’s revised policy will supposedly include a more specific way for enforcement staff and politicians to distinguish between vandalism and street art.
Zion (last name withheld), owner of The Bombshelter, a self-described “graffiti art emporium” at Queen Street and Spadina Avenue, was the panel’s sole graffiti-world representative. He agreed that designated areas could help.
But he also had a more effective, if more laborious solution: have respected members of Toronto’s graffiti community do pieces on prominent walls, he suggested. And then the younger writers who do the majority of the tagging would know, he said, that: “If you touch that, you don’t have to worry about cops, you don’t have to worry about BIAs. You’re gonna be paid a visit soon.”
“My store sign got tagged one time,” he continued. “I found the kid on the same day. I just made one phone call and he had to come and clean it.”