The City has been very busy implementing Rob Ford’s campaign promise to rid Toronto’s streets of graffiti, but always with the understanding that eventually a new enforcement strategy would be needed. A draft of that new strategy is now public, and it seems bound to streamline, rather than overhaul, the old way of doing things.
Currently, Toronto’s graffiti bylaw is designed to keep walls clean, not punish perps. It sticks property owners with the costs of removal, effectively penalizing victims. There’s an escape clause for “art murals,” which are allowed to stay, while “graffiti vandalism” is not—but making the distinction is up to politicians whose sense of style, for the most part, begins and ends with the business apparel they wear to City Hall every day. (With the exception, maybe, of Kristyn Wong-Tam, who owns an art gallery. Oh, and Adam Vaughan’s glasses.)
As things stand, 10 Municipal Licensing and Standards officers walk the city and issue notices of violations to properties that have been vandalized. Owners then have to remove the graffiti at their own expense, otherwise the City can do it and bill them. The scale of the current enforcement blitz is unprecedented. In the six months or so since Rob Ford became mayor, MLS has issued more than two-and-a-half normal years’ worth of graffiti violations.
Some of the hardest hit have been business owners, whose storefronts make attractive targets for taggers. City statistics say that over 72 per cent of property owners have removed graffiti themselves rather than wait for the City to do it. But the staff report that summarizes the proposed new plan doesn’t confuse this with progress. “Unfortunately,” it says, “many of the compliant businesses were re-vandalized within a short period of time.”
So what would change under the proposed new plan?
- Permitted street art would go into a database. Right now, art murals are exempted on a case-by-case basis. This has led to at least one embarrassing situation in recent weeks. City staff are proposing a publicly accessible database of approved murals—which, wait… that didn’t exist already?
- Staff, rather than politicians, would decide what qualifies as an “art mural” and what doesn’t. This would remove politics from the approval process and enable the City to be more dispassionate in its judgments. The staff on the panel would have backgrounds in art and design.
- Graffiti alleys would be authorized in consultation with BIAs. One of the big anxieties in all of this among graffiti fans is that graffiti alley, behind Queen Street, might eventually come under the thumb of enforcement officers. Staff are proposing that graffiti alleys be allowed if property owners are on board.
- BIAs would be enticed to retain private graffiti removal companies. Staff want to create some kind of incentive—financial or otherwise—for BIAs to hire graffiti removal companies to regularly patrol their neighbourhoods. This is going to require further study, and details won’t be available before September.
- The private sector would help fund murals. It wouldn’t be a Rob Ford policy without some mention of the private sector. Staff want to take the existing City Graffiti Transformation Program, which gives grants to arts organizations so they can hire youth to remove graffiti and paint murals over it, and start seeking private sector money to expand it. Funding from the City, meanwhile, would remain stable.
- There would be a central graffiti office. The plan would concentrate most of the City’s graffiti enforcement and removal efforts in a single section within Transportation Services.
And yet even if these very good ideas were implemented, graffiti enforcement would continue apace, with property owners still bearing the brunt of the cost, and vandals (the bad kind) still presumably out there, doing their thing.
The proposed plan will go before the Licensing and Standards Committee on June 29. If it survives, it will still need final approval by city council.
Read the new plan in full here.