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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The question of graffiti

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In his campaign for mayor, Rob Ford promised to crack down on graffiti. Apparently, the crackdown has now started in the most visible possible location, on Queen Street West, well-known for its graffiti. BlogTO and the National Post report that in the last three weeks, 152 removal notices have been issued to properties on the street. (added: OpenFile has the full stats on the crackdown city-wide.)

In this crackdown he is building on a process begun under David Miller, under whom a strict anti-graffiti bylaw was introduced that made property owners liable for removing graffiti unless it was a designated “art” mural. As I wrote in my article on “messy urbanism” in the Summer 2010 issue of Spacing, the impulse to keeping the city neat and clean is one that is shared by right and left, and at the same time one that contradicts basic ideals of both right and left. In the case of David Miller and the left, the graffiti crackdown contradicts their ideal of a “creative city” full of grassroots activity; in the the case of Rob Ford and the right, it contradicts the belief in property rights and the desire to minimize government interference in property owner’s businesses and costs.

First, let’s be clear on what any debate about graffiti is and is not about. I don’t think there’s much debate about the following points:

  • Tags (quick graffiti scrawls) are ugly and it’s good to remove or cover them. Nobody except the taggers themselves likes tags.
  • All property owners have a right to remove anything painted on their property, if they wish to.

Any debate really boils down to what to do about elaborate, highly-designed graffiti pieces in the following situations:

  • where the property owner has created the murals themselves
  • where the property owner had explicitly or implicitly invited the decoration of the surface by someone else
  • where the property owner does not care that the surface has been decorated and has no desire to remove it.

In the first two cases, it’s hard to see why the City should interfere. Surely, if the property owner indicates that they have created a mural or invited someone to do so, that should be enough for it to be “designated.” But the case of two recent murals in the west end shows that the City doesn’t think that’s enough, and that some official body has to make the designation. In the end, the two murals were exempted by Etobicoke-York community council, but no-one should have to go through that much fuss to decorate their own building.

It’s the same for implicit invitations to decorate a wall. On a popular Jane’s Walk through “Graffiti Alley” (technically Rush Lane, south of Queen between Spadina and Portland) a couple of years ago, a member of the local community described how one property owner built a large wood frame on the back of their building in the alley, silently inviting some artist to create a mural on his wall — an invitation that was taken up, with an artist laying claim to the space and creating a new mural each year. Creating a situation where this property owner could be charged for cleanup, or have to go through elaborate administrative hassles, for a gesture that created a free piece of public art on their own property in a neglected space is counter-productive, to say the least. In these cases, it’s hard to see any reason why the city should intervene unless it is somehow unsafe or clearly offensive (or is in fact a commercial venture, such as a third-party ad, which is regulated separately).

The case of simply letting an uninvited piece stay on one’s wall shouldn’t really be much more complicated.

The graffiti bylaw is based on a long-standing principle that the city can force property owners to maintain the upkeep of their properties. For example, if someone leaves junk in their front yard, the City can order it removed, and if that is not done, remove it themselves and charge the property owner.

However, in practice this principle is not enforced anywhere near as heavily as the graffiti bylaw is being enforced. It is normally complaint-driven – that is, bylaw officers will investigate if a neighbour complains. (There’s no indication that neighbours have complained about most of the specific instances of graffiti that are currently being targeted).

Even then, there has been controversy because, for example, some people who are growing “natural” front gardens have had them targeted because they don’t conform to the neat and tidy ideal of front gardens. When the principle is pushed too far, bylaw officers end up being forced to make aesthetic judgements they should not have to make.

This problem becomes far more acute in the case of well-executed graffiti pieces. The fact is, a lot of good graffiti is a skilled creation that to many people makes surfaces more attractive, not less. Apparently, the city is not enforcing the bylaw against Graffiti Alley, which  is in practice a local attraction that both brings people to the area and creates an appealing atmosphere for the kind of creative businesses that flourish in that part of town. Witness the fact that Rick Mercer uses it as the backdrop to his popular “Rants” in The Mercer Report. But if the City acknowledges that Graffiti Alley is a contribution to the city, why not similar pieces of high-quality graffiti decorating other neglected parts of the city?

Allowing good graffiti to stay is also a way for property owners to counter ugly tags. It only takes seconds to spray-paint a tag — it is not something that can be stopped through enforcement. But an elaborate graffiti piece will discourage anyone from tagging the space for a considerable amount of time. Remove them, and tags will proliferate, leaving the space uglier than before (and costing the owner far more money to remove on a regular basis).

In cases where a property owner simply doesn’t care, the City should certainly have a look if neighbours complain and fear that the property is being seriously neglected. But an elaborate graffiti piece, that took time and talent to plan and implement, is not a sign of neglect but a sign of vibrancy. If a property owner is happy with it and the neighbours don’t mind enough to lodge a complaint, why is the City spending taxpayer money to enforce it and forcing property owners to spend money to remove it?

Photo by the author



  1. Excellent points all around. Thanks for this reasoned approach to what is a widely misunderstood piece of our urban fabric.

  2. Interestingly, the City of Toronto Public Works building at Richmond and Brant has a large (and ugly) tag on its upper skylight facing Brant Street — you’d think that the city would clean up their own buildings before starting to crack down on painting that no one really wants removed.

  3. I honestly don’t believe that true murals are the issue here. They are 1% of graffiti and not what scars mailboxes, phone booths, storefronts, building corners, park benches, subway windows, etc. The city risks becoming a decrepit wreck if tagging, large scale and small, is not brought under control. Think NYC subways early 80s…

    I am no fan of Ford, but he is right to try and crack down on graffiti because broken-windows theory matters, and it’s not a long way to fall from “messy urbanism” to “mess”.

    Scrub it down, boys, and pick up the litter while you are at it.

  4. Quote:
    “First, let’s be clear on what any debate about graffiti is and is not about. I don’t think there’s much debate about the following points:

    Tags (quick graffiti scrawls) are ugly and it’s good to remove or cover them. Nobody except the taggers themselves likes tags.”

    The problem with this statement is that there is, indeed, debate about this. The pro-graffiti movement is contradictory – if not outright lying – on this matter, as stylized, elaborate tagging has been put forward as “art” by its apologists (think 1970s-New-York-subway-graffiti-nostalgists) for years and so this is a duplicitous shifting-the-goalpost situation, where the more so-called “tags” are classified as “art”, the wider the definition of what constitutes exempted activity from the stricter definition of “criminal vandalism” becomes, which is a clever device used by many to justify increased amounts of vandalism in the first place. Oh sure, they qualify it by saying that ugly tagging is wrong, blah blah blah, but I don’t think they mean it and really, are just playing both sides of the fence to advance their agenda. Allowing one form of tagging, leads to more of the other as the standard shifts downwards, in part due to a there’s-nothing-you-can-do-about-it mentality of appeasement that led to graffiti alley in the first place. Look at it this way. Imagine if, say, Ford was mayor around 1990 when all this began, would we be having this discussion? No, we wouldn’t, and this is an important point: graffiti is not inevitable despite the wishes of many at BlogTo and here to wish it so.

    And this is also why, outside of forums such as Derek’s and here, this crackdown will prompt untold numbers of nodding heads and about-time’s from readers seeing this. I think Ford, in his own way, sees the disingenuousness of the whole “street art” movement that Miller was blind to, and has basically said, f**k it, that’s it, enough of this bullshit and has unleashed the hounds. And yes, the murals seem to be immune, for now, but we’ll see. I would not be surprised (and I frankly agree) that the presence of murals fosters an environment in which more tagging occurs (a chicken-and-egg argument I don’t have the energy to get into), but the fact that this enforcement team is now *institutionalized* tells me the game has changed. The old laissez-faire argument won’t work. I mean, just look at Open File’s numbers: more clean-up orders in the past two months than in the previous FIVE YEARS. If that isn’t indicative of what I would (perhaps hyperbolically) call criminal negligence of the Miller administration on this matter, I don’t know what is. Miller makes August Heckscher III look like Julian Fantino.

    And incidentally, examining the Property Standards agendas on the city website, I’m seeing really lame, pathetic attempts at run-of-the-mill tagging being put forward as “murals” that should not be cleaned up so the process I described is already happening. And the opposition shown by the Brickworks to the clean up order placed against them is another example of a concession to what 15 years ago would be classified as criminal vandalism, full stop, yet is now being excused as an inherent part of the building’s “history”, which is on its face ridiculous, but an argument that, again, illustrates how opportunistically the ‘street art’ movement has changed the terms of the debate. I think what Ford’s doing (rightly) is to reverse this. In other words, if tagging remains on a building long enough, then it shouldn’t be removed, so the more tagging you allow, the more you can excuse it as part of a building’s “character”, and so on and so forth. It then becomes “historic”.
    And on top of that, expand the definition of “art” so that every tagger thinks his piss-like scribbling is worthy of preservation, and you’ve closed the loop and shut down the debate, which really is what most criminal taggers *want* to see happen, and thus are more than happy to piggyback onto the “street art” movement in a bizarro good cop-bad cop scenario. Problem is, I don’t think most people north of Bloor and who aren’t part of the street art “scene” buy it. Miller did, I suspect, due to a combination of proximity, naivete, and desire to appear to be progressive, but Ford, clearly, doesn’t. So in a sense, Ford is saying, the jig is up. My frustration with apologist articles like this one is that there are consequences to this attitude. Bridges that weren’t vandalized are increasingly so(see the wreck the Bloor Viaduct has become), every mailbox you walk by, or traffic light box, or doorway, all blighted by this and I don’t think it’s happened in isolation. After all, weren’t street artists former taggers gone “legit”? The movement *needs* criminal vandalism as an incubator, so for it to distance itself from it is weasely, sort of how Sinn Fein used to always distance itself from the IRA: everyone knew they were full of shit, but the pretence was kept up all the same. The defensive platitutdes of this article and others like it are the exact the same thing, hypocritical in the extreme, and they know it but they *do* that they can’t come out and say it. But they don’t need to as results matter. The tone shifts – already has shifted – the standards dilute, and the more the talk of murals and whatnot and happy-face 52 Division abatement programs proliferate, the more crap I see on overpasses, monuments, and other structures that used to be off-limits, but now, as tagging and art increasingly blur, is becoming more prevalent. One justifies and explains away the other. Again, none of this was or is inevitable. There was a building near my home that for years was extensively tagged, but when I complained to MLS, the property owner and the councillor, results happened, that building now hasn’t been tagged in two years, and all the other little bits of tagging that happened in the school, park, and street furniture dissipated as well. There was no “culture” here, no “art”, no murals, only criminal activity that fortunately was not run through the street-art-scenester filter that exerts a vice grip on the Toronto blogging community.
    Enforcement *does* work. Ruthless cleaning *does* work, and Ford sees this. And if the street art community fights back, goes “rogue” and we see even more tagging than we do now, then he’ll go even further in the other direction: no murals, no nothing, and the loser, as always, is the rest of us who will have to see more of this garbage everywhere we go.

  5. Further to Sandy’s comment, has there been any initiative on behalf of the city to more aggressively remove tags and graffiti on public property? Light poles, transit shelters, signs, red and grey Canada Post boxes, etc. …


    Toronto will not become “decrepit” due to graffiti, and New York City in the 80s is not the right comparison…white flight and economic decline contributed to an urban environment that fostered neglect and decay in that city. Toronto is not facing that (actually, we’re facing pretty much the opposite). Ergo, we don’t have to worry about a situation anything like that taking hold here.

    Broken windows theory is not as simple as it’s made out to be.

  7. I would like to chop off the hands of those who tag. Really.

  8. Matt, as someone who has lived in Toronto for 20 years and New York for 10, I will disagree with you. I’m not talking burned-out South Bronx here, I’m talking about central parts of Manhattan like Bryant Park or the Upper West Side where graffiti had gotten out of control along with other problems, none of which had anything to do with white flight or economic decline. The signs of decay were simply allowed to get out of hand. Among many other initiatives, the city took a hard line on graffiti and central Manhattan now looks a lot cleaner than central Toronto, something pretty hard to imagine 15 years ago. No, Toronto is not about to empty out into Detroit, but it has a choice to make about whether it will be a gritty and ugly place to live or an attractive one. I would think it is in everyone’s interests to make it the latter.

    Ford is a complete idiot, an uneducated toddler, when it comes to transit planning, or anything with the word “planning” in it for that matter. But his views on graffiti are actually more in line with what is happening in other successful cities than one might expect. If New York and Chicago and Boston can clean up their act while preserving their Creative-Class status, so can Toronto.

  9. “mailboxes, phone booths, … park benches, subway windows”, along with bridges and traffic light boxes, are all property of governments or their agencies, or in the case of phone booths, large corporations with significant resources. They are free to clean graffiti as much as they want (or come up with other solutions, such as Canada Post’s ingenious postal-code-decoration wraps for mailboxes), without having to rely on bylaw enforcement.

    It would certainly make sense for Rob Ford to start his graffiti crackdown by cleaning City government property aggresively, but that might cost the City money.

    The question is really focused on what kind of costs it is reasonable to impose on small-scale private property owners. If a property is otherwise well-kept, graffiti on the walls doesn’t suggest urban decay (in fact, graffiti has proliferated along Queen West over the course of its urban revival since the 80s). Broken windows by contrast are a signifier of urban decay without ambiguity – I would rather focus our bylaw enforcement resources on them.


    True, but downtown Manhattan is also prosperous, and still covered in graffiti.

    And midtown/uptown Manhattan may be cleaner than central Toronto, but it’s also an absurdly wealthy and exclusive place to live. I would hate to see the entirety of central Toronto become like Upper Manhattan. Yorkville/Rosedale are quite enough (and quite graffiti-free.)

  11. Dylan, take a walk down Spadina Avenue from College to Queen. Every single storefront is tagged multiple times, and it does look like urban decay to this observer. It’s ugly and dispiriting. The property owners appear to have given up long ago, and if it takes bylaw enforcement to wake them up, so be it.

    Governments have better things to do with their money than clean up after self-obsessed taggers, which is why I think taggers should be prosecuted more aggressively. Tagging is profoundly contrary to the ideals of public space, as it claims and destroys shared resources. The West Toronto Railpath, for example, is a beautiful investment in the urban fabric but within days of opening, practically every surface was covered with paint.

    Rob Ford’s still an idiot though.

  12. My problem with this crackdown is that it seems to be punishing the victims of an undesirable activity, rather than the perpetrators. Your property just got defaced by a scrawl of ugly tags? Congrats, you’re now financially responsible for cleaning them up. And a week after you do, a fresh batch of tags will take their place, which you will also have to pay to clean up. Where, in this scenario, are the taggers themselves actually discouraged from tagging?

    If someone on council suggested a City Beautification Tax, the proceeds of which would be used to clean up graffiti, Ford would be first in line to oppose it with some of his patented “Respect for the Taxpayer” rhetoric. Yet what this crackdown amounts to, for individuals who don’t care about graffiti or even like it, is a tax payed by those who’s property is defaced in order to pay for someone else’s idea of an attractive city.

  13. Interesting to note that the “cutout” sheet steel intersection signs on the West Toronto Railpaths were designed to be legible even if sprayed over.

    Grant us the patience (and ingenuity) to endure the things we cannot change,
    the courage (and funding) to change the things we can,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.

    ingenuity, wisdom, and funding are not words I associate with the Ford administration, especially when it comes to gripe-based policies.

  14. Matt,

    “True, but downtown Manhattan is also prosperous, and still covered in graffiti.”

    I am sorry but this is patently false. You could find more tagging On Spadina alone than all of Manhattan. When they film movies in Manhattan they need artists to paint graffiti for effect.

  15. “I am sorry but this is patently false. You could find more tagging On Spadina alone than all of Manhattan.”

    This comment is also patently false. Search “graffiti manhattan” on Flickr and 27,900-plus photos come up.

    The War on Graffiti is just one of those “griped-based political issues that is meant to divert most of the public’s attention away from meaningful discussion and debate.

    No doubt, graffiti can be a detriment to a streetscape, but in most cases it’s easily ignored. The murals along Rush Lane/Queen Street are an urban tourist’s attraction for this city. It’s a much better used space than if it was squeaky clean when no one would be wandering around in it. The graffiti along this alleyway helps perpetuate the “eyes on the street” philosophy much more so than the “broken window” theory.

  16. Glen, the touristy parts of Manhattan may have no graffiti, but you haven’t walked around the other parts.

  17. @Glen

    I’m sorry, but your statement that “You could find more tagging on Spadina alone than all of Manhattan,” is what’s patently false. (Take a walk through Alphabet City. Even in post-gentrification Manhattan, there’s a crapload of tagging and scrawling.)

    You ARE right,of course, that Spadina is bad. Tons of negligent property owners around there. More worrisome to me than the graffiti is the structural disrepair of many beautiful old buildings.

  18. Tags are meant to be put in clever unassuming spots. Not on store fronts. It’s unfortunate as it does ruin the look and class of that establishment. Soap, water and a new coat of paint can solve the graffiti problem.

    Murals at the backs of stores, alleys, run down businesses, under bridges and designated spots are okay in my books. There amazing works of art.

    I really believe that Ford can focus his attention on something else that really matters. Transit, employment and housing.

    To hell with the cosmetic fixes, let’s see some solid foundations being built for this city.

  19. graffiti is meant to be a challenge to the concept of property
    the reality is that a lot of us can’t afford it
    if your right to expression (visually) is limited by property ownership
    than stop pretending that this liberal fantasy of “free” expression is true

  20. graffiti, in all capacities, unlike transit city, will be something that will most definitely survive the Rob Ford era.

  21. ^ Most self-serving claptrap I have ever read. They teach you those big words in art school?

    Here’s an idea: stop vandalizing property, do something productive with your life, and then, lo and behold, you can afford property! Although, someone might then come along and tag it…

    Once again: freedom of expression does not entail the right to defile others’ property. Maybe in the world you inhabit that’s not the case, but in this one it is. Yes, expression *is* limited by property ownership when it’s not *your* property.

  22. The tagging on The West Toronto Railpath is insane and it serves no purpose.

  23. I was choosing my words carefully, and you are right to call me out on over-generalizing.  So let me put it this way.  I live in upper, upper Manhattan, which has graffiti issues.  I work in midtown Manhattan, which is generally spotless.  The incidence of graffiti in these places is directly, absolutely related to prosperity and income levels.  Even within my own very diverse neighborhood, where every block is a socio-economic micro environment, the co-op blocks have no graffiti while the lower income rental blocks have lots.  (Same goes for litter, by the way).

    The problem that I have with Toronto is that while areas like Queen West are supposed to be a prime commercial corridor and a successful neighborhood, they look like a low income area because of the tagging.  Plus, I grew up in the City That Works era and find any signs of visual decline personally upsetting.  Toronto’s commercial streets should not look like slums, and a crackdown on many disorder issues in addition to graffiti is sorely justified.  

    Here are some tips as to how New York handles the graffiti issue:

    – graffiti removal is largely driven by citizen action.   If you want it gone, call and file a request.  What happens is that the high-income neighborhoods call a lot and get cleaned a lot, because their residents don’t want graffiti.  The lower income areas, or areas dominated by industrial uses, stay dirty because no one either minds or they are too afraid/uneducated/illegal to want to call the city for anything.   Squeaky wheel gets the oil, which at least keeps the squeakers happy.

    – the city then has options for how to deal with it that try to solve the issue without undue delay or burden to the property owner.  See this page for all the details:

    – for stores, the big problem for graffiti are the rolldown shutters common in this town, a leftover from the Escape From New York era.  Solution was to simply ban them.  As of July 1 of this year, all gates have to be see-through.  As of 2025, all existing gates have to be removed.  Problem solved, slowly, in a way that landlords and commercial tenants can afford.

    – spray paint and certain markers are illegal to sell to under-21 in New York City.

    – the city’s many BIDs (a concept that was invented in Toronto!) watch commercial areas closely and stay on top of graffiti and litter with their own task forces funded by their members.

    All of this is worth it because IT WORKS.  Toronto can stop the tagging, if can avoid tearing itself up over the issue first.


    Perhaps as a New Yorker you remember these days:

    It really does look like the inmates have taken over the asylum. 

    But look at some of that rolldown shutter graffiti, this in Kensington Market:

    I’d much rather look at that than at a steel shutter. New York in the 70s-80s was screwed up for a lot of reasons–population decline, no money, high crime, political apathy. These aren’t problems Toronto faces right now, and while we have to make sure petty graffiti doesn’t go crazy (it’d be a shame if the whole city looked like certain parts of Spadina) I don’t think we’re in danger of that.

  25. All of this talk about graffiti, yet no one mentions a larger blight … postering. Now that makes the city look decrepid, especially since it became a free place to put commercial (and government!) advertising. Tha’t a clean-up I would love to see and support.

  26. Matt, the picture of shutter art you link to in Kensington is clearly not graffiti, except for a couple tags along the bottom. What should happen in that case is that the property owners sign a form indicating the shutter murals are permitted by them and can stay. City will then take no action. However, the tags are completely unacceptable and should absolutely be cleaned off or painted over if you have any interest in preserving the area’s quality of life and property values. The property owners are being negligent in not tending to the tags and should be dealt with accordingly. If you take the benevolent view and fund the city to pay for their removal/repainting at no cost like New York does, great. If you have to fine them, so be it – that’s part of the responsibility you get with owning property. Either way, erase those tags.

  27. That’s pretty much what I was advocating – let property owners be able to designate murals as permitted without a lot of fuss or expense. No sympathy for tags.