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