Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Quest for Agora through Costco

This week I received an email from someone who read my response in the Costco Connections magazine debate: "Should we get tougher on graffiti". While the author is clearly annoyed with me, I think he raises concerns we all hear time again regarding graffiti. As such, I thought it might be helpful to post my response to the e-mail.

I thank you for taking time to write about the Costco Magazine debate. I am sure you can appreciate that it is difficult to express a complex idea in under 400 words; I welcome the opportunity to clarify my position for you and address some of the questions you have brought up. For simplicity’s sake, I copy/pasted your question before my responses.

“What about people who don't want spray paint on their property? The only right they have is to pay time and money to clean up the mess?”

Of course you have a right to not have spray paint on your property. I appreciate you like your fences and walls bare. I would never want you to be forced to have paint on it, nor did my response suggest that I would.

Given the tone of your letter, I will assume there is little consolation for you to hear me tell you that most of the people who write graffiti agree it is wrong to ‘tag’ people’s homes or cars. Admittedly, in the denser urban populated areas, these lines blur a bit more. One really effective solution that has been adopted by some cities involves the city painting over unwanted graffiti at no expense to the property owners. Many other communities report success stemming repeated ‘tagging’ by incorporating vines and shrubs , or allowing community groups to put a mural on the wall (if it is a particularly tempting area). These are cheap and effective solutions that do not escalate tensions between citizens.

Additionally, I support business’ right to choose to have spray paint on their property. If you read my Costco response closely, you already know I support more autonomy for businesses to determine what goes on the walls of their buildings. Currently, the City of Ottawa makes this a highly complex process so that legitimate graffiti/mural artists can barely make a living because the city makes it hard for them to work legitimately. Painting murals that are wanted by a property owner is certainly not a crime!

Furthermore, as you expressed so well in your letter to me, when you are forced to pay for ‘clean up’, it makes people frustrated and angry. This is a sign of bad policy – it does not resolve the situation and it raises tensions between citizens who are in conflict.

“And what about when tagging is used by gangs to define territory or send a message. Is that art that should be condoned, too?”

There is no ‘gang’ graffiti in Ottawa (or Canada for that matter). Please feel free to refer to the City of Ottawa  webpage for another source on this, if you do not take my word on it. There was a history of this in LA in the 1980s, but this is not the ‘kind’ of writing done in Canada.

“...Or should property owners just suck it up and clean up the mess while society does nothing to stop it?”

Here you do seem to be asking about two very separate things:

First, a concern about actual damage and burdening property owners with that cost (which I did address above – I am confident the city could do this at a much cheaper expense than current ‘eradication’ strategies);

Second, the loss of a secure society. Perhaps what you mean to ask me is: Should the law not protect property owners’ rights? Well, of course they should. But to what extent would you like this law to work? Once a police officer has arrested someone who has tagged your fence, what would you like the law to do? What would be the purpose of the ‘consequence’?

In Canada, the law is focused on ‘righting the wrong’ with the state, not the individual (and you would be right to assume that most people are not happy with how this actually plays out). What many people seem to want is a justice system that makes things right with the victims of said harm. So, perhaps get the individual who did the graffiti paint it over, or pay for the repairs. I think you would find most people would agree with that approach. That is not the kind of laws we put in place at the municipal level, however. That was my point in the response: Current 'get tough' legislation penalizes property owners.

If you are asking me what I think an appropriate legal response to ‘writing illegal graffiti’ should be, I would answer that it should be no more harsh than it need to be, and it should be in line with comparable acts. How should we deal with someone who breaks a window, for example? Similar harm, similar response. We should not have laws that target some groups more harshly because people misunderstand the people or culture they fear.

Of course, you seem to assume people who write graffiti are not property owners and on that point you would be wrong. Many own homes. Many own businesses. That’s why few support the idea of irresponsible tagging (private homes, etc).

Some graffiti writers do purposely break the law for reasons you (and many others) clearly do not appreciate (challenging authority). On my blog, I speak to this more fully. I am clear: Getting arrested is no way to make it in this world. It closes doors of opportunity in ways that are quite devastating. I do NOT condone breaking the law. I also do NOT condone creating more laws without good reason.

“Well, there are lots of us that have higher expectations. How do you balance that with your "effective social policy" and other politically correct terms that condone bad behavior?”

Well, if people think effective social policy is nothing but a politically correct term, then I certainly have my job cut out for me as a professor who teaches people who want to be police officers (among many others)!

So I have this to ask of you – what basis would you like to make policy and law on? Beliefs or evidence? I have higher expectations of those who create and enforce public legislation. I think this speaks volumes of how I am not condoning the “bad behaviour” of politicians who make false promises to voters about how legislation will resolve a problem, without getting a good understanding of the situation first.

The other questions you have asked me were personal, and while I think it will do little to help you gain more knowledge on the complexities of graffiti, I will answer them as best I can.

“Would you mind if someone broke into your home and stole your belongings? After all, nobody was hurt, right? You've got insurance right? You don't mind paying higher premiums, right?”

Yes, I would mind if someone broke into my home. But, if no one was hurt, you are right – it is just stuff. I am quite Zen on this front. I don’t even lock my doors, so my insurance would probably not cover the loss. I would miss my guitar most, of course. But I would get another...

 I know that this is not a mainstream belief, and so I would also never expect the law to bend to my personal feelings on this topic.

Yes, my family home has been broken into in the past. So I can speak from experience.

“There used to be standards for acceptable behaviour but people like you have decided that we don't need standards.”
This sounds like the “society is going to hell in a hand basket” argument.

“People like you (and me)” live longer than ever before. Our children are more educated than at any other time. We are wealthier, and few people become victims of ‘street crime’ (although corporate crime is another matter...). All is not perfect, but it is arguably better standard of living than what most people had during the 1920s, for example. Is there a particular time period that you are nostalgic for? I could probably respond to this question better if it were more specific.

I am curious where you are getting your information that there is a huge decline in “standards”. Certainly mainstream news only reflects those things that rarely happen (that is, after all, what makes it newsworthy!) I am sure you know that the news is not an accurate reflection of how safe we are. It certainly is effective in contributing to us feeling insecure, that is for sure. Making bad laws, however, will not resolve these feelings. Turning the TV off might.

“As long as your studies and statistics "prove" something that is good enough for you, then too bad for the rest of us, huh?”

Firstly, I did not make any mention to statistics in my Costco piece. If you wish to take the time to read my blog, though, you may be interested in an article I wrote that is quite critical about people who try to use statistics to make claims about how programs increase/decrease crime.

Secondly, I teach research methods at the university level, which includes statistics. And as such, I would be the first person to tell you that statistics do not “prove” anything, particularly when they are related to social interactions and human behaviour. Statistics can tell us about trends, perhaps, but they are more an indicator that “something” is happening (or not), but really that is all. People are not amoeba; we have free will (thank goodness!)

It sounds like you are frustrated with public policy driven by individual’s preferences or ‘beliefs’ about the real world. On this point, you and I could not be closer. I wish to see public policy that actually DOES what it says it is going to do, not laws created because someone ‘feels’ like it might work, or will make a good sound bite on the evening news. I am merely wondering why municipalities keep investing so much money on maintaining a policy that does not work. “People like me” are simply demanding that politicians address the concerns of ALL their citizens, and find solutions that make the conditions of living together as respectful as possible.

In closing, I wish to return to the opening line of your email.

“Honestly, it’s sad to see someone “in the know” who has literally given up.”

There is no need to be sad. I have not given up, I have only just begun! I am very fortunate to teach about 1000 young people each year in my classes. They remind me how important it is to have a government in place that is accountable to its people, that respects the rights of ALL its citizens (including property owners and non-owners alike, among many others), and does not attempt to overstep its mandate. I have four children who do amazing things in this world, and remind me how good it is to live in a country where we can be critical of our government without unjust persecution. Through my research I have gotten to know hundreds of young people outside the university system who do amazing things despite seemingly impossible odds.

As someone who is on the front lines, I can assure you the future is in good hands.

Many thanks again for taking the time to write to me about your concerns.

Kindest regards,

Deborah Landry

Monday, September 5, 2011

Just Sign Here...

One of my favourite things to watch in town is the "Legal Graffiti Sign" at the Tech Wall (Piece Park), downtown Ottawa. The city posted their sign before the spring thaw this year - these are some snapshots of how the people who use this urban space buff the City off the wall. 

More photos to come as summer falls....


June 1 


June 22

June 30

Canada Day - July 1

Early August

August 25

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tough Debates Easy Targets

As I was picking my anklebiters from the world's best baby-sitter, I was greeted by a chorus of kids telling me that I was in a magazine! Ah, and as it turns out, today is the day my response to the questions "Should we get Tough on Graffiti" came out in the Costco magazine, Connection. I had no idea how the page would be framed or who was going to be arguing the 'yes' part of the question, so I was intrigued to see how it all came together.

Costco Connections (page 16).
Overall, I am happy with the outcome. There is only so much one can say in a 400 word essay. I do like that the graffiti writer is painting a peace sign!! The people at Costco in contact with me were kindly receptive to many of the ideas (I dare say 'enthusiastic'). I would be happy to talk with them again.

This debate serve as a drama, if you will, of what is 'sayable' about contemporary graffiti today in mainstream discourse. It highlights the assumptions about the problem, and provides a polarizing 'snapshot' of views. In reading over the article tonight, I noticed the difference between how opinions differ in this polarization play.

Notice how those who like graffiti do not make claims to any kind of 'knowlege' outside of their preference for how something looks. If any expertise is claimed by the "yes" side, its attributed to the genius of the writers (I was a bit weirded out with being bestowed the 'expert' label, admittedly ). The "no" side, however, attempts to make claims about the harm caused by graffiti ,and herein lies one of the largest problems of logic with arguing "yes" to the question of getting 'tough' without any evidence that it will do what you assume you want it to. 

Mayor Rouleau speak about the 'get tough' policies his community of Dorval has implemented to deal with graffiti outside of the regular 'vandalism' bylaws. Dorval policies, though, are arguably less harsh responses than what the City of Ottawa currently implements or the City of London Ontario, which has recently implemented a ban on the sale of "tools of graffiti" to minors (given that most young people have access to the internet, I suspect the only person being hurt here is... surprise: businesses!)

So what doe's "tougher" mean, anyways? 

I understand that Mayor Rouleau, as well as other municipal  governments in Canada, wish to address those who vote them into power. This power, however, should not be to assume that the squeaky wheel is always right. The "yes" side assumes that graffiti makes an area look like it is decline. Here's a stroller that went up in price once it got a little graffiti added to it. Where is the evidence for this 'feeling' of urban decline?  

Here is where municipalities can truly show powerful leadership. 
Address these feelings without turning to the law. Period.
Simply put: creating unproven policy (and implied enforcement) is an expensive way to make people feel safer (and really...does it even do that? My guess would be 'no')

As I wandered around my town this weekend, I was lucky enough to see what happens when different social groups take up the same few blocks of a city.  As local writers recreated the only visible legal wall in Ottawa, the gay pride parade made its way around the same block, 90s dance music booming paraders along. The same thing seems to happen every year in Montreal as Gay Pride weekend and Under Pressure co-exist within the same neighborhood. 

There is plenty of evidence that increasing policing strategies only make the situation worse.If you were interested in what most of the research says about 'get tough' approaches to crime, you will find that it overwhelmingly finds it expensive and unhelpful. It does nothing but create larger disparities between social groups. It's popular, sure: so is Britney Spears. We can do better. 

Rightly, the Mayor knows that these are not violent acts; therefor enacting policy that encourages violence directed at writers by 'heroes' (what writers call  vigilantes who try to take the law into their own hands) defies logic. I know of one writer who was threatened at the legal graffiti wall by such a hero. Not good.

 There is an ugly underbelly to "getting tougher" that most people would find unreasonable.

"Graffiti writers" tend to be easy targets in these days of "Tough on Crime" agendas. There is something more here worth considering, if one was only willing to look past all the assumptions. Municipalities bear this obligation to consider more than most. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thank Heavens for Little Vandals! (or "TAG! You're it!")

My blog has been leaning a bit heavy to the legal side of graffiti over the past few weeks, so I thought it must be time to talk about those bits of graff that seem to inspire ire in some folks. If you are anything like me, You have probably had to have this conversation:

Them: You like graffiti?
Me: Yes. What do you think about it?
Them: Well...I like the colorful stuff. You know....the murals. I don't like vandalism though. Senseless tagging....
Me: what do you mean?
Them: Well, colorful murals, those are nice. But those stupid tags....
Me: I like tags
Them: Well you would probably change your tune if they spray painted all over your house.

Actually, when they tag my campus office door (on papers on my door, to be exact) I take it as a HUGE compliment. And they never write on any other office doors in the department. Also, it might be important to note that this tagging has not signaled a general decline in the overall quality of life in the Department of Criminology. Nobody has noticed an increase in Broken Windows either....

It's the kind of impossible debate about taste or style, really: You want to call down Nickleback to a hardcore fan, you may hear something like this: "Yeah, well they make more money than you!" Meh.... Probably. Conrad Black had a lot of money at one time too. What's your point?

Strange is the reasons WHY people claim to not like tagging.

Let's set aside the "It is illegal" argument, because let's face it: we can all admit to doing minor things that are illegal (jaywalking, speeding, creative accounting, not recycling according to your municipal by laws, cell phone in car, nookie out doors....). How much harm is truly caused by 'tagging' tends to be described in costs associated with expensive graffiti management policy, or other vague ideas.

I want to talk about this argument: "tagging is just so 'senseless'."

What I understand from this statement is that there is a lack of understanding why some citizens choose to 'tag' the city scape. I cannot give you the answer here for everyone who has ever tagged. But, maybe I can provoke a more critical discussion towards a better understanding about tagging.

Have you ever counted all the advertisements or bylaw ordinances (some call this official graffiti) you see on your way through town in a single day? A former student of mine counted "do not do" signs on buses one day. She was flabbergasted as she told the class: "There were seventeen signs on a SINGLE bus telling me to 'move to the back'. SEVENTEEN!"

The advertisements alone that we are bombarded with each day are practically countless. I agree with  Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere, who argues in this documentary by Banksy: "If advertisers can have their way with us and can pollute our eyeballs all over the city, then so can the comedians and artists." (Antics Roadshow, 2011). I am empathetic to the desire to draw attention to the 'visual litter' of advertising that assaults me as I walk in my city.

Furthermore, North American advertisers have been teaching generations of people that to have your 'brand' up all over the place, in as many creative ways as you can, is a good thing.  Is the lure to be famous among people who respect what you do REALLY so hard to fathom?

The interesting thing that graffiti writers do is that they give you a nic-name or symbol that represents a real human being, not a corporation. Maybe YOU don't know who Daser,  Orek or Sake are, but there is a huge community of people out there who do (see my tags & travelling post here).

While the individual reasons why people tag a mailbox or bus stop differ the marks they leave behind can be as artistic (or more so, if anyone asked my opinion) than any advertisement. Citizens who tag utility boxes and the like challenge the consumer societies ideas of who has a 'right' to 'write' in public spaces. It's also a sign that says "hey, I was here", not unlike Killroy or Gaius & Aulus in the days of Pompeii.

Remember: we are talking about markers on a mailbox in most instances, not murder, not violence. And the folks writing on the walls are not a part of 'street gangs' like you might find in some areas of the world. Canada hosts a much different - a nicely unique - graffiti scene.

And so, it seemed so poetic to stumble upon across the Ottawa Hydro Transformation Station on Slater (above).  I watched people moving about their day after it appeared and this is what I saw: The woman on the bike taking pictures was smiling. The people walking past her were smiling at her while she admired the new piece. When she left, the graffiti was either unnoticed by most, or made people (wait for it) SMILE.

And this is my final point: There is a playfulness going on here that we rarely experience in our concrete public spaces. Graffiti tags remind us that the city need not belong to advertisers and the hundreds of "do not do" signs. Young people live here too, and they see this city as more open to public use than private industry does. I just do not have a problem with that.

It seems we have forgotten that people used to play here; I guess I find the fear of being reminded of that more senseless than the reminders themselves.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Art (and Irony) of War & Peace

Two steps forward, one back...wayyyy back.

While this past weekend marked another highly successful House of PainT urban arts festival, The City of Ottawa demonstrated - once again - its short sightedness when it comes to art and public space.

A local community centre invited an artist and youth to collaborate on a mural (see story below). Some people in the neighborhood complained about the mural and before anyone could say "moral panic", the City of Ottawa covered it with a tarp until they City workers could paint it over.

Did it show pornography? Was there hate speach involved? Was there ANY violation whatsoever to any federal, provincial, or municipal laws? Nope.

Thanks to Mike Young who scanned the front page of the Ottawa Citizen for me (the on-line version curiously does not show the actual mural)

The images on the painting grew out of a workshop for young people held last week on the theme of love. Home, mothers, flowers, birds, music were some of the ideas tossed about. B├ędard said the artist, who was working with a parent volunteer, used those images as a way to “disarm” the gun and open a dialogue on violence. (Ottawa Citizen)
I highly encourage you to read the article in full for yourself, including the artist's comments.

Those who complained about the mural did so, it seems, on the grounds that the image was detrimental to other young people: media effects; this flawed logic assumes that reading an image (hearing a song, watching a TV show) literally will translate into negative action. It is a theory that completely undermines our ability as individuals to contextualize, to inquire, to listen to others, to produce intelligent responses. It simplifies how we interact with images, people and media everyday.

If you ask the person who makes this argument if the image makes them feel violent they will usually respond with "Oh not ME...but you know...OTHER people will..."

Given the speed that the city reacted to public complaints, one has to wonder if they would react as quickly for calls complaining about bothersome advertising.
Remember the 1970s-80s fears about lyrics? Stairway to Heaven was suspected of speaking sweetly to Satan. In the United States, such concerns played out in the courts over Ozzy Osbourne's song Suicide Solution. The courts found that:
"[M]usical lyrics and poetry cannot be construed to contain the requisite 'call to action' for the elementary reason they simply are not intended to be and should not be read literally.... Reasonable persons understand musical lyrics and poetic conventions as the figurative expressions which they are."(Art on Trial)
The real damage here is the message The City gives to young people in our city, but in particular to those involved in the production of this mural. Even though the mural was in NO WAY ILLEGAL, the City gave in to the squeaky wheels by telling the kids who are thinking about peace and violence to 'shut up'.

Why do they have to shut up? Because the City 'said so'. 

Is the image provacative? Yes.

And The City should have handled this thought provoking image in a productive way. They could have:
  • Supported a 'tour' of the image by the artist, children who contributed to it, the community centre workers. Curious or concerned citizens could hear about what ideas went into the making of this artwork.
  • Put up a plaque explaining the work to those interested in taking a closer look.
  • Invited local youth experts, police, and researchers to participate in a public forum to address fears about 'crime' and 'media' and 'youth'. 
  • Hosted a coffee shop or town hall discussion to help reassure concerned citizens that a mural would not cause crime or impair local children.
Tragically, The City buffed over the opportunity for individual parents sit down with their children in front of the mural and talk. Take the time, and talk. And perhaps that is what scared people the most. Taking the time to talk...

And here is the great irony of it all: The City of Ottawa and mainstream news media use the language of violence all the time, particularly when dealing with youth (speaking about a 'War on Graffiti' for example). But, when young people echo this back to us, The City worries that this kind of language will 'hurt' other kids. At least these young people were talking about neutralizing violence with peace... How dare the City silence them in this way. THAT is offensive.


And so, I end my rant today with this quote from Ray Bradbury's work, Farenheit 451:
With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar.

Monday, August 8, 2011

House of PainT Connects Funk with the City of Ottawa

Mike Gall and Sabra Ripley, along with an army of volunteers and community partners, put together an amazing invitation to anyone curious about the urban art and music scene this weekend.

Preceding Montreal's Under Pressure, House of PainT is an urban art celebration that may be smaller (for now) but is distinct in many ways.

Sunday: Piece Park Graffiti
I am sure there are many photos popping on-line so you can SEE how awesome it was quite easily; Ming Wu , for example, got some great action shots. I am going to punctuate my shots with thoughts about why this festival is important to Ottawa in particular.

 The theme this year was 'connect' and it was left open to artist interpretation. From the gala fund-raiser event early in the week on Thursday at the Fall Down Gallery, it became clear to me that connection is a core value in this community of young artists and performers.
Sabra Ripley addresses crowd at Gala Event, before we sang Happy Birthday to her Mom.
Perhaps this would also be a good time to remind people kind enough to read this blog that I stick out like a sore thumb in this crowd. I am a 41 year old mom of four kids who is also a university Professor in a criminology department. I am always humbled when 20 year olds patiently raise their fists to give me 'props', as I awkwardly try to reciprocate with varying degrees of coolness. This speaks to the idea of connection...something that House of PainT 2011 translated easily onto concrete walls and linoleum dance floors.

Saturday's main event was a HUGE success. The market area was grooving with three times as many vendors as years past, indicating that local businesses such as The Milk Shop see the growing value of urban art to our city.

Throw Back Threads sets up at the beginning of the day
The festival hosted a series of work shops directed at almost every age and skill group.  There was a special tent set up for kids workshops on everything from Break dancing to Spinning like a master DJ.

Nick Robinson from Groundwork Sessions Crew
The food included many vegetarian options (Yay Jen!). Considering that this event takes place near almost nothing (business wise), the HoP crew did an amazing job to keep hungry peeps fed. 

So here is what the City of Ottawa counsellors need to hear: this event was run primarily by twenty-somethings who do this above and beyond regular full time jobs.  They worked just as hard as the folks who run festivals like Bluesfest and Westfest but with less money. I have a fair amount of administrative experience in retail and academia (where red tape is King); I can say with some authority that these young men and women deserve your respect, not your limitations.

Finally, I have to give a shout out to the woman of this festival. It is not news to say that the urban art and music scene is dominated by men. Seeing tags thrown up on the corner of a small graffiti board saying "SKC loves Sluts" is an indicator of this macho element, which is a part of the larger culture we ALL live in. Art reflects life, after all.

HOWEVER, this festival is run in large part by many strong independent and confident women such as Sabra Ripley. One of the best performances of the day was by Eternia, a socially aware female rapper. Many women participated in the Bboy/girl battles and graffiti writing. How sexy is that?! It's downright inspiring, frankly.
Eternia performs in the packed stands
Look, I'm not interested in playing boys vs. girls in this scene. This festival provides evidence, though, that the Ottawa Urban Arts scene is unique and deserves the continued support of the City of Ottawa and its citizens. Culture moves - be a part of the change, I say!

If anyone asked me what I would like to see changed about this festival, it would be its visibility. I am thankful the City lends some support to this show every year. But they can do more to make it easier for the organizers. Let the writers use the OTHER side of this wall that faces Riverside Drive.
Crazy Apes (Montreal) Connect in Ottawa
I would also like to see the jam move from under the bridge to more public areas. Or maybe keep some parts under the bridge and allow for live art to unfold throughout the city (as Under Pressure does around and behind Foufounes). City Counsellors have the power to make an exemption to the "mural" bylaws for the festival. Unfortunately, given the most recent outrageous knee jerk reaction to a community centre mural, I suspect the urban art community will continue to have an uphill battle in a city which seems to be driven by suburbanite concerns (I will be responding to this story soon).

Nevertheless, to those artists and performers who helped put on House of PainT this year I say this: keep showing the City of Ottawa how amazingly talented and energetic you are. Given how this festival has grown, you KNOW there is support for the things you do.
Keep it growin!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Connect! House of PainT

House of PainT is growing into a huge celebration of  urban art, style, dance and groovy people in the sun; this week it all comes together.

Today the Market area got a lunchtime helping of pop and lock action. It felt good to be around the energy. I particularly like the theme of this year's jam:


Some City of Ottawa counsellors may think there is a War to be waged here, but clearly that vibe is not coming from the graffiti/bboy-girl scene.

Imagine: a group of young people merging creative energy around the idea of "connecting"! I remain impressed at the complexity and character of these young citizens who make a government town feel like a cultural urban playground.

"This is a kid friendly show!" I heard one of the crew say as he invited folks to hang around and watch. A group of young government employees behind me discuss the history of hip hop, and towns that tried to make break dancing illegal. House of PainT volunteers chatted up pedestrians, inviting them out to the jam on Saturday. An older woman on her way to the National Art Gallery was excited to hear that the City funded festivals such as House of PainT. There is hope pumping through these streets.

Oh and if you want to harness the energy surge in town this week, the 2011 Ottawa Ska Fest is this weekend too. Go to both - You can nap at your desk on Monday.

Second round of pop and locking will be on Parliament Hill tomorrow at lunch. Hey Harper, take a break from your Tough on Crime agenda for a few minutes, and come see what thrives in spite of your cuts to national funding of culture and arts programming.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"The Message" and the Merchants

Strange times are approaching for those of you who find yourself in a mall looking for a replacement pair of flip flops. It's July, and the fall 'hard sell' of back to school is upon us. Of course, advertising (and graffiti) are not exclusive to Ottawa, but the use of graffiti in advertising got me thinking about how well advertising firms typically are at reading ideology and managing it.

The Gap, for example, is using graffiti this year to market to boys aged 1-5.

What the Gap is doing here is marketing to parents with the idea of the 1980s and graffiti without incorporating any actual graffiti. Skull shirts on a toddler is just plain ironic, and merging the idea of menace, boys and shopping is presented without much protest in malls across North America. (if you are wondering about the girls, they get sold on the idea of 'modern dance'). It's amazing how The Message has changed since the late 1970s, a time before malls and mass advertising the way we experience it today.

Of course, The Gap is not the first corporation to capitalize on the idea of graffiti to market their goods.

Coke makes train graffiti look like a fun afternoon art project in this little ad that aired in Europe:

Pfizer pulls on your heart strings like a ninja:

[Funny enough, Pfizer is routinely in trouble with the law, being found guilty of felonies such as defrauding patients , medicaid in addition to a whole slew of fatal social harms. Hardly child's play. I digress....]

Graffiti, the idea of it, is CLEARLY a global phenomena.  It is used to sell products to dads and moms who shop at the mall, people who drink coke and use pharmaceuticals. That is a LOT of people. And the message in ALL of these ads is this: It is cool. It is youthful. It is global. It's edgy. Why, mom even overlooked the death defying hanging the son would have had to do to get those flowers up in the alley. I think she meant to mouth "big ups" not "thank you"...

These ads touch on the tensions around defining graffiti. The absence of tags in the children's store window suggests that while the idea of 80s graffiti feels like nostalgic 'fun', there is an edgy element that makes it hard to acknowledge completely. Pfizer is careful to make sure the intent of its graffiti is for a sick sister. The coke video certainly went viral because of the nostalgic fantasy and a PG version of  the thrill of playing with trains (note: wearing your headphones around train tracks is best left in the realm of fantasy).

Advertising firms do some of the best research out there on what ideas 'speak' to the masses. Clearly, graffiti has many meanings for many people, and it is not always a negative sentiment. I am not implying that advertising firms should direct moral order. I am merely pointing out that they do reflect some things that are meaningful to many. It is something to keep in mind when someone claims that 'nobody likes graffiti'. 

Clearly this is not the case. To make an argument based on this while you drink Coke and shop at the Gap is clearly something worth being more reflexive about. 

NOTE: I will be writing almost exclusively over the next month about Ottawa in particular as the events around House of PainT start ramping up. Look it up. Come out and see what's going on. See you around!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Weird Science - The Public Relations of Graffiti Wars

One of the reasons why I started blogging about graffiti was because I was getting frustrated with the abuse of 'research' by city counsellors who promise impossible things like "graffiti eradication" when they run for counsel. Rick Mercer has an excellent rant that sums up my feelings on such things.

Promises of beer in every fountain for those who can't drink;
Promises of graffiti eradication for those who can't think?

It is only recently (relative to the history of the world) that we see definitions of graffiti include such adjectives that imply it is fundamentally 'illicit', 'illegal', or 'unauthorized'. It wasn't until the 1980s that contemporary graffiti (in North America) has been framed as a social problem. It is no coincidence that this is also when society becomes enamoured with the promises of Reagonomics and Tough on Crime agendas (for people who fall through the crack of 'Reaganomics'). In Canada we continue to see huge cuts in social funding, heavy investment in prisons, while our news is more concerned about 'the beer' than 'brains' (Kai Nagata's inspiring blog post about this).

In these times of collapsing economies, politicians like to address minor problems that appear solvable while they are in office. Looks better on the CV.

When you don't know anything about graffiti, it probably looks like it will be easy to eradicate. Yeah, easy like rock and roll eradication, eh! Remember when Elvis "bent the mike toward him and performed a series of slow pelvic thrusts" during Hound Dog, and folks got similar notions?

Nevertheless, the journalists show up and politicians spout anti-graffiti sound bites, like parents still high on a "tough love" boot camp sales pitch for their 14 year old:
"Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has suggested that those who deface freeways with graffiti should have their thumbs cut off on television." Oscar romantically recalls beheading as a method of punishment that 'worked' : his lack history knowlege is as spectacular as a public hanging.  
In Toronto, Rob Ford avoided all the issues except for graffiti: “It just depreciates the value of everyone’s property, it turns it into a ghetto, and that’s not the kind of city I want to represent” (2011). Nice way to racialize graffiti and make poverty sound like a problem we can solve by 'painting it white', Rob!

In Ottawa, Councillor Marianne Wilkinson finds that the act of exclusion is an appropriate rallying cry by sticking graffiti - and writers - in the same category as 'litter':  “It’s wonderful to see individuals, students, families, community groups and businesses joining together with the common goal of keeping our communities litter-free and graffiti-free.” Important to note here that Wilkinson is a counsellor from Kanata, which is suburbia central (not exactly the hot bed of graffiti in our city).

When politicians realize that eradicating a global phenomena like graffiti is probably not a reasonable task for a municipality, they spring into PR mode because it's easier to buy services that make it look like you are doing something than it is to admit you didn't understand the issue before you started talking like you were Napoleon Bonaparte of graffiti. And, the meter starts running...

The City of Edmonton made a big media splash about of their investment in buying the services of a MGM Management to help them in their eradication attempts of graffiti. MGM Management does not specialize in graffiti culture. It is a BC based environmental consulting firm headed by part of the legal team who defended the City of Walkerton.

City counsellors in Edmonton now have a shiny new report and a database to talk about in the media. Then they annoy me most by making ridiculous claims that the report does not even attempt to do (namely, prevention of vandalism and bringing criminal charges against writers):
"Edmonton’s first-ever audit of graffiti signatures, or tags, is helping police and the city prevent vandalism by tracking and charging repeat offenders, says Coun. Amarjeet Sohi."
Police have been taking pictures of graffiti for years. They know you cannot convict someone criminally for 'vandalism' because someone found markings that 'look' like work you may have done by you in the past*. Someone else could have written it, afterall. Sometimes writers also change names and style over time. Some municipalities, however, are beginning to use databases to pursue civil cases.

  Paying private firms for graffiti audits is like hiring Magnum P.I. to count graffiti tags on mailboxes.

Taxpayers need to ask themselves if that is a valid use of public resources, given that this is more about ego than actual public harm? Remember, in the case of Ottawa, more people complain about pets than graffiti (see previous blog post here) . It also points to a shift away from public policing, towards relying on a privatization of policing - where people's property takes priority over public peace (see Stats Can for a broad comparison of these two types of policing).   As for being a tool to measure if graffiti is 'increasing or decreasing': the audit CAN speak about the count of tags in those exact spots if the city pays the company to come re-audit later on (meter running), but that's it. Graffiti moves. When buffing and increased policing targets one location, writers find new spots. The audit is not intended to 'catch vandals' or eradicate graffiti; it's important to note that the report makes no such promises, either.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Oh Canada! Big Ups (and Downs)

My partner and I included a morning visit to the Tech Wall early Canada Day before losing ourselves in the crowd, doing a jig to Great Big Sea, and overpaying for hot dogs and cold beer.

As we pulled up along side the legal wall, we were gobsmacked. Someone had been to the wall the night before, rolling over the stretch of productions with white throw ups.

We stumbled upon the scene a short while after writers started working on new pieces. Rasek demonstrated some handiwork with a pressurized canister, a technique rarely seen in Ottawa but common in Montreal and Toronto.

"Get back" Rasek cautioned onlookers as one of the canisters 'popped' under pressure, creating a  geyser of black paint and cheers from onlookers.

No writers were harmed in the making of this dripping wall.

The scene was surreal. There were impressive productions by Mopes, Cens, Hiero and Prank covered up that night. The huge Mopes piece took about 4 days to complete, and was only up for a few days before the whitewash.

Mopes (before)
Canada Day (after)
We didn't stick around long that morning- hot dog calling and such. Clearly there was a sense that the buff was a huge act of disrespect to the bigger writers. On the other hand, local writers know that the wall is going to be buffed in a few weeks in preparation for House of PainT, so the buff  was at least somewhat well timed.

A buffing like this has not happened for some time, which speaks to the relative ease that exists between most writers in this town. Do not mistake this ease with homogeneity, though. 

When I first started taking pics of graff three years ago, my response to buffing was defensive: "Man, I cannot believe that they covered that up!" The Cerk & Myrage production near the corner of Bank and Slater is an example of this.

Most writers seem to accept this as the nature of writing graffiti; the irony of this writer buff was not lost on most. Some productions have a long run, but few do. There is a zen-like approach to productions in the community:

Nothing is permanent. 

Always do better.

Show respect to those who do.

Alternatively, there are writers who take the position that legal graffiti is a violation of true graffiti. For example, there is at least one writer in Ottawa who has been known to buff over elaborate pieces the day after legal graffiti jams. Most writers I have talked to over the past few years are quite reflexive and accept the diversity that comes with graffiti. Different strokes for different folks.

Since Canada Day, the writers have returned to Tech. Last night I went back for a few pics: Jesro, Iltoner and Heiro (among others) were hard at work, knowing full well that the wall was going to be taken over by House of PainT jam on the weekend of August 6.


 In part, I suspect this return in spite of impending buff is fueled by a desire to not have the graffiti wall look unsightly for the next few weeks. Clearly there is a diverse graffiti community that is invested in the aesthetics of our city.

Policy makers need to keep these complexities in mind when they imagine who writes graffiti in our city.

Monday, June 27, 2011


One of my favourite shots of the day. Thoughts to follow....

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Untourist's Guide to The City (DON'T PANIC)

Canada is slipping summer over its head, dropping the dust coloured sweater of Winter to the floor as it walks out the door. I regret my neglect of this blog, in part because I have been travelling - walking the back streets of some of Canada's cities: Toronto, Montreal and of course Ottawa. I will be visiting (my old stomping grounds) Halifax in a few weeks (Air Canada willing).

Admittedly, I spend more time in back alleyways and around dumpsters than your average traveller.

Last weekend I decided to take my two youngest ankle-biters to Montreal. I had to drive (sans a/c on a sweltering day) into a poutine of road construction and Grand Prix weekend traffic. If you have ever been lost in a city with a 4 & 6 year old suggesting where you might have gone wrong, then you might get a sense of the comedy of our morning....

We were on an adventure, nevertheless. Just the three of us. The weather was perfect for a walking exploration not dictated by tourist brochures, malls or amusement parks.

My daughter (6) wanted to know what writers we would see as we explored the city.  "Sake, Omen, Bank, Aper, Castro.... Yell when you find them." She is just learning to read, so it was an educational graffiti game too. The boy (4) was more interested in his Lego, frankly.

As we walked uphill past McGill, towards Mount Royal,we found a a bit of Ottawa. AH! 

venise & friends
 This happened to me in Toronto a few weeks ago - a fresh hello outside our hotel Saturday morning. I guess Rob Ford's War is not going as he had hoped...

pes & the rex (coolest jazz & blues bar you could ever sleep in)

Jane Jacobs suggested "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."(see more here).  And so we played in the neighbourhood parks and made Lego dinosaur-cars while the hipsters tight rope walked between trees on a university campus lawns. 

The tags and throw-ups made this large metropolis far more personal to me (and my kids) than any tourism board ever could. We saw things that were meaningful to us in this urban place.  Not a scourge or a virus, it was something familiar, indicators that other people we know of were here too. Not unlike Kilroy, really.

To those who fear I am glamorizing 'vandalism' to my children, you have little faith in the capacity of children to think critically. Graffiti has been something we talked about over ice cream.  Looking for graffiti above our heads on the streets has lead to lovely conversations about what 'freedom' means, and 'rights'. This built upon previous discussions about Galileo (and music, funny enough). 

My daughter noticed graffiti on tracks in the Metro. I asked her what she thought about it. She had  keen insight, and more questions, on risk and friendships. This also let me talk to her about the deaths of three writers in Montreal last year. There is great sadness in lives cut short, and so we talked about appreciating the value of 'this moment'. All these conversations were inspired by graffiti.

So, one can choose to see graffiti as this static fearful thing. It seems like the 'safe' thing to do, I suppose. Whereas if you take the time to get to know about the things you fear, explore other ways of thinking about it, you might just get to witness the "bombshells of [your] daily fears explode".

PS: A shout out to both my amazing older daughters, in particular to Michelle who is on her own adventure exploring Sweden this summer!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fahrenheit 613

Today, I have censorship on the brain.

No, I'm not debating boobs in hockey (although, really....who finds women's breasts offensive after getting an eyeful of these?) I digress, almost compulsively.

The censorship I am talking about today is the act of erasing ideas, identities and people from the city.

Tech Wall, May 2011

One of the 'fears' that widely circulate about graffiti is that it devalues property. Few real estate agents are 'pro graffiti' for example. Surely the buffing of the large retaining wall facing Lebreton flats is a victim of this way of thinking: It faces new condo development (2008) the new Canadian War Museum (2005), as well as the Bluesfest site.

Before becoming touristy prime real estate, however, it used to be a bustling mixed community that served the town's lumber industry in the mid 1800s. In 1900, fire burned through a large part of this area, and was soon repopulated by largely the blue collar workers of the area. In the 1960s, the land was expropriated by the federal government (reportedly related to issues of soil contamination after years industrialization).

After the fire (and the rich folks left the area), the area was described as a "slum" by local politicians high on the enthusiasm and promises of urban renewal policies. Local artist Ralph Wallace Burton thought otherwise about the area's vibe, and painted scenes of the area before its demolition. These scenes were recently placed on display by our current municipal government.

Curiously, the act of capturing the 'slums' become art worthy memories about Ottawa hanging in buildings of the City that condemned it as a slum: this nostalgia plays a part in providing 'value' to this area. Today,  real estate agents use phrases like "historic" in selling the Lebreton Flats area as a high end lifestyle.

What is historic, though? Isn't everything that ever happened historic?

Images shape how we remember a time and place: memory is at least in part a political social process. How many  memories of your childhood are shaped by photos you have a seen or talked about with other people? Recently a family friend posted a photo of my family that I had never seen before. It was odd; I had no context for it (no memories that were given by spoken accounts of 'that day', for example).

My own family looked strange to me (well, stranger than usual )

Some things change...here my brother has hair and I don't...

Arguably, the graffiti community in Ottawa has a longer history than the current township of Kanata, which was essentially created by a real estate developer. There are writers who people in the current graffiti community recognize as key community builders. There are 'museums' of graffiti throughout our city (hidden from most citizens) that commemorate some of these writers,  'remembering' the city and some of the different people who passed through it or called it home at one time.

It is interesting that us humans crave to locate markings of the past to tell us something about our ancestry - clues about 'what was life life' in particular places and times; and yet, many of our cities are attempting to edit out marks that do not fit the 'real estate' aesthetic of ideal urban spaces.

There is something important being said on these walls about some of the people who live in Ottawa today. I think maybe its time to celebrate Graffiti History in Ottawa in a way that reminds our municipal government of this. Perhaps Jennifer Paliaro is correct to suggest that the municipalities 'attitude' towards graffiti are changing. I will be more convinced of this when the language used by the City to talk about graffiti is not limited to 'decreasing crime'.

I DO think that the citizens are ready for a change though, and I do hope the City will follow...

If we are to believe the newspapers and some municipal counselors, there are many people in Ottawa who think that graffiti is 'new'. In part, this is because the City has effectively burned a lot of metaphorical books these past ten years especially. Its time to remind people that graffiti writers have been a positive part of Ottawa.

This is what erasing history does. It erases people too.

Many of my students were openly disapointed when I mentioned in class that that the 'button cat' facing Lebreton Flats was 'buffed' last year. It is now tagged and buffed almost weekly, whereas before this cat greeted OC Transpo riders daily (for years) without buffing & tagging drama.

Attempting to silence a history or people tends to backfire on the Firemen of culture. As someone who lives in this City, I have a couple ideas about how to deal with the attempt at censorship.

How about if we use digital projections of historic murals on the Lebreton Flat walls during Bluesfest? How about a night of digital projections of local writers works on buildings in Westboro during Westfest?

I welcome your ideas too....