Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Train of Thoughts about the War on Graffiti

I am sitting on a train riding low and cold on the tracks between Ottawa and Toronto this morning.

While I watch the sun rise over the head of the guy sleeping next to me, I have two thoughts about graffiti racing through my mind (and an Amelia Curran song I plan on learning).

First Thought:

I have been hearing from some writers and urban art activists about the struggle to find people willing to pay a fair price for graffiti productions. The situation, as I understand it: graffiti writers are treated by potential clients as though they should be thankful to be paid anything at all for the privilege of painting. In a city dying of a thirst for colour, writers are having a hard time making ends meet legitimately. More so than in other cities such as Montreal.

Further, there is a clear demand for this aesthetic in Ottawa. Writers should be able to make a living. The message writers get from potential clients is that because writers are in 'desperate' circumstances they should expect to work for less than professionally established mural artists or art students.

Imagine if you worked like that? You work at the same job as someone else - same responsibilities but MORE experience and skill working in the medium your clients want - but get paid less for no other reason than you appear to 'need' it more and have no other options. If you do work in these circumstances, its not fair for you either, is it?

To say 'they should be lucky to be provided with an opportunity to write' is - unfortunately - somewhat true:

Ottawa has only 2 legal walls big enough to host these kinds of productions. That's 2 walls for a city of a million people...There is essentially little place to write non-commissioned pieces legally in this town.

Local entrepreneurs working in collaboration with writers are faced with the bureaucratic hassle of getting murals on the walls of their OWN properties approved by city counsellors (And, at least one of our counsellors seems to take graffiti - including the big colourful productions - as a personal attack on his sense of community, regardless of how other constituents - which includes writers - might understand 'community').

This is a systematic devaluation of art: wildstyle  inequality. It is policy that appears to attack the art not the artist, but don't you be fooled.

Some people don't like the style of graffiti: fine. Nobody is making them hang it over their bed. But to go out of one's way to cultivate a culture in which someone is unable to make a living because the texts they produce make some people feel uncomfortable, well now: THAT is obscene.

Second thought:

This War on Graffiti in Ottawa is relatively new.

Take a peek at Mike Young's photos. Remember when the Tech Wall looked less like a prison compound and more like an urban park? And why can't that huge retaining wall facing LeBretton Flats be a third legal wall? Imagine that background during Bluesfest?! I dare you to tell me that wouldn't impress tourists (and citizens) of Ottawa. Would you be surprised to learn it used to be a tolerated wall?

Listen to Mike Mallet's award winning radio documentary on Graffiti in Ottawa, to hear how there are people in this city who do NOT agree with the 'eradication' approaches that give rise to things like 'no mural' zones!

What about those big beige walls near the Bayview O-Train platform (fenced away from the tracks - I don't want to see anyone hurt either). Poll O-train commuters, I bet most would appreciate the visual flavour in their daily commute. 

Adding more safe legal walls would foster an appreciation for writers in this city that might allow graffiti writers to make a reasonable living (See Omen & Fluke for Montreal examples of writers who do exactly this).

It's a start.

This harsh line on graffiti wont work in its efforts at 'eradication'. Independent peer reviewed empirical research does NOT support the effectiveness of 'eradication' strategies.

But why should you or I care about the economic livelihood of graffiti writers?

Because this is one example of where a municipality is willing to support policy that makes it difficult for some people to make a living through legitimate means because what they do with colours make some people uncomfortable, or because some writers may have done it illegitimately previously.

The responsible choice encourages those people who WANT to work legally to be able to do so with as few hurdles as possible: A harm reduction approach to graffiti management! There will always be those who don't want to take up graffiti as an business. But why punish those who do? Why cultivate disdain for some artists over other? This is simply not a responsible use of policy.

It does not glamorize the illegality of graffiti (which is what I suspect some people might think);  It legitimizes the legal option for those who are interested. If you are hoping to quiet the desire for graffiti by buffing it, you are going to have the exact opposite impact. Telling people they should 'just shut up' rarely works in real life or public policy.

I am going to assume that most counsellors are not really aware of these implication of the War on Graffiti - but that does not excuse them from responsibility. If our municipality is willing to do this to some citizens, with such little critical thought about WHY or the the hardships it fosters for citizens trying to make a living, then who in town is next?

Now you'll have to excuse me. I have some back alleyways in Toronto to explore with my camera...


  1. "Poll O-train commuters, I bet most would appreciate the visual flavour in their daily commute." You might be right, but maybe not for long.

    I think the longer commuters go without seeing Graffiti, the less they'll appreciate it. Especially if every time they hear about it, it's negatively.