Thursday, March 31, 2011

Socrates was a Bad Ass

With the warm sun at my back, and good company at my side, I hit the streets to get some new shots of the parts of this place I love: style that make some people uncomfortable. After an extraordinary day, I find myself thinking about Socrates:

Durkheim wrote:
Socrates was a criminal, and his condemnation was no more than just. However, his crime, namely the independence of his thought, rendered a service not only to humanity, but to his country. It served to prepare a new morality and faith which the Athenians needed, since the conditions by which they had lived until then were no longer in harmony with the current conditions of life. Nor is the case of Socrates unique; it is reproduced periodically in history.

Written in 1895 as a critical response to popular belief that 'criminals' were biologically flawed, this essay challenged fashionable assumptions about 'criminals' by saying: Look! Maybe this crime thing is not about people who are flawed; maybe it's more about labeling some people  'bad' and others 'good' for for symbolic reasons. 

Socrates was 'justly' criminalized because the act of teaching students to 'inquire' freely was illegal at the time. This is not to say that his criminalization was morally OK, just that - by the law of the land - it was technically legitimate.

The City of Ottawa Police Services issued a media release about a recent 'sting' operation to nab 'taggers'. Yes, yes, a legitimate pursuit by the laws of the land. And yet I wonder:

Why does this 'sting' operation deserved a news release? Can we expect a similar release on 'jaywalking' stings? More importantly, how is the War on Pets going?

Regardless of their intent, writers challenge us to think about public space differently in a time when there seems to be a trend towards buying into the ideology that a 'secure' city should look boring.  Perhaps the City of Ottawa's 'zero tolerance' approach to graffiti and its mural-free zones are no longer in harmony with the current conditions of the lives of many people who call Ottawa home. Something is just a little too grey and  people are noticing.
As you walk down YOUR streets, I urge you to wonder who gets to scream at you from those billboards?

Who is allowed to speak/write on this wall?

...and then if the Athenian Police were informing the media about Socrates' arrest in a 'freedom of thought' sting operation, where would you stand on this issue?  

Friday, March 25, 2011

Lost in Translation on the Transit Way

Staring at the endless stretch of blank grey walls that smother my morning commute from Nepean to campus with pablum, I realize that I have no idea where the hell I am on this transit way. Is it Westboro? Tunney Pasture? Smiths Falls?

Admittedly, it was exciting to get word that Shepard Fairey's folk were in town sparking up our downtown this past week. Surely a welcomed addition to our cityscape.

BUT: If I read one more news article that questions the value of programs like Paint it Up to 'reduce crime'....well I just might take up a sharpie and write about it someplace other than this blog.

It drives me nuts. 

As a reluctant criminologist, I can say without hesitation that nobody really knows what causes crime or how to 'get rid of it' (no, not even the Freakonomics guys). If there was, wouldn't you think we'd see it in use? By the way, some criminologists suggest persuasively that as crime rates decrease (which they have been for years) surveillance and crime policies increase (which they have)
Not the other way around.

The people who try to make a go of urban arts programs like Paint it Up know about graffiti and they have a far more complex understanding of the citizens who write (and some of the reasons why they do) than those who demand all communication come in the language of crime control.

Do you remember when writers paid tribute to Jenifer Teague?
(also, see here). 

Do you wonder why they did that? 

You really should.

There is value in funding programs that diversify the cultural dynamics of this city - that engage citizens with each other - which is far more productive than anything the  'crime reduction' debate will ever hope to be. There is value in telling people that they have something worthwhile to contribute to this city, even if it makes some people uncomfortable.

More importantly, we should be able to talk about this as an issue of public space and what is sayable there, and by who?

It is not right that these discussions get railroaded by demands to justify graffiti in terms of 'reducing crime'.

All people should be safe, but that is different than feeling safe. Graffiti is not what makes the average citizen unsafe. It's time to stop talking like it does. We're talking about paint on a wall or mailbox, not someone mugging your Nana.

 I KNOW that there are more than just graffiti writers in this city who envision the potential of those concrete canvases..

Why not invite those people who know what to do with a concrete wall to liven up Ottawa's gray walls that bore us deep into our mp3s and newspapers on the Transit Way? Imagine colourful images that signal transit users that they are in Westboro, not Tunney Pasture?

My kids would get such a kick out of that!

I'm not saying open up the Transit Way as a legal wall (for obvious safety reasons), but what about completing a few stretches each summer with vivid productions? There has got to be a safe way to cover these walls with some colour. I bet most writers would probably be OK with writing after hours, after all.

Just an idea I had as I missed the Westboro stop... again...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Calling the '3-1-1' on Official Graffiti in Ottawa

Thanks to a local writer who sent me this informative article from the CBC. It's about the City of Ottawa's 311 Service.

Established in 2001 , it has been used by citizens in town to call and complain about mostly noise, pets and 'property standards' in town.
We complain a LOT about other people's pets.

Perhaps the city should consider adopting a zero tolerance approach to pets. We could call it something trendy (acronym suggestions, please!). The focus of course would be the eradication of all pets in the city.

OK, fair enough, parking is the BIGGEST problem, but we don't need pets to get to work, do we? Tax payers need to get to work to pay taxes...they don't "need" pets (or art) do they?

This example illustrates what is wrong with the logic of assuming that an increase usage in the City's 311 complaint service since its creation is an indicator that social problems - such as graffiti- are increasing OR that they deserve eradicating efforts and attention.

It is of course absurd to create policy that would ever promise or attempt to 'eradicate' pets.

I recently stumbled upon this article written by Ottawa Citizen columnist, Charles Gordon in 2001. While I am much more appreciative of graffiti than he appears to be, at least he sees the absurdity in such wars. Here is an excerpt:

We have laws against vandalism, which can be enforced when appropriate. We have paint to cover over offensive graffiti. In other cases, we can just live with it, not necessarily encouraging it, but not ordering a massive police operation against it, and praying that the continued existence of graffiti will not, as the editorial warns, cause people to barricade themselves in their homes.
Neither massive police action nor an officially-sanctioned graffiti wall are going to stop it. It will stop when it stops, no thanks to us. Then something else will replace it, and we can hope it will not be worse. That may sound defeatist. But there are far bigger problems in our city than graffiti. Let's work on them.(Surviving the graffiti plague: Let us spray:[Final Edition] The Ottawa Citizen.  Ottawa, Ont.:Aug 21, 2001.  p. D4)

Great title! 

And how interesting that 10 years later, the War on Graffiti in the City of Ottawa continues...

Then I got to thinking about the absurdity in using the 311 service as a way to - at least in part - justify a moral crusade on graffiti in the City of Ottawa, a thought came to me:

What would happen if more of us citizens (that includes you local writers too) would call and complain when the city paints gray or beige over graffiti?
Hermer and Hunt  call these kinds of 'signs' of prohibition as "official graffiti"... Who are they to tell me what colours of paint is offensive under that bridge? I say we start formally reporting buffing as graffiti!

Lets fight the absurd with the absurd!

FYI: Graffiti calls only make up about 2% (1500) of the 75,000 311 complaints (2010, City of Ottawa) but the Sun reported it as much much more. I would trust the City of Ottawa numbers. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sun Burn, Part 2

I just settled into my seat on a packed train heading back to Ottawa. The day feels like a Tom Waits song: an invitation to the blues...and neon pinks maybe?

Its a good day to address the other main issue that the recent Ottawa Sun article brought up. Due to issues of space, I was unable to address more than one issue in the Letter to the Editor I wrote in response (unpublished as of yet).

Blog followers will be interested in knowing that The Ottawa Citizen published a similar story, but it at least acknowledged the lack of legal spaces in the city for writers to work. They unfortunately also assume that because calls to the city complaining about graffiti have increased, that this is a sign graffiti is increasing in the city. While it may indicate that more attention is being brought to the City's concerns, it does NOT indicate 'increases' in graffiti.

The Metro questioned the value of the Paint it Up murals, without providing any context what so ever. It's probably not surprising to most of us that the silly unrepresentative poll running in the Sun reflect a high level of support to 'scrap' the municipal funding to the Ottawa Police Services supported program. I am confident this terrible poll will have little impact though, but it does reflect the 'knee jerk' reactions inspired by crappy journalism.

Graffiti is the kind of issue that lends itself to be framed by newspapers as a kind of morality play.

Researchers who focus on crime and news media tell us newspapers (like the Citizen and Sun) habitually make it look like we are a society 'going to hell in a hand basket', consistently misrepresenting issues of crime and on subcultures related to 'youth'. This holds true when newspapers  portray 'public' opinion on these issues.

While they may have different explanations for "why",  the folks who have been researching this for decades are unanimous about newspaper portrayals of 'youth': its rude, skewed and full of fools.

Think of these news accounts as simplified tales about 'kinds' of people in our society (stereotypes, even). There is usually a good guy, a bad guy, and some moral issue over which the forces of good and bad will struggle over.

Rarely is real life that simple, though. And that is the problem.

The idea that news making about 'youth' is problematic, is certainly NOT Watch this clip about the Mods & Rockers in the late 1960s. The key idea to pull from this clip - for the purpose of this blog - is that if there was ANYTHING else going on in the city that day (or in the country), the first clash would not have even been reported! The media was at least in part responsible for escalating the response to the first fairly uneventful incident.

The counsellors are not quoted in ANY of these articles calling graffiti writers 'punks' or 'vandals'. The newspaper made an editorial decision to use those adjectives. Vandalism is a by-law infraction, but not all the people who do graffiti do it illegally. The distinction is important for this article.

The language of war is also prevalent. This, terminology, CAN be traced back at least in part to then Counsellor Alex Cullen. His use of the terminology did little to foster positive relations between the early graffiti subculture and the City of Ottawa: Alex Cullen announced via every media imaginable that the city was at "war with graffiti," writers from Ottawa responded with a campaign of their own. After many tedious hours of production, hundreds of stickers were affixed to numerous surfaces in the down-town core. The stickers asked "What war?" (excerpt from Barthels, 2001)
As I stated in an earlier post, the story of graffiti in Ottawa is being framed by both news papers as well as municipal policy as a war (biological warfare) on  'vandals'.

If we, as constituents, understand the issue of graffiti as 'War', it fosters a culture of support for 'Bush-style' approaches to the Enemy, who is presented as a non-citizen. This is simply not true! Many writers have 'regular' jobs in our city, they are students in university, some are younger teens too but they come from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds. Most are intelligent! Some tag illegally, but not all do.

Just because the paper presents it as a 'nonsense crime', that doesn't mean it is.

And on a final note: to call the City's response to graffiti as a 'war' trivializes the horror and atrocities of real wars. Are things so slow in this town that this issue requires such a strong response?
I always play Russian Roulette in my head
It's seventeen black and twenty-nine red
How far from the gutter; how far from the pew

(I Never Talk to Strangers, T. Waits)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Sun Burn: Letter to the Editor

The Ottawa Sun published a pretty inflammatory article about funding that the City of Ottawa provides to the 2010 Paint it Up program (which will be holding some information sessions for anyone interested in participating in the community program).

There clearly is some misinformation being communicated about the 'costs' that the city reportedly has incurred in the last few years. This article didn't help foster communication.

I wrote a letter to the editor today, but there is so much more I wanted to say about how the Sun framed the issue of graffiti.

The biggest problem, in my opinion, was how a connection was being made between assumptions about the cost of graffiti management and the value of community programs that work with youth who are interested in learning about legal graffiti.

Furthermore, our municipal government needs to be held accountable for the costs of the eradication approach to addressing graffiti.

Below is the letter I wrote. Who knows if they will publish it. I will try to address the more inflammatory bits of the article later this week in this blog:

I am writing to you today to thank you for highlighting the City of Ottawa's Graffiti management program, albeit indirectly.

I am an independent researcher and professor of research methods in the criminology department at the University of Ottawa. I have been investigating the complexities of graffiti and its management in the City of Ottawa for the last few years. Given my background, I would like to offer some insight into the 'cost' of 'the Graffiti Management Program that was highlighted by John Willing's article (March 3, 2011) on some city counsellor's reactions to graffiti management costs and the funding of community mural projects.

The Sun reported "it costs the city over $1 million each year to clean up graffiti vandalism," which grew from a reported 600,000 in 2007. Rising costs, indeed. Certainly this use of valuable municipal resources is concerning given the cuts to essential services such as public transit. I think we need to be careful, though, in connecting these increases to youth programming.

First, it is  important to make it clear to your readers that this increase is probably not related to graffiti removal on businesses. Business owners and landlords are charged with the costs of graffiti removal from their buildings. If not removed, the city will remove it at the expense of the business owners.

Further this, business owners are fined for having graffiti on their business.

Second, the claims that graffiti is "exploding" and that writers are "starting early" this year is also problematic.

I have been documenting graffiti for the last 3 years as part of my own research. The only increase in painting I have noticed is done by the City of Ottawa; they have increased efforts in painting over established graffiti walls that writers have been working on - in some cases -since the late 1980s. Most of these walls are not visible; some are quite hard to find, actually.

One would have to 'go looking' in order to find most of these walls. Increasing costs might be related (in part) to hiring a by-law enforcement officer (typically a summer student), whose job it is to 'go looking' for graffiti and fine businesses.
These are NOT new walls simply because the City happened to discover them recently.

There is no 'early start up' going on here. No 'explosion.'

Third, Tierney was quoted by the Sun expressing his feelings about the mural programs. His opinion is not based on independent research or evaluation reports. Certainly, the City of Ottawa Police Service, which supports the value of these programs, adopts a much different perspective.

There are two separate and complex issues here that I believe are being confused: the cost and benefits of the Graffiti Management Program and the cost and benefits of urban mural programs.

I do agree with counsellors Tierney, Bloess and Deans on one point; the city needs a better assessment of the mural program. But, there also needs to be an independent assessment of the implications and effectiveness of the City's Graffiti Management Program, particularly if the city is spending 1 million dollars painting over walls nobody can see, or fining local business owners.

It is interesting to note that Tierney's riding has no spaces for writers to work legally. His constituents might be interested in knowing that there are ways in which legal walls, when erected with a good understanding of the community who will want to use it, can help resolve some of these issues their counsellor expresses in this article on behalf of his constituents.

Certainly labelling some citizens as 'vandals' is unhelpful if one is truly interested in finding effective solutions to improve urban beautification and community harmony amongst the diverse communities that make up our city.

Sincerely Yours,
Deborah Landry, PhD
University of Ottawa

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...