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....

Monday, May 16, 2011

It's the Shit!

Spring showers brings forth the smell of new blooms and manure. Such is life in a city with a farm in the centre of it. Today I am bloggin' about the sweet and sour smells of spring in Ottawa.

FIRST the blooms: House of PainT 2011!

I was thrilled last night to sit in on a writers consultation about the upcoming jam . I am so stoked for what is around the corner for this city. It was a pleasure to sit and listen to these smart folk talk about the future of their writing community. Thanks for including me, gang. It was a pleasure.

Don't know what House of PainT is about? Check it out
Volunteer. Apply to Paint. Bboy/girl it up. I hope to see you there!



SECOND, the manure: Spray Can Restrictions in Montreal

While my blog focuses on the City of Ottawa graffiti scene, I am gonna leave town today to talk about one of my favourite neighbours, the City of Montreal. Why?

I worry about the Broken Windows of Bad Policy. My 'fear' is that bad policies, left to fester, will signal to less informed counsellors that citizens don't care about public policy;  this invites sinister politicians to join city council in order to make increasingly thoughtless and irresponsible policy. Indeed, left to fester, bad policy in nearby communities could further contaminate legislation elsewhere [sarcasm].

Some of the boroughs of Montreal are courting the idea of restricting the sale of spray paint to anyone under the age of 18, believing that this will help decrease 'tagging' in the city. This idea was tossed around by Toronto counsellors last year, and word on the street is that Rob Ford is floating this idea again. It is a policy of the ignorant.

Of course it won't do anything to 'eradicate' graffiti. I think Sterling Downey's comments here say it best:“The public doesn’t realize that the majority of people doing graffiti aren’t minors. How about Operation Intelligence?”

Also, this newsflash just in: most humans under 18 have figured out how to use the Internet to order stuff, like spray paint...


It's annoying legislation mostly. The 'mosquito' of policy, really.

What is interesting is the process of creating policy for the sole purpose of policing an imagined group for the benefit of nobody.

The reason we should worry about this kind of 'nothing' policy, though, is because it causes shit between citizens who were coexisting with the usual level of tolerance and annoyance up until this third party got involved.

Remember that kid who always caused shit on the playground and never got caught? S/he was just cool headed enough to just walk up to two differing groups of kids, make a comment that pissed off each side,then walked away while the two sides battled out why the comment was offensive. The teacher would haul in the 'bad kids', blaming them for causing shit while the real bastard was off playing Pacman, sucking back a Pepsi Free (80s reference aside, you get the idea).


In reality, this type of policy creates administrative ecstasy: more paperwork and an excessive draw on scarce public resources to police how entrepreneurs do business. Being fined for selling paint that could be used legitimately by the people who are buying it treats business owners as if they were all idiots. It pisses off business owners who may, in turn, react negatively to proposals for graffiti mural projects. This policy also fosters a culture or contempt that may make extreme measures in 'blaming' writers for the legislation seem like reasonable approaches.

No decrease in tagging.

No increase in security (perceived or otherwise).

Less cohesion between citizens (legal/illegal writers & business owners).

What a load of ...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Ottawa

This past week I had the opportunity to speak to a small group of grade eight student taking part in the mini-u week at local universities. I was asked to speak about my research in the context of youth culture. Occupational hazard:  I fear I bored them, but it was definitely a fun morning for me. More importantly it gave me a lot to think about the day before the annual Jane’s Walk in Ottawa.

Jane Jacobs offered persuasive arguments against the 1950s American urban renewal policies, which heralded in the dawn of administrative amalgamation and highways in spite of how people ‘come together’ in urban spaces. Her activism and writings consistently posed the question: do we build cities for cars or people?

Certainly the expansion of the car culture of the 1950s - propelled by style and status - saw the bulldozing of city parks to make room for highways and drive thru’s.

Meanwhile, back in the classroom of 2011, I wonder: are cities are built for people or for ‘security’?….

Trendy teens listened semi-patiently to me rattle on about ‘crimes of style’- watching  Elvis, The Clash and Janis. Later on,  we took a short walk over to the House of PainT legal wall.  Students asked Mike a flurry of questions about the legal productions, while others milled about taking pictures and scratching their own names on rocks and edges. 


Upon our return to campus, I overheard one student say: “yeah it’s nice, when it’s legal…”

This important commentary reminded me how law that governs public space can also shape what some of its citizens come to understand as ‘nice’: deeds and aesthetics become one.

This exchange also marked the challenging reality facing those of us passionate about graffiti in this city (legal or not):  It is VERY difficult to decreases social control once it has gotten underway (remember how taxation in Canada was supposed to be temporary?) Certainly, it is difficult to convince citizens on the benefits of less laws when an industry emerges directly tethered to these laws. 

Currently the City of Ottawa maintains that is it spending one million dollars a year on what it vaguely calls “graffiti management”. These costs, however,  are directly related to the creation of bad policy. 

There are companies in town that rely on the city’s graffiti management program (businesses that are called by other businesses to buff tags that the city has outlawed). Bi-law enforcement hires someone to “look” for graffiti for the city to manage. There are business improvement grants to be given to BIAs related to graffiti management. There is fencing to install, signage to put up and repair over and over again…

Fighting ideological wars on something that can be found in practically every city on the planet  is BOUND to start running up costs. 



When the city first began attempting to manage graffiti in 1999 - before amalgamation - organizers had a hard time getting business owners to cooperate with buffing or removal. Clearly, graffiti was not as big of a problem as some counselors thought it would be. Indeed, it has taken about 12 years, a lot of fines, signage and fencing to convince many citizens that graffiti is ‘not nice’.  Perhaps the people who started to wonder about how to manage graffiti never realized that the costs of managing would grow the way it has.  But here we are….

I would argue that our municipality is taking this strategy one step further: they want you to believe it should be feared.

The Tech Wall, Ottawa. (Photo credit: Mike Young)
The Tech Wall looks like a prison compound these days, not a welcoming LEGAL wall. The signs that the city post, warning writers suggest to other citizens that something ‘scary’ is happening here.

In her later work, and at the risk of gross simplification, Jane Jacobs warns of a kind of urban cultural annihilation: beware the power of ideology to make us blind to those things we ‘really’ need (Marx would call this false consciousness). Given we live in one of the safest cities in the country, do we  NEED to be scared of such a normal urban activity?

Certainly, the citizens of Ottawa do not NEED to support an ‘industry’ of graffiti management that the city has created for itself.

The municipality DOES need to justify the expense or their management strategy. Thier current approach suggests they want citizens to believe that the environment and security are the reasons to continue an absurd ‘eradication’ strategy that does little more than eradicate scarce public funds. 

That is hardly very nice looking to me...