Friday, November 2, 2012

The Vinyl Solution: Branding Streets & Writers

Amidst a cold fall rain, The City of Ottawa's Mayor and downtown councillors held a press release to announce their latest strategy for managing graffiti.

The pilot project that will see many of the traffic control boxes in the downtown wards wrapped in vinyl cozies. Branded with images of the O Train, the plastic coverings will cost the city between 250$ to 375$ per box, with a guarantee that they will last 4 years (assuming a truck does not smash into them). The surface is slick and so apparently will be 'graffiti resistant'.

This 'wipe off-ness' was demonstrated by councillors who picked up sharpies and proceeded to 'tag' the box. They sure seemed to have fun tagging it, although they claim that graffiti is a blight and so these box cozies are necessary. This was business.

The numbers offered to this press this week are as follows:

Graffiti tagging of traffic control boxes costs the city $35,000 year.
The initial pilot project (which only covered they key downtown area) will cost taxpayers at least 11,000$ for the pilot project.

Before I explain my disappointment in this approach, let me first tell you what I LIKE about what I heard at this press conference.

First, Marianne Wilkinson, responding to reporters, clarified that most writers tend to "have the sensibility" not to write on private property. I was encouraged to hear that clarification. I may have even cheered (inside).

Second, although the Mayor insisted on defining graffiti as a 'blight' (something that I am sure not all citizens would agree with), the municipal press speak seems to have dropped the use of terms such as 'eradication' and 'war'. I am very pleased by the use of such terms as 'reduction' instead. It's a start...

Third,listening to the reporters ask questions reaffirmed my faith in journalism. I don't know...maybe this will play out completely different once it hits some of the newspapers. You just need to  get past the name calling of the first paragraph (seriously...'punks'? sigh....), but the Ottawa Sun reporter, Jon Willing, pretty much covered the facts about municipal leaders trying their hands at 'tagging' and such.

My Criticisms are simple:

First: I wonder why the City of Ottawa did not invite community groups and artists to paint the utility boxes (as they do in Halifax). This would have been a wonderful opportunity for citizens to personalize their communities. Citizens could come out and get to know some of the artists around town, which we DO know works to combat things like 'fear of crime' and misunderstandings about who writes graffiti. It also would have been cheaper and last longer than 4 years. Remember: writers typically will not 'tag' murals or art.

I am pretty sure the House of Paint folks would have been happy to work with some of the top urban artists in Canada while they were in town recently for the urban arts festival. Some of these guys (like Omen) are professional artists who do commissioned pieces across the world; they could have created some spectacular art pieces that would have really added some 'snap' to our streets.

Second: I wonder about the environmental impact of a city wrapping its public structures in vinyl...

This 'initiative' is primarily a branding opportunity for the city.

In responding to the story in the Sun, a few commenters suggested that the city should focus on the Light Rail project instead of spending thousands more on wrapping utility boxes in plastics. Given the prominence of the OC Train image on the sample traffic box offered up to the press, I think this is exactly what this new initiative is all about.

And that is what I find ultimately disappointing about what they say they are doing.

I propose that the municipality is initiating a Public Relations campaign for the new light rail system ("coming soon!"). Instead of being upfront about the advertising, they are throwing graffiti writers to the journalists as the 'problem' that justifies spending 11,000$ so The City of Ottawa can wrap boxes up with their "tag" (ironic, eh?).

It feels like a diversion tactic.

The city continues to rack up millions of tax dollars a years on 'graffiti management' strategies even though graffiti has NOT increased. The most inexpensive graffiti reduction strategies are the ones that do what they promise; not a single mural put up by the Paint it Up program has been re-tagged. It works.

So if this pilot project falls through, I hope the Mayor and councillors consider a public art approach, where communities can take ownership of those traffic boxes (maybe throw a street-painting party) with some unique artwork instead of more advertising and plastic.
Indeed...a street-painting party!
(snapshot in City Hall about 100 feet from press conference).

Ensure the City of Ottawa Fosters Safe Creative Communities without Escalating Costs to Taxpayers

(Press Release) The City of Ottawa is set to announce a new initiative to ‘deter graffiti’ on November 2 at City Hall (11am). Given the municipality’s problematic and expensive graffiti legislation history, the hope is that the new initiative will not exacerbate many of the problems created by previous ‘zero-tolerance’ approaches:

•The cost of ‘graffiti eradication’ has escalated from $50,000 in 1999 to a recently reported $3,000,000 (as reported in the Ottawa Sun in 2011; The City of Ottawa reported graffiti expenditures of over $2,000,000 in 2007). These costs are not due to an increase in graffiti activity during this period; rather, costs are associated with such strategies as increased by-law enforcement, graffiti removal, and surveillance of previously tolerated graffiti walls.

•Negative tensions are escalated between citizens by current bylaws aimed at property owners, who are held accountable for graffiti that appears on their buildings; landlords may be served with a fine and/or the cost of graffiti removal by the City of Ottawa. This has lead to vigilante behaviour, where some citizens –upset with the bylaw- have responded to non-violent acts of ‘tagging’ with violence.

•The City of Ottawa maintains some of the strictest bylaw regulations in Canada regarding what property owners can paint on their own buildings. Furthermore, the Capital City only hosts 2 legal graffiti walls, while Gatineau hosts over 30.

There are positive ways the City of Ottawa can effectively address concerns that some citizens have with graffiti, which do not reproduce such on ‘negative’ and expensive consequences. After all, public art adds to property values and inspires young artists to head toward commission work.

•The City of Ottawa can repeal (or stop enforcing) the current bylaw which penalizes property owners for the appearance of graffiti on their buildings.

•Similar to some other cities (such as the City of South Perth) the City of Ottawa can respond and bear the cost of cleaning graffiti when requested by citizens. This would reduce the cost of ‘buffing’ significantly.

•The City of Ottawa and Ottawa Police Services can continue to foster positive relationships with groups such as House of Paint and the artists with the Paint it Up program. All of the murals that have been created to revitalize high target areas by these groups have remained graffiti free. This reinforces the need for more funding toward these demonstrably successful partnerships.

For further information: Deborah Landry (Department of Criminology) University of Ottawa. (613) 656-5305. Dr. Landry has been researching the municipal regulation of graffiti and urban arts in the Capital City for the past four years. (Photo Credit: Deborah Landry, artwork by local mural artist Hiero, commissioned in collaboration with the KeepSix Collective).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Running on Empty: Part 3

Mercifully this will not be in 3D..

I was contacted today by a friend looking for someone to join him in commenting on the 'Colour Vibe/Graffiti Me' Run taking place this rainy fall Saturday, and the recent change of marketing the run organizers have undergone. Ah: new marketing?

Earlier, I outlined my problem with the run selling itself as a graffiti experience. The company obviously agreed that a dysfuctional understanding of graffiti makes for problematic marketing. Consequently, they changed the name of their event to "Color Vibe" while completely erasing charity promises from the event website.

Well, you can't do that without being noticed, especially if some participants signed up assuming proceeds would go to charity. And so, the 'Colour Vibe/Graffiti Me' Run webpage states that they ARE indeed a charitable run again. Who are the lucky recipients, you ask?

The City of Ottawa Police Services & The Graffiti Management Ottawa people. Seriously, we are calling public policing and bylaw enforcement a charity now?

Who is in charge of this company's marketing?

If you are no longer associating with graffiti (fair enough), deciding instead that 'color' or 'fun' is the run's new focus, then why not give a portion of the proceeds to a non-profit art collective in Ottawa? Or, better still, the city's Children's Hospital, CHEO?

The graffiti bylaw and policing strategy does not directly address graffiti. It unnecessarily burdens business owners, non-profit art collectives, and residents who dream of Ottawa someday having a cultural scene that functions outside the NAC. It brews bad blood between citizens. And this is all to pay for the costs of policing something that is JUST as much a part of this culture as Rock and Roll.

This past week, I watched a gaggle of young people put on one hell of an urban arts festival under the Dunbar Bridge at House of PainT. What most people don't know is that there is a core group of young people who have been working (in addition to their professional full time jobs) to put on this event for the past 9 years; this year they have become a non-profit organization, inundated with a massive amount of paperwork, record keeping, and lengthy funding applications, without pay. Why? They do it because they are focused on supporting the citizens of Ottawa who are a part of this amazingly productive hip hop community; graffiti writers have been a part of this production without fail.

They also do it because they are invested in the cultural and community health of YOUR city, Ottawa. I remain humbled at their kindness, enthusiasm, effort and successes.

Supporting policing services in an ineffective misguided ideological War on Graffiti is one strange form of charity, particularly given the City of Ottawa tells us that they pay three million dollars a year to run this failed eradication strategy.

Bad policy is what this company is funding, not community charity. That is why you should boycott this Graffiti Me/Color Vibe Run.

You want to run & have fun for a good cause: Run for Terry Fox or even the Army Run who help out families of soldiers, or those soldiers dealing with physical or mental illness. Help foster the spirit of good will in our community, just like those kids at House of PainT do each and every year in this town.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Running on Empty: Part 2

This post is for those who were curious about my query into how the anti-graffiti Graffiti Me Run Series was doing in finding a charity to give money to. I have news! (My Email exchange with organizers resulted in being told: watch the webpage for more info)

This morning my partner noticed Facebook was presenting ads for the Color Vibe Run [sic], which looked strikingly similar to the Graffiti Me Run. Low and behold, the folks at Graffiti Me have gone through a marketing change of heart.

Gone from the website is double talk about graffiti; so too, however, is the charity-speak. Nary a mention about donations to charities or community beautification projects may be found. Will organizers be offering refunds to those who signed up believing a portion of their registration fees would go to charity? Bah...these are questions for the participants to ask, I suppose. Caveat emptor.

My beef with the Graffiti Me branding was the organizers reluctance to acknowledge the countless graffiti writers since the 1970s who have collectively produced what most people recognize today as urban graffiti, all the while drawing up these efforts to sell the event. Worse than that hypocrisy though, the web page condemns the act of writing graffiti, by calling it a crime: "We don't condone vandalism" Oh no just want to exploit it to sell people on your crappy little run and the fiction that you are charitable.

I called bullshit and clearly others must have too, thus uncovering the organization's true colours.

While perhaps not a shocking discovery, this change in branding strategy provides evidence that corporate entities and other profit-driven organizations will draw upon altruistic rhetoric when it conveniences them, even at the detriment of others. In this case, when the use of graffiti to promote the event ceased, so too did the interest in being a charity. Think about that the next time a box store in Parkinglotopia tries to sell you on what environmentally responsible community members they are.

More importantly for me, though, this change shows that holding the authors of public texts accountable for the double speak they use CAN result in at least some kind of change (admittedly a small change - they are still using some graffiti aesthetics in the header, but they have dropped their explicitly dysfunctional relationship to graffiti).

You wanna make a buck by organizing a race? Go for it. But don't brand people as 'bad citizens' in order to sell your product. A mentor of mine taught me early on in my academic career: Only people without merit rely on putting other people down to prop themselves up. If you are indeed a person of quality, you need only demonstrate your skill in order to convince others of your value. (Thanks Dr. Michael Overington!)

I think Kenneth Burke would be happy with this change in branding. And so too am I.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Running on Empty

One of the cool things about my life: good friends are always sending me interesting stuff about graffiti (music, and running...). A fellow running enthusiast recently sent me this gem: "Graffiti Me Race Series".
The web site attempts to attract race participants with bold colourful images of smiling young White people covered in paint splatter:
At the Graffiti Me 5k run, YOU are our color canvas, and when you’re finished with us you’ll be an exciting and vivid masterpiece. So tag your friends and hook everybody up with the coolest 5k color blast 5K run to hit the streets
The use of graffiti-esque terms like "tag", images of vibrant city skylines and graffiti style lettering effectively frames the event as an edgy young urban experience. Nevermind the fact that you are actually running on a horse track on the outskirts of town in the case of Ottawa...

But wait! The GRAFFITI Me Run Series does not want to give you the impression that they support the creation graffiti. The site adopts War on Graffiti language to make their dysfunctional relationship to graffiti as clear as corn chowder:
There is a place for all artwork, but defacing, tagging, and vandalizing our beautiful cities is definitely not the venue and we work to combat it.
To further prove that the GRAFFITI Me Run Series absolutely DOES NOT condone graffiti, the GRAFFITI Me Run Series web site claims to give money directly to graffiti management and 'beautification' projects in the cities that host the events. I have a sneaking suspicion (but no evidence) that the organizers might consider the cost of the municipal event permit as said donation. I will keep you posted on this point if anyone at the GRAFFITI Me website answers my inquiry on this point.

But WOW, that seems like a lot of PR work if you have a problem with graffiti; Wouldn't it be easier to call your event the 'Rainbow Run Series', for example? That way one can avoid any confusion over your institutions view on the production of graffiti.

The answer is obvious, of course: there is a (hetero/masculine)sexy bend to calling it a "graffiti" run. The event banks on selling participants the illusion of colourful safe danger that comes with the promise of urban living. Neon splattered images of city skylines underline each page. Are grey and glass sky scrapers not colourful enough to communicate urban excitement? Apparently not.

Corporate entities and municipalities alike attempt to redefine graffiti as a form without history, which suits marketing and urban planning strategies nicely. In justifying their thematic use of graffiti, organizers attempt to redefine graffiti as an art without connection to unsanctioned writing. It's as if they want to pretend that the urban wild style aesthetic might exist apart from unsanctioned graffiti.

Well, it wouldn't. To pretend otherwise is embarrassingly disingenuous.

The socio-political basis for what most people would recognize as urban graffiti is located in ancient tensions around public discourse and personal relationships, political outcries on the walls of prisons, in conflicts over 'branding' public space.

Contemporary urban graffiti is as 'everyday' as rock and roll: to make our kids rooms look cute, brighten up hum-drum city events like Winterlude, sell us pharmaceuticals and Chevrolet cars. How bizarre to dismiss the very community that made this style possible!

And so what to do about the GRAFFITI Me Run Series in Ottawa mid September? I offer you two other alternatives for your warm September weekends:

If you are TRULY interested or curious about graffiti, why not check out the AMAZING events at this year's House of PainT (happening September 15th & 16th!). Check out the line up for the Sunday concert under the bridge! If you want to be covered in paint, you can always volunteer to paint primer on the bridge with us before the writers take to the walls on Saturday.

If you want to run, though, give your money to the Terry Fox Foundation and run for them on September 22nd. They are much more upfront about donations, and its a clearly worthy cause made fun for everyone in the family, with NO entry fee.

Feel free to take both my suggestions.

[Side Rant/Footnote: Its lovely that people are interested in their health. It is good to have goals, I suppose. However, many of these organized events create a tremendous amount of environmental waste in an afternoon of "health and good will".

Organized race series that produce thousands of tonnes of garbage under the rhetorical veil of health and charity is akin to a child with her contest winning "Save the Earth" poster who expects to be rewarded with a drive in the family SUV to McDonalds for a Happy Meal. The GRAFFITI Me Race Series shares this cognitive dissonance.]

Monday, May 7, 2012

An Open Invitation to Jan Harder, Councillor for Barrhaven

Today, the Ottawa Citizen is reporting on a rescue by local fire rescue workers. They saved a young man who nearly died, apparently, from jumping in the Ottawa river after being pursued by OC Transpo constables.

The news paper suggests that man in his 20s may have been involved in writing graffiti on a well known (and used) train bridge that connects downtown Ottawa to Lemieux Island.

What was Councillor Jan Harder's response? According to the papers:
Barrhaven Councillor Jan Harder tweeted Sunday night that she was happy with the dramatic special constable collars.

“Yay,” she said in the tweet. “Someone caught doing graffiti instead of hapless owner of property stuck with the bill!”

I have many problems with Councillor Harder's response. I am going to limit my response down to three key points:

First, councillor, your rush to PUBLIC celebration over the near drowning of a citizen of our city is absolutely appalling. It is inhumane. Beyond that, it is unethical, and unprofessional for a public official to use social media for this spiteful commentary. You owe some people an apology.

Second, this 'tweet' demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about the relationship between public policy and human beings. Instead of jumping to conclusions or for joy over the near death of one of our citizens, you might want to think about why it is that someone would choose to jump in a cold spring river rather than deal with OC Transpo officers. Critical thinking is an admirable quality of a public official.

Finally,you do not appear to be very well versed in the difference between public and private property. Indeed, the 'hapless property owner' of a train bridge? The bridge in question is used by MANY CITIZENS downtown, generally without incident. OC Transpo would rather folks did not, I concede, but clearly this is a space that the city will eventually need to consider developing into a lovely pedway/bike path across the river. The point I am making here is that this is not an issue of someone tagging a house in the suburbs!! It is some young people on a publicly owned bridge that the city does not 'buff' (so there is no actual expense involved in the alleged 'graffiti' on this location). Call off the hounds!

I invite you, Councillor Jan Harder to chat with me- at a time and place of your choosing- about the problems with the current 'anti-graffiti' municipal legislation. You and I are in agreement on one point: is it unfair to burden property owners with the cost of 'clean up'. I'd be happy to show you how the City of Ottawa could better invest that million dollars a year it currently spends in the War on Graffiti it started in 2001 (at that time, the 'War' only cost the City of Ottawa less than 1000$, but that was before legislation had time to turn the War into a local industry).

You are right to be angry at this policy: it encourages bad blood between its citizens, not cooperation and community. Your tweet is evidence of that much.

I personally invite you to join me to attend the annual House of PainTs Urban Arts Festival. You will get to meet many of the young talented people of your city who get together every year to celebrate urban arts, which includes graffiti. We will be under the Dunbar Bridge (one of the 2 legal walls in Ottawa)in early September. I would be happy to personally introduce you to some of the amazing people who make up this creative collective. Many of the hard working men and women who put on this event do it for this community, this city. I remain humbled by the amount of work these young people invest into this city, without pay and typically without 'props'.

I will buy the coffee!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fall Down Gallery: Playin' In the Key of Awesome...

The city might be bundled under the white stuff right now, but that doesn't mean that the graffiti scene in Ottawa is in hibernation. This city has struggled over the last few decades with a fear of 'funk' and now there is a neat little place in town that is doing something about it.

Fall Down Gallery opened last year in May when House of Paint plans were going up. Since then, the folks that make this new scene happen (Robbie and Tarek) have found creative ways to kill the winter blues with a mad mix of DJs, local artists, clothing, bar in a welcoming performance space.  Seriously: check 'em out!
Falldown Gallery Open Mic Night from Philip K on Vimeo.

Most recently, they hosted their second open mic night! It was just the right amount of 'welcoming community' and 'wild talent' that would attract folks to both watch AND play. Who knows, I might just get brave enough by the next one to tag that sign up sheet. It is a refreshing spin on  your typical 'open mic' in this town, and it is definitely a great way to fully exploit the gallery space! More importantly, this galley is helping foster a legitimacy for urban art in a City that has attempted to legislate it out of site, out of mind.

By the way, this is my 'old' guitar made new by local writer Doll.  I pulled it out in all its glory for a quick set with my partner at  Quinn's last open mic of 2011. The guitar was a hit, Doll. My guitar playin'...less so; but hey! We had fun! =)

Doll and Dems recently hosted a show over the holidays collaborating on some sharp work. They appear to be having a smashing time as well. I heard through the grapevine that they will be painting at Winterlude this year too, so watch for em!

What a way to get through an Ottawa winter!

A final shout out to Kenji, a cultural planner with the City of Ottawa, who is trying to make some noise in Ottawa by putting together an Action Plan for Arts Heritage & Culture. Its another way to hopefully get local folks more comfortable with some kinds of urban art. Certainly, with the City making plans to work on the 'mobility' of the downtown core over the next few years, the issue of who's voice is going to be allowed is one that we should all be concerned with.

Keep warm!