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Legal graffiti walls

Feb 23 -I sent the following email in to City Staff here in Ottawa. No response on it as of March 18. They are open to the idea of legal areas, but I thought I'd add more info and persuasion. This email went to those developing a graffiti control program: namely Leslie Vanclief and Paul McCann (Service Operations), Walter Duhme (Orleans - Ottawa police anti-graffiti), and the councilors with the walls in their wards, Clive Doucet (House of Paint) and Diane Holmes (Tech Wall). Also copied my local councilor, Bob Monette.

Big thanks to Sabra for her word-smithing; stay tuned in here for info on the annual House of Paint event she is coordinating again -this year as part of Canada Dance Festival's HipHop 360.



I understand that you have some meetings coming up about Ottawa’s illegal graffiti and the different elements of a graffiti management program. As you know, I have been focusing on ways to encourage the positive artistic side of graffiti. I've put together some information on the subject that you might find interesting.   

In recent years I have been looking at legal, open walls, as well as commissioned one time pieces, and it is my belief that both are important elements in an effective graffiti management program.

Legal walls, on the one hand, provide an area for young, creative artists to express themselves freely, in the true spirit of graffiti art, with minimal rules and the knowledge that their pieces will be temporary, soon be replaced by another artists’ work. Despite the volume of use that some of these areas receive, careful site planning can minimize any issues of “bleeding” to other structures. In addition, it is often found that the quality of work at these legal walls is significant, as youth are given the opportunity to work on their creations in a worry free environment.

Commissioned pieces, on the other hand, entail working with the same young artists frequenting the legal walls to cover trouble spots with colourful and creative murals. This approach helps youth not only by providing short term employment but also by assisting in the long term development of a positive work ethic and personal skills such as project conceptualization and follow through.

Both approaches replace the thrill of illegality and recognition within a relatively small underground community with the positive feedback of public recognition by other artists, as well as community at large, and provide opportunities for youth to develop as artists. Thus adding a fifth element to the four “E”’s of Eradication, Empowerment, Education and Enforcement – that of Enjoyment. In addition, once these large pieces are done, tagging over that area is seldom an issue.

Legal Walls

The City of Gatineau has had several legal walls in place for a number of years, and they are considered a successful component of their graffiti management program. The Gatineau walls consist of free standing 8x12 foot walls in several parks as well as some free zones on bridge underpasses. Local youth, seeing these walls established to provide them an outlet for expression, realize that the community listens to their interests, so that relations with them have improved.

One legal wall already exists in Ottawa: The House of PainT, located under the Bronson Avenue Dunbar bridge. This was established in 2003 with the cooperation of the City of Ottawa, City Councilor Clive Doucet, and the Ottawa South Community Association, after a proposal by Ottawa South resident Sabra Ripley. Since then this legal wall has been used as the focal point for a successful yearly hip-hop festival, enjoyed by the community (young and old) and attracting local artists as well as crews from Toronto and Montreal. In addition, there is a year round changing display of graffiti by local artists enjoyed by community members and students, who often use the walking path to move between Ottawa South and Carleton University.

The Ottawa Tech Wall, on the school board property at Slater and Bronson, is a semi-legal area, in that it has been tolerated and used actively for over 15 years. Internationally recognized artists such as Juan Carlos Noria, Pat Thompson and John Brownfield started the wall years ago and, like many others, they have used it as a stepping stone to a formal career in art. The Tech Wall, also known as the Piece Park wall, also serves as an attractive backdrop to an inner city area, and is enjoyed every day by commuters along Slater Street.

Other cities, such as St. John’s, have put in place legal areas, with varying degrees of success. Two elements seem to be careful placement relative to other areas, and designing as part of an overall management strategy.   

I am currently working with my local City Councilor, Bob Monette, to establish a legal graffiti area this summer at the Orleans Sportsplex Skateboard Park. This will be patterned after the wooden walls used by the City of Gatineau.

Commissioned Pieces

Commissioned pieces, as part of a graffiti deterrence approach, have been used in Toronto as part of a successful 10 year program known as the Toronto Graffiti Transformation Project. This project funds local community groups to use graffiti art to alleviate the problem of youth unemployment and inspire neighborhood improvements. Through the program young artists are hired to target areas frequently plagued with illegal graffiti – they work with land and business owners on designs and help to cover problem areas with permanent murals.

The benefits to this approach include reduction in tagging, community beautification, youth engagement and employment, and dialogue between city officials, business and private land owners, and youth.  “Graduates” of the program have gone on to art school or to pursue careers in the field of art, occasionally working to establish other legal painting areas.

Here in Ottawa, some enterprising youths formed a ‘crew’ last summer, approached the landlord of Interpares on Laurier East with a design, and were paid to do a full length composition.  The wall, which had been frequently vandalized, remained tag free for months.

Commissioned or not, legal or not, graffiti art has become an admired aspect of the urban landscape.  Large pieces have been used as backdrops for advertisements, videos and films, even the CBC’s Rick Mercer stages his weekly “rant”  is against the artistic graffiti background of a downtown Toronto alley. Also in Toronto, Constable Scott Mills of Division 14 took a novel approach to the tackling the problem of local alleys that were plagued with garbage, tags, and drug dealers. He organized store owners and local youth to clean up and repaint the laneway – filling it with murals. Now you’re more likely to see tourists in there, snapping pictures of the urban art.

In Ottawa, areas like Tech Wall and House of PainT draw artists and art appreciators from across the city.  People using the parks associated with both walls indicate a general fascination with the art, appreciate the colours put up on otherwise grey concrete spaces, and enjoy the fact that the art is so often changing. 

I could speak more about the over all value of graffiti and free art, but I’ll stop here and share some links that you may find interesting and helpful as you work to find an effective resolution to the question of graffiti, here in the nations’ capital.

Please keep me in the loop as to how the discussions are going and don’t hesitate to contact me should you have any questions or require further information.   


Mike Young

Articles and Websites

Gatineau Graffiti Management Program –

St. John’s legal wall -'s-Legal-Wall.html

Toronto Graffiti Transformation Program -

Toronto Observer story on Scott Mills’ project -

Community report on House of Paint -


House of Paint opening (2003)

Tech Wall –



Gatineau Walls -

Interpares (Laurier) -


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