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Graffiti as art - and more

A friend of mine, Yvette, is writing a book about the history of Toronto 's graffiti scene, how it began, how it evolved, what has been happening. She is getting opinions and viewpoints from across the board including business owners, artists and supporters of the cause - such as yours truly.

There is an "artist profile" section where contributing artists write their own bios, provide their own photos and say whatever is important for them to get out.  These are primarily the old school writers who've been around the longest and have seen graffiti evolve as well as the communities that surround it.
There is also a "tales" section with interesting stories and anecdotes, as well as a photographic exposition showcasing some of the amazing graffiti in Toronto.

She has most of her input, but is still collecting more if you act quickly. You can email her via tgcbproject  at gmail dot com . 

The following is the text that sent to her:

Graffiti as art - and more 

 I was in Toronto on a business trip in 1999, walking along Queen street west after lunch, when I saw a splash of colour on a back alley wall. I ventured in and found the walls covered with art. Some simple scribblings, some intricate graphic elements, some interlocked letters, some amazing murals. Some pieces a few inches in width, some a blend of letters and scenes and characters covering the backs of several buildings. I was fascinated, and hooked.

I brought my camera on the next trip and started taking pictures, so that I could share this with others. Reaction from them was mixed, some lumped it all together as just more  ugly vandalism by insolent youth, some looked at it as art and were amazed this existed, hidden from view. Some of the latter, now that I’d shown them this urban art, started finding and appreciating it themselves.

As I learned more about graffiti I realized that I was not only promoting this art, I was preserving it too.  Depending on the area, the skill of the artist, and in some cases the zeal of a city crew armed with primer paint, this art would last years, months, sometimes only days. When I started posting my photos online, local artists would not only let me know who had done a piece, but also thank me for grabbing a shot of their work while it was still there.

I started capturing Ottawa work too, helped out at a local hip-hop festival, and met more artists. Through that I began to appreciate even more the skill and talent involved, and looked for ways to get more involved in the promotion part of this.

I contacted Constable Scott Mills of Toronto Police Service, who was a Community Resource Officer in the downtown Queen-Spadina area. Tagging was a big problem there, especially in neglected back alleys, but he saw it as part of a larger problem of attitudes and neglect, and as an opportunity. He was glad for another volunteer, I was glad for a chance to learn. He was launching an initiative, along with a local group called CAVE (Communities Advancing Valued Environments) to attack these problems.

They used what they called a community transformation, which runs as follows:

  • A specific area is chosen, one that is run down and neglected. This can be picked by a BIA (Business Improvement Area) or a bylaws officer. In the latter case, rather than just serving all owners with notices, a discussion is held with them on alternatives.
  • Business owners, community leaders, and residents are contacted, and one of them is encouraged to step forward as lead person for this current work, as well as for any follow-up needed.
  • Local youth are also involved. Likely some of them have been also doing tagging, but this past is not focused on. The intent is to refocus their energies and talents into developing as artists, and to being part of the solution. “Youth at risk” may be redirected to the project, but it’s not a requirement for the all participants.
  • Youth new to the program will mainly work at cleaning up and priming over tags, eventually they can be mentored by more experienced artists and start taking part in the murals themselves. A side benefit is that many can claim this work as community hours for high school.
  • Youth and property owners work together to design colourful murals that relate to the neighbourhood and are a blend their different artistic cultures.
  • On the day of the event, to the beat of a local DJ, walls are primed and redone, garbage is cleaned up, broken windows repaired, lighting improved, perhaps even some vines added.
  • Youth and businesses gain an understanding of and respect for each other’s issues and culture.
  • Youth also learn some business skills, always helpful on a resume, in such areas as communication, scheduling, teamwork, defining timelines, meeting commitments.
  • Social networks in the area are strengthened through working together on a problem, rather than just handing it to police or city as their problem. The neighbourhood is showing that they care about this area. It is transformed, instead of it feeling unsafe it feels like a part of the community. Residents feel comfortable in walking through here, knowing that instead of encountering drunks and drug addicts, they are likely now to run into a tourist with a camera. Or maybe even see a celebrity – one of these areas is a common backdrop for the “rant” on the Rick Mercer Report on CBC TV.

I’ve also tried to encourage a similar program here in Ottawa, first as a branch of CAVE, then as a board member of Sketch-Orleans (a local youth group), and lately as part of the Keepsix Artists Collective. Keepsix’s misson is “connecting graffiti to the outside world”, to do that we match local graffiti artists with customers that want mural work, organize sales of artists’ work, and lobby to various city departments on the benefits of graffiti murals as part of a graffiti management program.

Progress has been made here in Ottawa, but it is slow. We are a conservative city, with little support for the arts and still outgrowing a “tough on crime” mentality. Bylaws are overly complex, and not supportive of alternatives. For example, as in many cities, graffiti is defined as “markings that disfigure or deface a surface”, but that marking could range from a quick scribble or scratch to colorful interlocking letters. That leaves the assessment of whether it’s graffiti or not as a subjective (not objective) decision made by a bylaws officer. If it is an infraction the owner has seven days to remove it or the city will do so and charge them, making them a victim twice. What has happened in a few cases is a property owner gets tagged, and served a notice, he pays some youth to do a mural that happens to be in a graffiti style, and the bylaws officer returns to re-ticket the property. Or sometimes a city goes ahead right away and primes over the mural – looking like a case of vandalism by the city.  A better criteria to decide on whether this should be allowed or not would be whether the markings were done with or without permission. In addition areas seem targeted by bylaw officers based on complaints, rather than as part of an overall approach, and city property seems to be allowed to remain tagged much longer.

Murals are allowed under a separate permanent signs bylaw as an exception but there are constraints on content and placement. For the most part murals are not permitted on private property, yet tagging has no such restraints. Commercial advertising is not allowed on a mural, this currently includes not only brand names but also anything related to the business itself – for example for a downtown bar an image of swing dancers on a back alley mural was  blocked as being “advertising”. City staff are now investigating how to relax this restriction, while still retaining some limits. In addition, they are developing a program to add more murals to city buildings and highway underpasses. So, slow progress, but some progress – thanks in part to our small but proactive group of local graffiti lobbyists, and some council and staff willing to listen.

In the meantime, there have been a number of graffiti murals added to the city this year, to beautify it, provide work and skills development for young artists, and help connect graffiti to the outside world. More of this connection has been done through displays at local community events, such as at local art fairs. We set up some sheets of plywood on stands, and some of our artists get out the aerosol cans and start doing a piece. Besides attracting local youth to the community event itself, other community members can talk with the artists and learn more about the culture and technique. All have a chance to gain in understanding, and this often leads to some art sales or a mural commission. At the end of the event, the plywood murals can be auctioned off, with some profit for both the event and the artist.

So, where do I see this all going? Graffiti is not going away; cities that have a goal of being tag-free are delusional. Graffiti is a part of hip-hop culture, along with the elements of DJ, MC, and bboy/bgirl, and as such is part of the culture of many youth. Tagging will always be a form of rebellion, as is under-age drinking, smoking, driving fast, swearing – things many of us did in our younger days and many of our grandchildren will do. Threats of fines and other consequences, lectures on victim impact, more police, these can’t be relied on as a solution. I believe more positive programs are needed, programs that aim to replace the rush of an illegal tag with the rush of a mural appreciated by peers and community –and the rush of some cash for it. That include bringing youth into the solution. That make all of the community responsible for the “health” of their neighbourhood.






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QUALITY I really like this, it reminds me of a graffiti artist I saw at their is a few more good graffiti artists on the site.

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