Graffiti: is it art or vandalism?
Toronto sets up official panel and the wrangling starts over what to preserve
By Larry Humber. Web only
Published online: 07 November 2012
Toronto is taking a hard look at street art, going so far as to create an official five-member Graffiti Panel, made up of city staffers with backgrounds in “the arts, urban design, architecture and other relevant disciplines”, which met for the first time on 2 November. The first session was contentious but civil, with panel members facing off against property owners who were appealing notices of violation for “markings” on their buildings. “Even if it’s Picasso, you’re not allowed to paint on other people’s walls,” says Elyse Parker, a city official who is leading Toronto’s crackdown on graffiti.
At the same time, the city has begun to open its eyes to street art, realising that there is something of merit in the best of it. Toronto’s council has already given its blessing to what is known as Graffiti Alley, a series of colourful backstreets only a few blocks from City Hall. David Liss, the director of Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, who also has some background in street art, applauds the move. “Certainly the Queen West Alley has some great work, so I’m in favour of preservation,” he says. “Maybe they could start marketing it as a tourist attraction.”
The Graffiti Panel considered nine controversial sites at its first meeting. It was careful to avoid the word “art”, almost as if were an obscenity. “Questioning what is art is what we wanted to get away from,” says Parker.
However, the term would regularly creep into the discussions. At one point, the head of the panel Glen Sharp referred to a work under scrutiny as “art”, then corrected himself, saying, “Excuse me, I mean graffiti.” He also made reference to “the artist” more than once. A panel member subsequently referred to “the art pieces”.
Reaching a consensus will be difficult. One building owner appeared with his lawyer to defend his graffiti covered walls, more than happy to let them stay. The panel wasn’t so sure, first opting to defer judgement, then reopening the matter before deferring it yet again. The owner was asked to reappear at the next session on 30 November. “You can’t win,” he said.
The panel had only photographs of the works to look at, and judging the subject matter could be difficult. “I’m concerned about what the character is holding in his hand,” said one member about a lion figure waving an unidentifiable object. Additional photographs were requested for the next session, to be provided 18 days before the panel sits again. But who is to say graffiti artists won’t revisit the site in the intervening time?
“If anyone thinks that an official programme will reduce graffiti, they’re sadly mistaken,” says Liss. “Many graffiti artists will intentionally not participate and continue working unsanctioned. There is a strain of thought among certain graffiti artists and taggers to ‘destroy’ and vandalise, while others see their markings as a way to claim space from ever-increasing corporate control.”
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