Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing. "

I walk by the Christie Pits park sign pretty much every day, at least once. If you haven't noticed it before, it's on the North-West corner of the park. It's rather nice.

The first time I noticed that someone had vandalized the sign to say "Fake Bits Park" I laughed.

I thought it was funny because I assumed some kid did it and what kid decides to use the word 'bits'? Hilarious. That was months and months and months ago. This graffiti popped up long before Rob Ford became Mayor and started to bum rush "vandalism" and graffiti in Toronto.

Before Rob Ford's very first City Council address, I thought the sign was hilarious for awhile then (like all things that you see every single day in the city), I got sick of it. But I wasn't about to scrub that shit off myself so I just ignored it. I spend a lot of time in Christie Pits Park and a bit of graffiti on the sign doesn't really affect my enjoyment of it so, you know, whatever.

According to the new Graffiti Management Plan 2011, which the City adopted awhile ago, Mayor Ford's first inaugural address "targeted the need to clean up Toronto's streets and neighborhoods and reduce the amount of graffiti across the city." Ford wanted part of his legacy to be the cleaning up of our streets. Not the actual dirt on our streets, the cigarette butts, not the rats, the prolific pigeon that seems to shit on EVERYTHING, or the dog poop on the sidewalks. No, his legacy would be the eradication of evil graffiti. Because graffiti scares the Mayor. It really, really scares him.

Apparently the "presence of graffiti vandalism suggests disorder and lawlessness, generates the perception of increased crime, fear of gang activity, and diminishes buildings and streets." (I don't exactly know what "diminishes buildings and streets" means.. diminish the value? maybe that's a mistake..) . The Mayor doesn't want people thinking that Toronto is some kind of wild, criminal urban jungle. When he sees graffiti he sees the Los Angeles of BladeRunner or, worse, the parallel Universe from the Super Mario Brothers movie. He sees crime because he thinks people who tag are criminals, and he sees gang activity because he thinks criminals are all in gangs.

A lot of Mayors and City officials try to take on vandalism, and a lot of city residents report vandalism, and that will never change. The problem with what happened in Toronto(and what continues to happen), is that the attempt to clean up the streets became a 'shoot first, ask questions later' kind of thing. Mayor Ford sent out the armies of the City full force, handing out citations left and right, and assigning more fines than they have in a very long time.

In 2010 the city received 2,215 complaints about graffiti. After increasing enforcement, 4,338 notices have been issued--and the year isn't even close to being over yet.

He's a man of action! True to his word!

No, actually, he's an idiot. People ("criminals") never get busted tagging. You know who got fucked by Ford's war? Business owners. Property owners. According to the by law, once you are served with a notice to remove graffiti from your property, you have 72 hours to comply or received a fine/be billed for City removal.

The Queen West BIA(business improvement areas) has a contract with a Graffiti removal company that costs $36,000 a year--but the contract only covers the fronts of buildings and won't go higher than ten feet. Anything in the alleys or higher than ten feet is up to the property owner to clean up. Rob Sysak, the President of Queen W BIA told Council yesterday that the initial quote for a Queen W. alley clean up was $50'000 to start, and would run an additional $50'000 to keep it free of graffiti annually. That's a pretty steep price to pay for business owners(or property owners) who might not care about the graffiti or who might see it as something other than vandalism. Not everyone wants to see grey washed alleys and walls, but if you don't comply with your notice then you'll be billed irregardless.

I live in KoreaTown and the Korea Town BIA has put a lot of work into the neighborhood, including commissioning little murals on all of the cement planters along the street. How much money can businesses reasonably be expected to put into their neighborhoods? What happens when BIA's are continually undertaking beautification projects but are still being punished because someone tags their storefront? When Rob Ford declared his war on vandalism and talked about how much he respects taxpayers, did he consider the fact that making taxpayers pay extra for something they have no control over is kind of a dick move?

Going on a graffiti removal rampage because of your own personal conviction is one thing, but it's become obvious that the people Ford is apparently fighting for are the ones paying for his rampage. If business owners and property owners can be fined for not removing tags, does the same thing apply when they refuse to clean up pigeon shit? Or, when they don't install pigeon deterrents? For example: The Free Times Cafe has a serious problem with pigeons roosting above their sign. That sign is directly above their "patio", which means people who are sitting on the patio often get pooped on, have pigeons land on their chairs and tables, or have feathers fall into their food. So the owner of that property could get fined for not cleaning a tag from their cement wall, but not for allowing vermin to take over their food service area? My landlord has to power wash spray paint, but can get away with leaving an inch of bird crap on our windowsills? That's just wacky logic!

Other people get fucked by this graffiti garbage: Artists. Like it or not, a lot of people consider graffiti to be art. A lot of people who do graffiti are considered artists. Some of them don't even do it anonymously. So when the Mayor writes a blank cheque for graffiti removal, some people get a bit overzealous and start removing things they shouldn't-- like murals, that the city may or may not have paid for, without notifying anyone. The war on vandalism becomes an excuse to attack art that some people might not like, or art with messages that some people don't agree with.

Case in point, the train underpass on Dupont west of Landsdowne:

Artist Joel Richardson was paid to paint a mural on North wall of the underpass and he proceeded to paint one on the South wall as well. Two for One! You'd think that in a city of penny pinchers this would be appreciated. Not so. The mural on the South wall was grey washed in late May--but why? According to Elyse Parker, a director in the city's transportation services department, a resident complained about the mural because of its political nature. Parker told the Toronto Star that "there was some discussion that the mural referred to Stephen Harper" and the city "would not endorse any kind of mural with political messaging." That, along with the fact that the South wall mural was not commissioned by the city meant that they could just paint over it without notifying the community or the artist, or even the City Councillor(who did not support the removal of the mural, after the fact).

What? The city won't endorse any art with political messaging? Never mind the fact that the man in the mural wasn't modelled on Stephen Harper, even the hint that it might him spurs such a reactionary course of action? Since when are we not allowed to make political commentary about the Prime Minister? In a healthy city, a healthy society, there are a lot of opinions and they are all voiced and aired in public. Good art is critical. Quelling critical opinion is not a sign of a healthy democracy and erasing dissent really shouldn't be tolerated because there's a word for a system that disallows critique: it's called fascism.

Obviously, people weren't crazy about this new vandalism regime and people started complaining a lot which is why they adopted the new Graffiti Management Plan 2011 last month. Not a whole lot is different, except now they throw around "private-public" a lot and talk about how youths should be encouraged to graffiti only in specified areas and only city-approved graffiti art should remain. The main shift is that the new policy clearly defines that exceptions can be made for "street art", that there is a difference between murals and vandalism.
At the meeting in question, some pretty hilarious stuff happened:

  • One city councillor (de Baeremaeker) suggested that people don't take the Scarborough LRT because of unsightly graffiti. He also said that the mayor's graffiti program "may rival or surpass Mel Lastman's mooses" in encouraging public art(And no, this Councillor is not 75 years old).
  • Councillor Nunziata asked to be corrected if she was wrong, but wasn't most graffiti "gang related"?
  • The Crime Prevention Association of Toronto told Council that graffiti-ed areas are safe for "shooting up, committing prostitution" and that the first sign of a burgeoning vandal is a child doodling at school, that they must teach kids it is unacceptable to doodle. TO DOODLE.
  • The Plan requests that the Chief of Police prioritize the delivery of the new anti-graffiti education program throughout Toronto's schools.
The mooses? Doodling? Gangs? Who are these people running our city? They want to prioritize the delivery of anti-graffiti education programs in Toronto's schools? What about prioritizing actual education?!

These are exactly the problems with making a priority out of graffiti. How can the city justify attacking something that they obviously don't understand? How can the city be the one deciding what stays on the walls when some of them think the epitome of public art are those goddamned, hideous Moose? This war focuses on the wrong areas, it makes a big deal out of little problems, it criminalizes something that is barely criminal, it takes our focus off of actual issues, it's a waste of money, and it's all just for show. It's the worst of band-aid solutions.

To be fair, I think there are a few positive things that have come out of this whole mess: 1) it creates dialogue about city space and 2) it motivates people to react with more art. The above picture is of a wall re-"vandalized" after it was power washed by Ford himself during a photo-op.

The sign I walk by every day is a city sign, in a city park, and yet the city hasn't cleaned it. So what's this all about then**, if they aren't going to deal with the things that are right in front of their eyes? Mayor Ford, what's up with the graffiti war?

**to be fair, I tweeted about the sign in Christie Pits Park and my City Councillor--Mike Layton--tweeted back that it's been brought to the attention of Parks staff. However, that was about a month ago and as of this morning(July 11), the vandalism is still there. I also tweeted the sign to Mayor Ford's "official" account as well. No response.

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