Destruction vs. Art Part II: The Case of the Toronto Graffiti Abatement Program

A Film by Banksy, about Banksy sort of...

A Film by Banksy, about Banksy sort of…

Following my first article for this publication a friend of mine approached me with a movie watching suggestion. The film he presented to me was made by a famous graffiti artist known simply as Banksy entitled Exit Through the Gift Shop. This Film chronicles an obsessive film maker’s quest to meet and study the elusive Banksy himself, with a surprising twist at the end. In said documentary the question is posed of what graffiti can be classified as actually art, in keeping with its street art moniker, as well as if it deserves a place next to the Andy Warhols, Dalis, and other artists’ pieces as respected art in its own rite.

As I had mentioned in my previous instalment, it is a never ending dilemma when trying to categorize examples of graffiti as either art or plain vandalism, just as it is difficult to label one artistic work as true art while discrediting others as not. Who is to say what is relevant and what is disposable? This struggle could not be more important in the city of Toronto right now, as newly elected Mayor Rob Ford (@TOMayorFord) has set himself up as a villain to many self proclaimed street artists.

Ford launched a “graffiti crackdown” last month that has many up in arms, and with this crackdown comes the same old questions. As the city delivers notices to various businesses and households to clean up the graffiti on their establishments or face a fine, many of these citizens are applying for special status for these pieces to be deemed art murals. To ascertain whether or not they qualify can be somewhat challenging though as the legislation can be pretty broad in detailing the qualifications. The following is an excerpt from the Graffiti Abatement Program on the City of Toronto website:

Graffiti is defined in the Graffiti Bylaw as one or more letters, symbols, figures, etching, scratches, inscriptions, stains, or other markings that disfigure or deface a structure or thing, howsoever made or otherwise affixed on the structure or thing, but, for greater certainty, does not include an art mural.

An art mural is defined as a mural for a designated surface and location that has been deliberately implemented for the purpose of beautifying the specific location.

Rob Ford graffiti. Just one reaction to his crackdown

Besides including one of my most hated practises by using the very word being defined in the definition itself (for those following along, the word was mural…mural. Glad you’re all still with me ;) ) we once again return to who qualifies each piece in question as a mural? Is it a selection from the street art world? Is it the police? Is it the residents in the community? The answer to that question is not plainly visible, yet could consist of all of the above. Once a complaint is made about graffiti, a police officer will then go out and assess whether the piece falls under graffiti or art mural definitions. If they decide it is graffiti, a notice is issued. If the owner does not remove the graffiti themselves they will be charged a fee for the city to remove it for them.

In order for the Graffiti to be classed as an art mural, a community council is called forth to assess the case. In many cases the obvious decision will be made where the owner commissioned a piece of art on their property from a street artist, or the piece is very obviously of the “mural persuasion.” The problem here lies in the substantially grey area of attempting to classify and quantify art. In doing so one removes all purpose, soul and passion from the act of making the art. Also by removing graffiti en masse, the city is actually inviting more graffiti in outrage. The following quote was taken from a Globe and Mail (@GLOBEANDMAIL) article in discussion with a local Toronto graffiti shop owner:

Shawn Jones, known as Zion and the owner of the Toronto-based graffiti supply store Bombshelter, said he had a meeting with Mr. Ford in which he warned the mayor that cleaning off graffiti is a great strategy to invite more of it.

“If you blank out a wall, you’re just going to call for more vandalism. For us, that’s very basic knowledge and information,” Zion said. “The vandal community is now having a heyday.”

there are some great pieces that don’t always fit the art mural criteria, whatever that is

This heyday includes some rather clever images of Ford eating spray cans and other humorous images.

It is commendable that some of the street art will be retained and protected as art murals, but what of other pieces that are equally intricate but don’t fall into the subjective, and not very well defined definition for “art murals.” It is in fact slightly unfair that graffiti is allowed such a large and detailed definition in comparison to the qualifications that would help to preserve what could be deemed as worthwhile. There’s a side of me that never wants art to be quantifiable, but another side of me needs it to be so that beautiful pieces by talented artists can be protected and enjoyed by the art community.

This is all a step in the right direction, though two steps back seem to be taken in regards to the crackdown, but more needs to be done. These artists all need an outlet, so let’s provide them with that. There will always be nonsensical tagging, or maybe the dicktation tag from Summer Heights High will see a resurgence, but the more we commission talented street artists to work their magic for businesses and residences alike, the less vandalism will occur. This is not an uncommon occurrence anyway. Many businesses have continually hired street artists to paint murals, or even chalk artists doing ever changing artwork for restaurants and businesses fall under the same category. The pieces will never be permanent, and can always be commissioned to be renewed by other artists after they fade, or if they are tagged over. This renewable beauty will deter from tagging and offensive graffiti, as each artist will respect the others work, or look for a blank canvas somewhere else.

Shepard with the piece that made him very famous. You might recognize it.

Street art has become a valuable commodity in the fine art world. For evidence of this just look to the film mentioned earlier, Exit Through the Gift Shop, where talented artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey (@obeygiant) have become iconic and respected in their gallery showings and work, respectively. Even talentless hacks like the movie’s featured filmmaker gone street artist MBW (aka Thierry Guetta, or Mister Brain Wash) have made impressive showings in the gallery world. MBW’s first big gallery show, and it truly was big even if the vast majority of the pieces were made by others and complete tripe, raked in huge amounts of cash and attendees for a self proclaimed street artist. There is no denying the value of street art, even if some of it leaves something to be desired. Who are we to place a value on art, or label something as being garbage? Many would disagree with me, and say that MBW’s pieces are true art. In fact, many did, just look at the cover of Madonna’s greatest hits album for proof. It was done by MBW himself, and just like Madonna, it signifies the raping of an industry for personal gain, with no true ingenuity or talent.

My personal tastes aside, this is a community that needs to be fostered, not destroyed. I urge the community to fight back, not through vandalism, but by helping these great artists find a voice.

Borrowed from pretty much every street artist, MBW has no style of his own.


Toronto is holding a town Hall meeting on May 31st to tackle these questions. The public is invited, so go show your support. Zion and Toronto art advisor Jeff Melanson will be in attendance and speaking on the panel.

For information on Exit Through The Gift Shop go here, or watch on Netflix as I did.

For an interesting video on the bombshelter and graffiti in T.O. click here

For the G&M article featuring Zion click here

Click here to visit the official website for the Bomb Shelter at. http://www.bombingscience.com/graffiti-shop.htm

Banksy was in the news again recently, for more click here

For info on the Toronto Graffiti Abatement Program, go here

What are your thoughts? I want to know. How did you like Exit Through the Gift Shop?

Comment below, or follow me at @Ninjahguru on your twitter machine

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