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The graffiti debate

A number of years ago, I did extensive research into the culture of graffiti by interviewing artists, talking with doctors, lawyers, health and safety experts, the police, store owners, home owners, politicians, and many others.  Though I focused on Toronto artists,  I also looked into the graffiti culture of different countries around the world. 

Graffiti is quite possibly the most complex and highly evolved “art form” the world has ever seen in terms of development in such a short period of time. That speaks volumes about its relevance, what drives it and how people respond to it. It is an injustice to look at a wall superficially and dismiss it as nothing more than vandalism or a bit of paint on a static outdoor surface. There are layers upon layers of stories underneath; filled with a richness and humanity the average person rarely touches upon.

Many forms of art are nicely packaged and presented, whilst graffiti retains its raw energy. Just look at how it has seeped into various levels of culture. Ad companies are paying artists to create logos and designs with a `graff base` to give their product both street cred and to appeal to a specific demographic. Society rails against it on the one hand, yet totally and unashamedly `borrows` (steals) from it when they believe its image and association may increase their profits or make inroads with consumers. A bit hypocritical, yet it happens all the time. I have yet to hear of any companies who litter neighbourhoods with illegal ads get any flack.


Describe graffiti culture: do artists tend to operate solo, or is there a tight knit community? It is entirely dependant on the artist and his or her personal preference, personality and situation… amongst many other considerations. Everyone is different. Both scenarios prevail. Each artist’s motivation is unique to them. In a very general way, it can be said that fame and acknowledgement within the graff community is a strong motivator. Note that I specify “within the graff community” as the appreciation of the general public is not usually a priority. Especially if they don’t even understand what the artist goes through to get to the point of creating a piece. Lack of understanding often leads to a lack of appreciation when it comes to graffiti. To be fair, this is not always the case. There are many who will look at a piece and be captivated, see the brilliance, the artistry, the richness, the detail, the work and the technique that went into it. This of course can be said of any art form or style. One does not have to be an expert to appreciate it if it moves you, speaks to you in some way or captures your heart, mind or spirit. Is this not what ALL art is about after all?

Technique and technical knowledge: Can control (as in spraycan) and technique alone takes a LOT of practice, trial and error as well as an investment in time and energy to master. Not everyone develops their skills enough to create those amazing pieces (”piece” is short for ”masterpiece” which refers to largescale highly detailed graffiti). Not to mention the knowledge you need to build up around paints, colours, perspective, oil/water/acrylic and how to mix or prep for painting over these. How many people can reproduce a sketch from a small paper 50 times its size on a static wall… and often in the dark? This level of skill does not magically happen overnight.

For me, the term “art” is something a person’s spirit drives them to create (for whatever reason) and which resonates with you, then it’s art. If it causes you to feel something, rethink something, question something, or speak about the “elephant in the room,” well, that’s a pretty good starting definition of “art” to me.

You might be surprised to find that many artists have degrees in art, engineering, music or economics, to name a few. Some even lead very ”normal” lives with spouses, children and day jobs.


When and how do artists paint? There are a variety of factors which determine when or how an artist ”works.” Each artist and “piece” is different, as is the political climate or environment at the time they paint. These are just some of the factors involved in determining when and where to paint.

Each artist has his or her own processes and reasons. The ideal “canvas” or surface for one may not be the ideal for another. It is truly individual. Some prefer concrete, some brick, some metal. Also, each type of surface comes with its own set of challenges; some are harder to paint on and require significantly more skill with the can to pull off well. Others are easier but require more prep time. Temperature may also be a consideration, as is the type of paint used, the kind of surface to be painted on, weather conditions, base coats, and the type of paint the wall already has on it (i.e. oil, water or acrylic). There are many considerations.

I often get questions surrounding those aspects of graffiti which are most often portrayed in the media such as the perception that it is strictly vandalism. To be fair… it IS a relevant point.

So where do I draw the line between art and vandalism? It’s a case by case scenario. Sometimes they’re both. Context also plays a big part of that answer, along with personal preferences. A beautiful graff tag (signature) may make a stunning addition to a particular area depending on the colour, style and it’s positioning within its outdoor environment. That same tag may be offensive if placed in a space deemed inappropriate by the viewer… even if they feel the tag by itself is stylish and beautiful. Then there are what people would consider really ugly tags or graff. Usually it’s the more unrefined, toy tags created by beginners of the art form… or just really crude bombers who are not interested in stylized graffiti, just plastering their name across the city.

On the flip side, where do we draw the line between companies littering our green spaces with ads we don’t want to have in our faces, outside our windows, next to our parks? Illegal ads, I might add. Why aren’t they being called out just as much?


Rather than simply talking about graffiti, I encourage people to experience it first. Besides generalities which one could read online, one must keep in mind the ephemeral nature of graffiti. It is good to have a basic understanding, as education is an important way to keep the dialogue open, but don’t let your mind take over and keep you from following the “bread crumbs” leading into a street with stunning, unapologetic, creative human expression. Go out and walk around people! Stray from your usual work or school paths and see what that “bit of paint” on the side of a building may lead to. You may very well find yourself rewarded with truly inspiring art. Be open to it, explore, get off the bus, get out of your car, get off the streetcar and walk a different route today. You never know what you may find.

Graffiti, like all forms of art is extremely subjective; beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. On a very superficial level with no background understanding of it, one can say that some of it is quite stunning, and other aspects irritating in certain contexts. To look beyond the superficial one finds a highly complex and hierarchical society, a part of our cityscape which is all around us yet goes unnoticed by most. From an urban anthropological standpoint, the evolution of graffiti is very telling and interesting. The story of each cities’ graffiti is also a story about the times and social aspects (welfare/programs/citizen satisfaction/living conditions etc.) of that particular city. It is partially a reflection of what is happening in that particular city at that time.

Political graffiti, for example, strives to give hope to a people who are repressed/oppressed and feel they cannot speak their truth. The artists are taking a huge risk (this often includes jail time and death) to go out and paint a wall to uplift their communities, to help lift their spirits and give encouragement and hope. This is incredibly important work which, in North America, tends to be greatly misunderstood, especially since we are lucky enough to live in a political climate which does not demand such things of us. Such artists are (rightly so) much respected and appreciated.

There is also a deep level of apathy in North America which does not help the situation. This apathy is reflected in our politics, general health care, education and many of the social constructs which superficially, appears to be the foundation for any city. Graffiti, whether one considers it a positive part of their city, or just a nuisance, has a story to tell, and a worthy one at that. It can be a tremendous source of inspiration, and encouragement. It adds a depth of richness to urban life that is not to be found indoors. It engages its audience in ways you won’t find at an art gallery. These artists practice and practice and practice, they spend their own money, time and efforts on their art with no obvious “payback” or expectation of it in the traditional sense. Can you image how sterile a city with absolutely no outdoor art/graffiti/murals would seem? Nothing but perfectly manicured lawns, cookie cutter houses and everything painted a safe shade of beige? Personally, I think that when a city looks “too clean” it hints at something unhealthy being hidden beneath the surface. Graffiti shows a healthy level of interaction, of people expressing themselves, and surely this type of creative expression is better than repression. It shows a vibrant city that is alive, where citizens are engaged… or at the very least aware of the cracks in the system and feel motivated enough to do something to add to it’s richness and diversity.


So does that mean it’s ok to paint your name on someone else’s garage door? No. None of what I just stated about art and creativity justifies vandalism. It is a very real aspect of the scene, but usually the only aspect portrayed and talked about in the media.

How do you respond to the City of Toronto’s current approach to graffiti? I sympathise with store and homeowners who have to scrub anything off their walls or deal with advertising they don’t connect with. That goes with murals, ad campaigns and other forms of advertising, not just graffiti.

Take a look at what other cities have tried, for a start. Look at how New York has attempted to “handle” graffiti in the past 40 years. What worked, what did not, and why? A little research would have helped. Now I have no doubt the Mayor genuinely believes that some of what he is working on is for the good of the city. He, like every person, has a right to their opinion, but when approaching a subject as “slippery” as graffiti, it requires more openness, dialogue and research, amongst other things. As Mike Young states in Toronto Graffiti: the human behind the wall, “Any city that thinks it can eradicate graffiti is delusional.”

Is it right to tell (not ask!) a home or business owner to paint over anything on their walls which isn’t sanctioned by the City within 72 hours or risk having the City send out it’s own painters and then send you the bill through your taxes? No. In fact, not only is that not fair, it smacks of favouritism (and elitism) towards those with money and those who cannot afford to fight back. What if you are an elderly person living on a small pension? How can you expect him or her to get up on a ladder and paint over a piece or tag and use their own money to pay for all the materials? This is not only inefficient, it is thoughtless. And what if that lovely elderly person enjoys the mural and even commissioned it? What then? Who are you to say they can’t have it? Of course, if the reverse were the case and that person’s home got tagged and the owner hated it… well yes, that is totally unfair and thoughtless on the part of the graffiti artists too. But it’s a two way street and not always as clear cut as it may appear from the outside.

Let’s turn this around; do you see this being the case with advertising in the form of billboards, murals, outdoor ads of various types put out by corporations which, in most cases is completely illegally? No. And do you know why not? Money and connections. The big companies and corporations have the money and clout so they are left alone by the City. They get away with their brand of vandalism. Make no mistake, that is just as much a case for vandalism as anything else put into the public domain. I have yet to hear of any corporation which was made accountable for their blatant misuse of public space.

And what about those home and business owners who really love graffiti? There are numerous cases where artists were commissioned and paid by the home or business owner to paint on their walls only to be told by the City to remove it. I’ve spoken with many owners about this. One in particular had a cafe in a part of town where the locals were all very much art friendly and felt it would be very appropriate. Her patrons loved the new look and it certainly helped create an open, community feel to her space. The City told her to paint over it. She refused as she paid for the commissioned piece and wanted the graff “mural” there. She felt it was unjust to have someone tell her what is and isn’t appropriate art for her establishment. The City sent “officials” to look at it and determine if it could qualify as a mural rather than graffiti.

Currently, the only way you can get around the ”no graffiti” by-law is if you request an exemption under the mural act. I called the City and asked about the qualifications of the people the City sends out to determine if your art qualifies for an exemption. Guess what? They are common citizens with NO background in art, and certainly no understanding of the difference between graffiti, urban art and murals! Personally I think that’s ridiculous. How can you send out a so-called professional, informed and educated group of folks to determine the legitimacy of any style of art if they don’t have any understanding of it? Truly, is this not a bit ridiculous? Again, we are right back to the original point of art being subjective. So if these “professionals” like it well enough, can read it, and don’t feel it is threatening, they’ll endorse your request for an exemption. If they don’t, they’ll have the City enforce its “72 hour paint over” notice which YOU pay for. Lovely.

Most graffiti font is highly stylized to the point that non artists have a hard time reading it. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean you should demonize it. Would you demonize stylized gothic script from a 15th century manuscript you couldn’t read? Would you demonize the painting, photograph or art piece that contained a non Roman alphabet? (Cyrillic, Kanji, Hiragana, Rovás irás, Sanskrit etc.) You don’t have to like something to appreciate its history, incredibly impressive development, it’s place in urban anthropology, deep levels of social resilience and the people who created this with pretty much nothing coming to them on a silver platter. In fact, most didn’t even get a platter.

Expression is a fundamental human quality. To stifle this is impossible. It is human nature. Not even a government can keep people from feeling a need to express themselves. At least not for long. They need to first of all learn much more about the art form and its history, and then find ways to work with it, not against it. Graffiti is not going to be disappearing any time soon. To attempt to eradicate a form of human expression is indeed, delusional. Does the City have a right to want to keep its spaces clean and safe for its citizens and all who visit? Absolutely. But most of its actions seem to be a reaction based in fear and misunderstanding. How often do I hear the “broken window” argument… which, by the way has been proven time and time again to be incorrect when it comes to graffiti. The argument about it being gang related and how people won’t want to live in an area with graffiti because of the fear or suggestion of gang activity thus being present is ridiculous. Graffiti artists and gangs do not mix. This is an important point so I’ll say it again… graffiti artists are NOT gang members.


How should the City of Toronto be handling graffiti? First, it needs to educate itself. They should look at how other cities handle working with their artists. Look at what Brazil is doing, look at what Chile is doing, look at what Spain and Germany are doing, look outside of the typical North American box because frankly, it hasn’t been working so you need to look beyond Canada and the U.S to see other creative, inclusive resolutions, and broaden your perspectives. There are also many suggestions from actual artists as well, some of which include the creation of legal walls, and of having graffiti art and history classes at schools as part of their art curriculum amongst other ideas. I do need to point out that if the City is trying to create mandates to control the art form, not only will this not be possible, it’s also a waste of time. (And taxpayers’ money) They need to keep in mind the reasons behind doing graff: some artists will never be interested in doing legal work no matter how you put it to them or approach the situation, and that’s just the “nature of the beast.” You can save yourself a lot of frustration by keeping this one little fact in mind at all times.

Is it important to preserve graffiti? What would your response to this be if you changed the word “graffiti” to baroque, impressionism, dada, pop art, photography, contemporary/conceptual art, symbolism, fauvism, classical music, cubism, post-war sculpture, constructivism, futurism, architectural/geometric art, art nouveau, sacred geometry, realism, pointillism, romanticism, renaissance art, prehistoric art… etc.? You get the picture. Art is a form of expression; graffiti is not outside of this realm. The historic and social elements of a society which aid or underlie the development of any art form or expression is a crucial part of the understanding of that particular form of art. The reverse of that axiom is also true: art is often a direct reflection of its environments’ historic, social and political climate during the time of it’s development. There is no better proof of that than in history. Many forms of art in their beginnings were little understood or appreciated. Nor were they produced in a fashion which was customary of other forms of art of that time period, nor readily acceptable or popular. This is a very large question with deep social and anthropological implications.

What are the main challenges involved in protecting graffiti? Why do you feel it needs to be protected? Do you think the artists who created their art feel this way? Do you not think they readily understand that the nature of graffiti is one of impermanence? Do you think they have not come to terms with this or expect it? When you say “protect” what exactly do you mean? What does the protection of an art form mean for you? Taking photos and creating an archive for future generations to enjoy? Getting artists to paint on structures or items such as canvass (but then that would no longer be considered graffiti) that can be placed behind glass or placed in museums? Is the protection of graffiti art done for the (so-called) benefit of the artist, the art form or for the curious public? The bottom line will define the approach so this needs to be really clear. Who will benefit and how? Or is this because graffiti art is now becoming recognised as a “respectable/legitimate” art form (by people who for the most part don’t even understand it) in its own right and the desire to preserve, document and learn more about it is driving this question? Who is asking the question: museum curators, pop culture enthusiasts, City officials?

I have to say, I have never, ever heard a graff artist say they feel a strong need to protect their work, that they got into this because they wanted to create art that would be around forever, that they wanted to share it with the public and ensure it would not be damaged, or that they want the general public to “get it” and respond in some way… thus requiring some sort of “protecting.” On another note, they tend to be fiercely protective about their respect when it comes to other artists painting over them, but that is an ENTIRELY different matter. They do it for themselves and recognition from their peers. They could care less what the general public thinks. This is graffiti after all, not a 2 million dollar Rodin where the context is completely different. Now that is in NO WAY saying that graffiti isn’t just as important or legitimate as any other forms of art or expensive pieces you see in museums… (See any Banksy’s lately?) so don’t misquote me on that or take this out of context. What I’m saying is that the focus and approach is radically different. One cannot compare apples and oranges, as the math analogy goes. Without a common denominator it is a pointless exercise. Thus, all these questions are significantly more complex that one might expect. You would actually get a much more straightforward response if it WAS a Rodin we were talking about. Now think about that for a moment. Why is that?

Your response to that question will put into perspective a lot of the “graffiti debates.” Artists are intelligent, hard working, undervalued, passionate and very much human. Demonizing and misrepresenting what is superficially seen on a wall without even an attempt to understand it better is a disservice to both you and the artist. Be open! Learn more; see what incredible art Toronto (and other places around the world) freely share with anyone willing to take “the road less travelled.” You will be rewarded ten-fold.

Graffiti artists, like anyone, are human and like to be acknowledged and appreciated. But don’t for minute think they care too much or cry over what the public thinks. They see what’s going on, they see how their art is being used, they are very aware of what is happening on many social and political levels. They didn’t “get into” graffiti because they wanted to be popular in school or make money in a gallery. Not originally anyhow. In North America, historically it evolved out of Hip Hop culture, which evolved out of a climate of complex political, cultural and social factors too broad to lay out here. This has definitely changed over the decades. The last ten years or so especially has seen the emergence of middle class white males with plenty of money of their own getting into painting on walls for the “cool factor.” Yep, I said it… middle class white boys with money. No, I’m not “classist” or racist, just pointing out how the culture of graffiti seems to be evolving, in Toronto at least. The fact that corporations have gotten into the habit of appropriating graffiti for their bottom line has no doubt pushed some of this social phenomena into that direction. So then, let’s move on because frankly, if we don’t then we’ll still be going around in circles with the very same debates 30 years from now. That would be both sad and disappointing, even more so because all the richness and vibrancy of graffiti would be overlooked by getting caught up in the “smoke screens.”


My friend La Bomba, who is a major contributor of the book ”Toronto Graffiti: the human behind the wall” and an incredible multidisciplinary artist, recently did an interview with Rogers Cable T.V. In it she describes some of the elements that propelled graffiti not only in Toronto, but in general as an art form. Definitely check it out. She is incredibly talented, passionate, heartfelt and deeply authentic. I never cease to be amazed and inspired by her spirit. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xe2ubFsUh_0&feature=youtu.be

Public reaction: This book has been featured in the Globe and Mail twice, as well as CBC radio and a variety of local, national and international media outlets. It is currently being used as reference material by the City of Toronto, sold at the York University bookstore and picked up by professors at the University of Toronto, Ryerson Polytechnic University and showcased at Centennial College. The Toronto Public Library has also purchased several books to add to their collection. This book is also a part of The National Library of Canada. It is widely becoming known as a deeply insightful, authentic work with significant socio-political, anthropological and historical perspectives.

I am not a spokesperson for graffiti culture, nor am I a graffiti artist. I am a complete outsider with tremendous appreciation for the art form and simply put, LOVE graffiti in all its “rawness.” I do not speak for any artist or for the culture, but I do get irked when it gets an unfair bad rap, ripped off by multi-billion dollar companies and misrepresented in the press. Yes, vandalism is a very real aspect of the culture, there is no denying that, but there is also a lot of richness and depth which often goes unnoticed, not talked about or downplayed.


I was insanely curious about the people who created these incredible works of art. I wanted to know more about them, what drove them, how they came to develop their skills, and what it was about. There were stories behind the walls, and I wanted to know those stories. First hand.

I wanted to hear it straight from the people who had the passion and drive to do this. The more I realized what went into “the walls” and how they came to be, the more impressed I became. There are riches upon riches in our cities that few ever explore.

I spent a little over ten years doing extensive research into graffiti culture by going straight to the source. Pioneers in the graf scene in Toronto, Canada. This was the book I had wanted to read since I was a very young teen. I searched for a book like this for years but never found anything like it. Eventually, circumstances lined up in such a way that allowed for me to have the opportunity to work with some amazing artists to create ”Toronto Graffiti: the human behind the wall.”

You can find out more by visiting the website at: www.torontograffiti.ca.

Thanks for reading.

Now please get up from your computer and go outside to look for some gorgeous graff!


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