I was always a believer that giving people a designated space to participate in “undesirable” behavior was a more realistic approach than banning undesired behavior completely. (I’m a parent!)

A recent tour with my son’s school to Graffiti Alley had me curious if this theory could apply to graffiti, a reality most property developers deal with since large concrete walls transform into inviting vacant canvases in the kaleidoscope eyes of an artist.

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Toronto has a very well known graffiti art scene. We even have renowned graffiti artists – Spud, Uber5000, Jeff Blackburn and Elicsir (the latter of whom I had the thrill of meeting – incredible, humble & extremely talented). Legendary international names such as Bansky and Shepard Fairey, have also, graced our city.

Toronto also however, has a graffiti management plan, which started in 2011 and is a joint effort between the Toronto Police Service (TPS) and the City, whose efforts are to reduce vandalism and create safer communities . According to their website the presence of graffiti and vandalism suggests disorder and lawlessness. Graffiti vandalism can contribute to decline in property value and, more importantly, generates the perception of increased crime and fear of gang activity. Some would argue this fact. Vehemently.

There haven’t really been any official studies quantifying the financial impact graffiti has on spaces, and there turns out to be a large misconception on graffiti artists in general. Research has shown that they are not the gang related youth that many label them as. In fact, they range in age from early teens to fifty years of age, some with full time jobs and families of their own.

Nonetheless, graffiti that is not commissioned and doesn’t have permission by a property owner is deemed a crime in our city and country. Under the Criminal Code, the creation of graffiti is considered vandalism and incurs a charge of “mischief under or over $5,000.” One of the world’s largest graffiti removal companies, Goodbye Graffiti Inc., (proudly Canadian based) claims they remove approximately 250 pieces of graffiti/week in the GTA. This would explain why most developers include a budget line for graffiti removal in their project costs. And it tends to add up. On average it’s $3/sq.ft. to rid your property of defacement.

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But what if you end up liking an un-commissioned piece of art on your property? After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And art is increasingly becoming difficult to define. Should you be able to “embrace it, not erase it?” Things aren’t always that simple. By law, property owners are required to move illegal graffiti. If it’s not removed, they end up paying in the end, as the charge incurred by city workers for the removal, is charged back to the owner (often in property tax surcharges.)

With that in mind, and realizing that Street Art and/or graffiti is in fact appreciated by a select audience, the city bylaws have created a difference between illegal tagging and authorized murals that are commissioned, (the latter of which don’t fall under removal orders.) StreetArToronto is an example of this. This program’s goal is to support street art while simultaneously counteracting graffiti vandalism. Participating artists change their mindset and see first hand how they can enhance and actually “build” community. With efforts like this, you can understand how our city’s Management program is a national award winner. Others are catching on to this opportunity.

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The City of Toronto Municipal Code Chapter 485, Graffiti also allows for regularization of an art mural or graffiti art “when it is installed with the property owner’s permission, adheres to community character and standards, and aesthetically enhances the surface that it covers.”

One Toronto condo developer that was responsible for a sound barrier wall at Queen and Dufferin that was repeatedly being tagged, turned to local artists to paint a commissioned mural, that was a much more appealing aesthetic to local residents and passers-by. The defacement stopped. It turns out there’s a great respect among graffiti artists and their public works.

Some developers are incorporating art in to their properties at even earlier stages, as was the plan at Harbour Plaza, when the developer salvaged a stenciled Bansky that was left behind on a 2010 visit to Toronto.

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Bansky Image (Source: UrbanToronto.ca)

Whether you’re a fan or a foe, it’s a part of our city that isn’t going away. As always, a best decision is always an informed one, so I’d suggest taking the tour I mentioned. I can promise that you’ll come out wiser on the subject.  Unfortunately, that won’t serve as a solution to the controversies that it continues to stir among the city, our law enforcement and our artists. And if you need help finding the beauty in all of it, just consider the origin of the word itself, which like most things in life, sounds more beautiful in italian – graffiato (“scratched”).

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