Friday, February 4, 2011

In Defence of Graffiti

When I was in St. Petersburg, Russia just before the G8 in the summer of 2007, I stalked the streets of that ancient city snapping pictures left and right. I have pictures of beautiful churches, canals, and monuments. I have soviet-era apartment blocks and crammed, twisted streets. I have pictures of ornate castles, with so much gold that it's almost hard to look at them in the sun. But those aren't the pictures that I love the most. The pictures that I love the most are of the graffiti.

Every so often a politician vows to clean up a city's graffiti. Rob Ford has made it his personal task to see all the graffiti eliminated in Toronto within six months of taking office--a truly ridiculous proposition on par with other never-ending, amorphous battles like America's "war on drugs". He argues that a graffiti-free city is 'clean' and business-friendly (if I was to engage Ford on the business-friendly front, I could invoke Richard Florida and claim that graffiti is a sign of a vibrant creative class--but that's another story).

A city should not simply be a vehicle for business. It's built environment should not be seen only as a conduit for making money, but as the arena in which citizens interact with each other, with their society, with the world. Part of this interaction is expression through forms of art.

[photo taken in Los Angeles]

I will not even dive into the vandalism vs. art debate that surrounds graffiti like an eternal haze (I could call huge, sprawling advertisements clinging like some second skin to the side of a building as simply state-sanctioned vandalism). That conversation is a dead end. We shouldn't be asking ourselves: is it art? is it vandalism? We should be asking ourselves: what would our city be without it?

Erasing Toronto's graffiti is akin to erasing part of its cultural history, part of its democratic expression, its conversation with its residents. A city is not static, but an ever-changing, morphing entity and attempts to rein this in run the risk of stifling what makes cities alluring in the first place. Imagine the alley behind Queen St scrubbed clean. Is it better off? What do we lose?

[photo taken in graffiti alley behind Queen St.]

Graffiti is what gives a city part of its character, its history, its contradictions. What was particularly intoxicating about the graffiti in St. Petersburg was the juxtaposition of the newness of the colourful sprayed paint with the intense oldness of the rest of the city. It was a mash of history, of time lines, of layers of society. Some of it was ugly, true. Some of it, given the impending G8, was political. But all of it added to the complexity of my experience to the city. Here was a city that was ancient, but throbbing and alive as well, evolving and living on the walls in dashes of colour.

Now the City has issued a notice to the Evergreen Brick Works site to clean up the graffiti on the walls there, some of which has been there for 30 years. Attending a walking tour of the site a few months ago, one of the architects on the project remarked that keeping the graffiti was an important part of the preservation of the history of the site. He rightly saw it not as an act of vandalism (which legally, it is), but as a crucial moment in the site's rich history. Erasing the graffiti, would be like knocking down one of the site's walls. There, as in St. Petersburg, the contrast between the old, industrial buildings and vibrant, fluid colour is striking. Without it, the site would lose that contrast.

Not all graffiti is great. Tagging--which is like running around and writing your name in everyone else's underwear--can be crude and decidedly unartistic. But even tagging, layered over time as it is on many buildings on Spadina, creates a kind of depth, a collage.

OK, so I said I wasn't going to get into the vandalism vs. art debate, but I do have to say after all this that I understand the frustration of businesses and residents who have found their property 'defaced' by graffiti. I'm not arguing that we should never clean up graffiti, or that all of it merits protection. I am arguing that despite whether you view it as art or not, graffiti has a purpose in the city that needs to be recognized. It contributes to the contrast between old and new, often blending them together. Part of the allure is how it seems situated in time, but also completely unbound by it. How old is some of that graffiti anyway? Do we really know? Graffiti is at once a documentation and an ongoing conversation.

A graffiti-free city is a silent city.

[photo taken at the Evergreen Brick Works]

1 comment:

  1. The amount of graffiti in Toronto impressed me throughly as well as the quality. It's one of the amenities that separate it from the sterility of suburbia. Thanks for speaking on this topic.