When the Pragers of Adelaide Street found some graffiti on the wall of their family business, they did what they usually do: got some paint and covered it up. How were they to know it was a genuine Banksy?
Banksy is the nom de guerre of a world-renowned graffiti artist from Britain who keeps his real name a secret. His stencilled images of kissing cops, rats in sunglasses and schoolgirls in gas masks have appeared everywhere from the streets of London to the security barrier separating Israel from the West Bank. Celebrities such as Christina Aguilera and the Jolie-Pitts clamour for prints of his work, which can go for tens of thousands of dollars.
His first visit to Toronto this month was a minor sensation, sending the cognoscenti running to admire his work on city walls. But to the folks at Wm. Prager Ltd., the Banksy was just more graffiti. The wall of the 70-year-old business, which sells display cases and other retail fixtures, is hit by graffiti guys once or twice a week. It's ugly and it's a nuisance.
Now, Banksy's stuff is a cut above the usual spray-painted scrawl or fat-lettered tag. The picture on the Pragers' wall showed a man in a business suit with a sign that said "0% interest in people," a commentary, perhaps, on the evils of capitalism.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and no one asked the Pragers if they would like to have a Banksy on their wall. For merchants who like to keep their stores looking trim for customers, graffiti is a costly and time-wasting menace. If the city finds graffiti on a wall or garage door, they order the owners to clean it up at their own expense. Graffiti artists who think they are sticking it to the man when they wield their spray guns are more often victimizing some little corner-store guy struggling to make a living.
It is not just property owners who are victimized by graffiti. The whole city suffers.
Graffiti splashed everywhere makes urban spaces seem sketchy and dangerous. If public fixtures such as mailboxes and hydro boxes are scrawled over with illegible hieroglyphics, it makes people feel that things are somehow out of control. Nothing is so dangerous to a city's sense of well-being as that feeling of embattled insecurity.
New York learned this when vandals and graffiti artists covered its subway cars from end to end. Manhattan sophisticates said: Relax, it's an art form; drink it in, learn to appreciate it. But the graffiti made most subway riders feel threatened and the subway cars became a symbol of the city's decline. Cleaning them up was one of the first steps in its renaissance, a forerunner of a generation-long assault on petty crime, squeegee-kid panhandling and other forms of urban disorder.
In Toronto, the never-ending struggle against graffiti consumes millions of dollars and countless hours a year. Police focus on gangs who leave their tribal symbols to mark their turf. City bylaw officers press property owners to clean up graffiti as quickly as possible to keep taggers from coming back. Canada Post is trying to discourage graffiti by covering mailboxes with its own artwork : a crisscross pattern of postal codes.
To graffiti lovers, all this effort could be avoided if Toronto could learn to appreciate it as the thriving art form it has become. To art gallery owner Simon Cole, it's a shame that graffiti is "so misunderstood and hated in Toronto."
Mr. Cole, whose Show & Tell art gallery specializes in graffiti writers and other "marginalized and often disregarded artists," says Torontonians should be pleased that Banksy has graced our walls with his work and he is dismayed that people like the Pragers have painted it over. "It's a real treat for Canada to have something of this calibre," he says. "Graffiti is a social commentary on urban living."
That is the way he sees it, anyway. For most people, graffiti is a blight on the face of the city, defacing billboards and bus shelters, making a mess of carefully tended property and sullying the urban landscape. That folks like the Pragers don't see the brilliance of Banksy doesn't make them bumpkins. It makes them ordinary, sensible city dwellers, who like their public spaces neat and tidy and shouldn't have to apologize for it.