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Street art mocking Rob Ford has been on the rise since the Toronto mayor's anti-graffiti campaign began in earnest last month. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Street art mocking Rob Ford has been on the rise since the Toronto mayor's anti-graffiti campaign began in earnest last month. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Graffiti community fuming over crackdown Add to ...

Rob Ford’s graffiti crackdown, launched last month, has become a challenge to street artists and made Mr. Ford the target of their work.

The mayor has always been a popular figure to caricature, but his staunch opposition to graffiti has catapulted his image from mockery to target: From caricatures of him eating spray cans to labels calling him an “art terrorist,” the street artists of Toronto have found inspiration in Mr. Ford.

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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.”

He said he wants to work with Mr. Ford and is setting up a second meeting to discuss a fresh approach. Zion and Rob Sysak, head of the West Queen West Business Improvement Area, have been working on a solution involving digital projections of graffiti art to offer artists a non-destructive way to showcase their work.

“There are a couple members who called me who have never had graffiti in their back alley. Some graffiti vandals might consider this a declaration of war,” Mr. Sysak said. His Queen Street West area was one of those targeted by the crackdown, with more than 100 businesses issued notices to remove graffiti or face a fine.

Djanka Gajdel owns the building that houses Edward Gajdel Photography on Queen Street West. She said the tagging hasn’t let up, and that painting over it hasn’t worked for her in the past. “This is a complicated issue with a lot of different facets,” Ms. Gajdel said. She is going to plant vines that grow up the wall, giving the surface less appeal for tagging.

She said she’s spent thousands of dollars cleaning the alley entrance to the photography studio and now she’s looking for a better solution. She applauds the city’s focus on graffiti, but recommends looking at the deeper causes.

Many local businesses with graffiti on their walls have appealed to have them declared “art murals,” meaning they won’t face pressure to remove the paint. The bylaw draws a distinction between art murals and vandalism, although the line is a fine one. For now, the city isn’t pressing the issue until a staff report comes out in June, but some landlords have washed their walls simply because of receiving the notice.

“The current legislative framework needs some tweaking,” said Councillor Cesar Palacio, who heads up the graffiti eradication effort. “[It]has put elected officials and city staff in an awkward position in determining what’s art, or graffiti vandalism.”

The city is holding a town hall meeting May 31 to tackle the question. The public is invited, and both Zion and Mr. Sysak, along with outgoing Toronto art adviser Jeff Melanson, will be speaking on a panel.

Toronto police officer Scott Mills has been working with the graffiti community on mural projects like the 20-minute makeover, an annual rapid-fire garbage removal and mural project.

“Mayor Ford told me himself that he had no problem with the graffiti art mural done at the 20-minute makeover, he just doesn’t like the vandalism and the tags,” Mr. Mills said. He said many of the artists he works with are angry – one had a commissioned mural removed because the landlord received a notice. This, he said, leads to frustration.

“When you get a starving artist that’s angry, you’re going to have vandalism,” he said.

“We’re trying to do our part to have a balanced approach that respects graffiti art and deters vandalism,” Mr. Mills said.

He said police are evaluating how they deal with young offenders and he himself is working to continue what he calls “graffiti community building” – community-designed graffiti art projects.

The famous photo opportunity held by Mr. Ford in April left many with the image of the mayor, dressed in a blue sweatshirt, on a crusade to rid the city of graffiti with his trusty power washer. After the cameras cleared, though, a real cleaning crew came in to finish the job and painted a mural showing kids flying kites.

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