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Banksy's identity is a mystery, yet his work is unmistakable.

Several bold and graphic statements popped up in Toronto over the weekend, indicating that the British shock artist has made his Canadian debut. (A publicist confirmed that Banksy has indeed been at work here.)

But not everyone is happy about Banksy's trot through town: one of the creations attributed to him - as many as seven have been spotted throughout downtown Toronto - has already been painted over.

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His secretive swoop through the city, just a week after his film Exit Through the Gift Shop opened there, has also reignited a fierce debate about the cultural value of graffiti. Is Banksy an artist or is he a vandal?

It's art

"It's most certainly vandalism, but it's also art," said Simon Cole, director of Show & Tell Gallery on Dundas Street West.

A friend in New York who is close to Banksy alerted Mr. Cole to the Toronto work on Sunday morning. He quickly snapped photos and posted them on his gallery's website.

"I think it creates an interesting social commentary in urban life," Mr. Cole said of street art. "I like that people who normally wouldn't go into an art gallery will stop and look at something on the street, or that people who normally frequent art galleries would completely ignore it."

Mr. Cole has been a fan of Banksy for about 10 years, admiring his brash, politically charged stencil art. He was saddened to hear that one Toronto building owner had quickly covered up the piece Banksy left there. "It would have increased the value of the building financially, and culturally as well," he said, adding that entire buildings have been sold for jacked-up prices because of the Banksy touch.

Graffiti art has made inroads in Canadian galleries (it's appeared at the Art Gallery of Ontario, among other respected institutions), but has yet to earn the respect it has garnered in Britain and elsewhere.

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"Quite a few of my artists have a background in graffiti and street art and do gallery work as well. They're really quite successful at it," Mr. Cole said. He added that he doesn't subscribe to the "broken windows theory," which suggests that where there's graffiti, there's crime.

"I understand graffiti has that element of being illegal that makes it a little bit of a harder pill to swallow for some people," he said. "But when it's done well, it can really benefit society."

It's vandalism

"If it's going up without the owner's permission, to me that's a problem," said Neal Carley of the City of Vancouver's engineering department.

"I wouldn't want someone to come and spray-paint and put something on my house that I didn't want there, that I didn't ask for and that's going to cost me money to address."

While he's never heard of Banksy, Mr. Carley has seen his fair share of persistent graffiti. And though cuts to the city budget have scaled back the graffiti removal program, the department has been deluged with calls from people hoping to remove tags and other graffiti from their property.

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"They know that if they phone that in, police will come," he said. "They realize it is a crime."

A lot of graffiti is tagging, he added, "which is not terribly interesting."

It makes the area feel less welcoming and also less secure, he said. "In an area that has a lot of graffiti, I would suggest that many pedestrians or people would not feel as safe [as]they would if there was no graffiti."

The city encourages citizens to organize community "paint-outs," in which groups of people collectively paint over graffiti in their neighbourhoods. The city also has programs to bring ex-graffiti artists, who have been convicted and no longer paint illegally, to share their artistic skills with young people. Together, they create legally painted murals.

While the main program that helps subsidize these murals has been cut back, private property owners are still encouraged to paint murals on their property, Mr. Carley said.

Those murals, he said, help to discourage graffiti.

Banksy: both embraced and maligned

- The town council in Brighton, England, has preserved several Banksys, including one showing two policemen kissing, by covering them in protective plastic.

- In 2009, the council in Banksy's hometown of Bristol, England, helped the artist pull off his biggest installation ever, called Banksy v Bristol Museum. The artist completely restocked the City Museum and Art Gallery with more than 100 political commentary pieces, including a massive burned-out ice cream truck.

- The city of Melbourne mistakenly painted over an elaborate elephant mural created by Banksy in 2003. It later apologized.

- Banksy has no fans in Disneyland, where, in 2006, he sneaked a Guantanamo Bay detainee wearing a hood and shackles into the site of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride.

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