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Chuck's tag is ubiquitous at the Brickworks. Steve Ferrera of Well and Good describes the young graffiti artist as an 'upstart who is really talented.'Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

When Evergreen decided to reinvent the Don Valley Brick Works, its creators went out of their way to preserve its graffiti-covered walls.

This is the side of Toronto Rob Ford wants to clean up.

In a recent conversation with The Globe and Mail, the mayoral front-runner described driving into the city along the Gardiner.

"Long grass and weeds, a rusted-out fence; behind the back you see a lot of graffiti and abandoned vehicles," he said. "It just doesn't look clean. We have to clean the city up and create an atmosphere for businesses to come here."

From Evergreen's perspective, however, the inclusion of the graffiti was a key business decision in maintaining the atmosphere of the site.

"It's a legitimate art form down here," says Geoff Cape, executive director of Evergreen, "in the sense that there's a story line associated with it on how the site has been used.

"It's also esthetically fantastic. In so many cases it's really beautiful and contrasts in a really exciting way with the older industrial material."

On the walls of the warehouse, colour is everywhere. Angular red lettering, deep blue shading and golden rays of light adorn the walls in thick, vibrant paint. Illegible flowing fonts and scribbled tags adorn almost every free surface. The graffiti in the Brick Works is a testament to the creative work of a generation of young artists, many of whom never expected their work to be seen.

"One of the key themes of the site is about our heritage and heritage conservation," says Robert Plitt, manager of sustainability for Evergreen. "The heritage of the site is not simply around brick-making. There was a 20-year period where the site was abandoned and it was home to a whole different culture."

Although the graffiti was illegally created, Mr. Cape remains philosophical. "It's democracy. People need a place to explain their view on things," he says. He sees very little difference between the tags on the walls here and the political slogans scrawled on the walls of Pompeii homes 2000 years ago.

Lisa Martin is the managing director of Well and Good, a studio of Toronto-based art promoters specializing in graffiti and street art. "It's a time capsule of people who travelled through here," she says after a recent tour of the site. "There's work from artists from coast to coast. There's a footprint of who was here and what they did - it's a massive public sketchbook."

Ms. Martin recognizes work from artists such as Robot, Nektar, and Ochre, the graffiti handles of artists who often work in different media as commercial artists and graphic designers, contributing to the economy by plying their craft. "Different writers have different colour relationships. A lot of Robot's work is really lustrous and simple."

We tour around the main warehouse gazing at the names and characters on the walls, often arranged into murals called pieces. Tags, the quick signatures of the graffiti artists, are everywhere, on the pipes, beams, floorboards and inside the kilns.

The styles often contrast, from fluid lettering with a spray can to futurist block-style letters painted with a roller. This eclecticism is part of Toronto's allure for graffiti enthusiasts. "It's hard to say what the Toronto style is," says Steve Ferrara, founder of Well and Good. "Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world and you get all these influences."

Echoing Mr. Cape's optimism, Ms. Martin is also keen to defend the graffiti from its reputation as simple vandalism. "For true graffiti, you don't ask for permission," she says. But that's what makes it even more beautiful.

"It's the purest form of expression when you think about it. I'm going to put myself at risk, I'm going to do this on my own time. Those are traits that, when you get to the core of them, are not destructive traits."

It's also a culture with its own rules and ethics. Covering another artist's work is the ultimate in disrespect and newbies need to be careful where they paint. Graffiti writers are quick to strike back at work they dislike by 'bombing over' someone else's tag or tagging a piece with the word Toy.

There's a rich history of conversation on the walls. "They're writing for other writers," says Ms. Martin. "Most of this was never meant for public consumption."

Mr. Ferrara is particularly impressed with two adjacent murals at the end of the kiln warehouse. Artchild and Bacon are members of the Humble Servants of Art (HSA) Crew. "These guys are legends," Mr. Ferrara says. "They're one of the first Toronto crews. They're just so talented at what they can do with a spray can. There's stuff that's 10 years old that nobody's touched yet."

Near the end of the tour, the Well and Good pair get excited when they see a bomb from New York-based graffiti artist Utah. "She's public enemy No. 1 in a lot of ways," says Mr. Ferrara, referring to Utah's recent arrest for defacing public property in New York. She settled for $10,000 and a six-month jail term. Her tag at the Brickworks is probably years old.

It's not about vandalism for the sake of destroying property, but about creativity and culture, something Mr. Ferrara wants Rob Ford to understand. "We'd love to take him around this site and explain the artistic merit of these pieces. We want everybody to understand their cultural importance," he says. "Graffiti is part of the Toronto we love."

Special to The Globe and Mail