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Cameron Roelofsen, the owner of Brickwash.com, a graffiti removal company, washes graffiti from the roof of 770 St. Clair West in Toronto on May 26, 2011. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)
Cameron Roelofsen, the owner of Brickwash.com, a graffiti removal company, washes graffiti from the roof of 770 St. Clair West in Toronto on May 26, 2011. (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

Bylaw enforcement

Graffiti removal business is booming Add to ...

“Hey Cam, a little more pressure!” yelled Gord Broadhead, who was standing atop a St. Clair West storefront, wielding a power washer.

Down on the sidewalk below, Cameron Roelofsen, owner of BrickWash.com cranked up the juice in a truck fitted out with a 500-gallon tank of propane-heated water, filters, and hoses. He then hopped in the vehicle’s cherry picker and joined Mr. Broadhead up top, doing their bit to give Toronto’s civic face a scrubbing.

Their project, one recent wet morning: erasing a mural-sized tag composed of pillowy yellow, white and black letters with 3-D outlines. Though the tag was dated (“2011”) and signed (“RIP”), it mainly represented a costly headache to the owner, who’d been slapped with a summons from the city. “It’s good for us, but not for small business owners because they’re getting a lot of fines,” said Mr. Broadhead, a muscular man with elaborately tattooed biceps.

By most accounts, business is positively frothy in the city’s graffiti-removal industry these days, thanks in no small measure to Mayor Rob Ford’s clean-walls crusade. Since he took office on Dec. 1, the city has issued over 4,300 notices of violation, and about 3,100 properties have been cleaned up. On Tuesday, Councillor Cesar Palacio will be the host of a town hall meeting at the Drake Hotel to hash out a “long-term community strategy on graffiti.”

For removal firms, however, the short-term strategy is to eradicate as much work as possible as the bylaw enforcement officers continue their crackdown. And there’s lots of money to be made. Contractor’s fees run from a less than $50 to several thousand, depending on the size of the canvas and the difficulty in accessing the surface. One truck may blast through several dozen jobs per day. With the building on St. Clair, BrickWash charged the owner $1,500 to clean up someone else’s vandalism. “This is the second time for her,” added Mr. Roelofsen.

“The big push is the main arteries coming in and out of the city,” said John Kalimeris, general manager of a Goodbye Graffiti franchise. A lot of jobs come from absentee owners who don’t live in Toronto, he added.

BrickWash.com and Goodbye Graffiti are just two of about 30 to 40 GTA companies scrambling to rid the city’s exposed surfaces of both gang tags (which often contain the encoded street prices for drugs) and larger swaths of graffiti that may or may not have artistic merit, depending on one’s point of view.

There are only a handful of established players. Many of the newcomers, said William Johnston, president of 25-year-old Metro Graffiti Services, are freelancers with a truck and a power washer. “A lot of people are water blasting and it does damage to the bricks [and the mortar]” he said. “It’s like everyone with a lawn mower is a landscaper, you know what I mean?”

BrickWash’s edge is an environmentally friendly approach developed by founder Mr. Roelofsen, who last year invented a technique for sucking the paint-residue slurry off the walls. His equipment isolates the paint particulate in a kitty-litter type substance that can be sent to the landfill, and the trucks filter the water so the toxic material doesn’t end up getting flushed into the sewer system.

While these firms are clearly enjoying a solid run of business, the operators have noticed several unintended consequences of the stepped-up enforcement.

From an environmental perspective, Mr. Roelofsen said hundreds of gallons of aerosol paint residue will end up in the storm sewers, and eventually Lake Ontario, thanks to the increase in private property enforcement and the city’s own efforts to clean its buildings.

Then there are some landlords, especially small store owners, who have found themselves trapped in a costly cycle of fines, removal costs and then subsequent cleaning expenses and penalties because of taggers re-painting those freshly scrubbed walls. “Some of the owners say it’s okay for the mayor to say `clean it,’ but where’s the money coming from?” asked Mr. Johnston.

Safety is also increasingly becoming an issue, both for the taggers and the removers. Mr. Johnston and Mr. Roelofsen said they’ve noticed that the newest graffiti now seems to be migrating to higher, difficult-to-access surfaces because crews are cleaning away the tags on the lower flanks of buildings. Mr. Roelofsen recalled an incident in York Region where a teen fell off a ledge on a school building and died. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Back over the storefronts on St. Clair West, he and Mr. Broadhead, both damp from power-washer mist, have almost finished the job. After two hours and repeated applications of solvent, the roof has become a swamp of foamy, paint-flecked water. Only the tenacious shadows of the graffiti remain.

How long will the bricks stay clean? Mr. Roelofsen crossed his arms across his chest and glances at the newly exposed wall. “Six months, maybe. I mean, it’s the perfect canvas. Everyone sees it. And it’ll probably be the same guy who does it.”

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