Some people got a good laugh from the sight of Rob Ford blasting a graffiti-covered wall with a pressure washer this week. Sporting an old sweater and fishing boots, obviously relishing his work, he asked observing reporters to imagine the wall as a map of the city. "We're going to go from one end to the other and we're going to clean it up." But wasn't graffiti an art form, someone asked? "That's not art," snorted the mayor. "That's graffiti. That's nonsense."
You could almost hear the snickering from sophisticated downtown folk. Oh, what a bumpkin! Doesn't the mayor know that some graffiti is indeed considered high art? Hasn't he ever heard of Banksy? One urban blogger came right out and called the mayor a Philistine.
In fact, Mr. Ford was expressing what most people feel about most graffiti. Some of it is indeed art – one colourful stretch of alleyway off Queen Street West has even become a tourist attraction – but the spray-painted tags and scribblings that appear overnight on storefronts, walls and garage doors across the city are a blight on the streetscape. They violate private property and vandalize public space. They make the city look untidy and unkempt. They make residents feel unsafe.
When every utility box and underpass is covered with jagged scrawls, people can't help feeling that the vandals are in charge of the city. When it is cleaned up, as it famously was on the New York subways, it can help transform the urban climate. So Mr. Ford is quite right to ignore the taunts and make the removal of graffiti the centrepiece of his drive to spruce up Toronto.
Since he started, bylaw officers have issued 3,300 clean-up notices, compared to 2,383 for all of last year. A new team of 10 officers is scouring the city for graffiti, rather than just waiting for complaints. City officials are ordering all graffiti that appears on city property to be removed within seven days of discovery. They are urging police to crack down on the taggers and urging business improvement areas to clean up their streets.
In a letter to city staff on Dec. 30, just four weeks after he took office, Mr. Ford demanded an "aggressive, co-ordinated effort to eradicate graffiti and illegal posters across the city." His three-phase plan calls for neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood clean-up blitzes and stepped up enforcement of bylaws requiring property owners to clean up graffiti on their premises. He is calling for all residents to get involved by reporting graffiti when they see it.
Whether his war on graffiti can succeed is an open question. Cities around the world have struggled against graffiti, with mixed success. Chicago banned the sale of spray paint. Pittsburgh set up a photographic database to help identify prolific graffiti vandals. Australia's state of Victoria punishes them with up to two years in jail. Denver is experimenting with "permission walls" where graffiti creators can spray legally.
Many cities, including Toronto, have asked artists to create murals on graffiti-prone walls on the theory that taggers won't mess with someone else's work. As often as not, they just move on to a different space. In the latest charming wrinkle, some have taken to putting paint in a squirt gun and splashing it onto high walls that they otherwise couldn't reach.
Toronto officials say the jury is still out on whether slapping more clean-up orders on property owners will have the desired effect. It's not their fault they were hit, after all, and only 20 per cent have complied so far, though that should rise as the weather improves and it becomes easier to spray clean. In the meantime, city staff are preparing a long-term anti-graffiti plan drawing on the experience of other cities. It should come to city council in June.
Despite the challenges, Mr. Ford's strong feelings on the issue have put new fire in the old struggle. "I'm hopeful, energized," says Lance Cumberbatch, the city official leading the drive. "It seems we're moving in the right direction."
Sometimes the mayor's simple way of looking at things can lead to simplistic solutions. Sometimes it can be a virtue. Most graffiti just looks ugly to him. He wants to get rid of it. His instincts on this one are right.