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Yes … but is it graffiti? Add to ...

Mayor Rob Ford's promised campaign to aggressively clean up the sort of graffiti that angers merchants and homeowners appears to have bagged its first cultural quarry - the artfully defaced walls of the Brick Works, a complex of heritage industrial buildings in the Don Valley.

Evergreen, the national not-for-profit agency that runs the site as a cultural and environmental hub, received a summons last month citing 13 violations of the graffiti eradication provisions of the municipal code. It was told to comply or face fines and possible legal action.

Mr. Ford's office received a complaint and forwarded it to the municipal licensing and standards division, says city spokesperson Bruce Hawkins. The site wasn't on the list of areas targeted for "proactive enforcement," he says.

That's because the buildings are protected by a 2002 heritage designation and a 2008 heritage easement requested by the province. A heritage impact statement filed along with the easement says the graffiti can't be removed without the consent of Evergreen, the city and the Ontario Heritage Trust, a provincial agency. The bylaw enforcement officer didn't know about the agreement, Mr. Hawkins says.

A mandated clean-up would likely damage the century-old factory and warehouse structures, which have attracted $78-million in public and private donations in recent years. "The process of removing the graffiti would have a tremendous impact on the masonry around the buildings," says Evergreen general manager David Stonehouse. "We would lose a lot of the brick and a lot of the mortar, and the brick would be in pretty rough shape."

Evergreen officials will be meeting Friday with city staff to discuss the situation.

Mr. Stonehouse concedes that Evergreen does receive the occasional gripe about the state of the walls, but he gets much more positive feedback from visitors, farmers' market regulars and the well-heeled patrons of the Brick Works, whose ranks include the Weston family. "Prince Charles was here. He saw the graffiti."

Comedian Rick Mercer, who shoots his televised diatribes against a backdrop of colourful downtown laneways, sympathizes with storekeepers who complain about obscene tags, but feels the mayor's efforts are misdirected. "I can assure you that there are artists who paint in the alley where I do my rant who will be remembered long after Rob Ford is gone," he told The Globe and Mail.

The local councillor, Mary Fragedakis (Toronto-Danforth), agrees that the city is over-reacting, even though she backs anti-graffiti campaigns geared at protecting merchants along the Danforth. "In this particular instance, I don't consider it graffiti. I actually think it's art."

Councillor Cesar Palacio (Davenport), who chairs council's municipal licensing and standards committee, acknowledges that it's not always easy to distinguish between graffiti art and plain old graffiti. "There are fine points where we have to be extremely cautious," he says, adding that bylaw enforcement officials currently have no protocols that lay out what's acceptable and what's not.

The citation delivered to Evergreen notes that if the property owner contends that the graffiti is part of an "art mural," it can appeal the notice.

The wrinkle in this case is that the accumulation of graffiti on the Brick Works buildings is betwixt and between - neither generic tagging nor artistic murals.

Much of it dates to the 1980s, when young people used the abandoned barn-like structures for parties and photography. "Kids would get in and explore," Mr. Stonehouse says. "Graffiti was part of that."

Heritage architect Michael McClelland, who advised Evergreen, points out that some non-art graffiti can have historical value for "interpreting" older buildings, citing the Soviet-era daubings found inside the German Reichstag during renovations in the 1990s. They were retained, he says, "because it was an important aspect of the history of the Reichstag."

Stepped up efforts to remove graffiti may also lead to enforcement actions against other landmark locations, such as Graffiti Alley, the warren of lanes south of Queen Street West that serves as the backdrop for Mr. Mercer's rants.

The mayor's arts adviser Jeff Melanson told The Globe and Mail that the slippery question of what, precisely, constitutes graffiti should be added to the agenda of the newly appointed panel reviewing the city's arts and cultural policies. "This may be one issue that group should look at," he said.

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