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Architect Phillip Carter was heartbroken to find graffiti defacing a wall of the heritage building that houses his office on Queen Street West in Toronto. (Galit Rodan for the Globe and Mail)
Architect Phillip Carter was heartbroken to find graffiti defacing a wall of the heritage building that houses his office on Queen Street West in Toronto. (Galit Rodan for the Globe and Mail)

Building management

Art or crime? Graffiti pushes cities to try new measures Add to ...

Phillip Carter couldn’t believe his eyes when he looked up at the towering west-facing wall of his century-old commercial building on Toronto’s bustling Queen Street West strip.

The principal at Phillip H. Carter Architect was stunned to see the brick facade covered in a massive spray painted word: SPUD. It’s a tag familiar to many Torontonians and one that left Mr. Carter heartbroken about his beloved building defaced on an August day in 2010.

“I’ve had this building since the 1970s, it’s a nice heritage building and nothing had ever happened,” recalls Mr. Carter, who ironically specializes in heritage building restoration. “I was upset … it’s auto paint on brick, and the cost of removal was going to be $10,000 or more.”

Removal of graffiti is a fact of life for commercial property owners in cities large and small across Canada. Many find their buildings spray painted and spend between hundreds and thousands of dollars to have the graffiti removed – using methods ranging from power-washing to repainting – only to be tagged again days later.

In major cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary, property owners are required by law to remove illegal markings. Failure to do so often results in fines or action to remove the graffiti by city workers; the cost is then typically billed back to building owners in the form of property tax surcharges.

These requirements leave many commercial property owners feeling doubly victimized – the second time at the hands of their municipal government.

The challenge isn’t lost on city officials who attempt to balance the need for quick removal of graffiti with an understanding of the huge repeated costs for building owners. It’s why the approach to managing vandalism across the country is changing. Many say it’s having a positive impact on both incident reduction and community building efforts.

Toronto, for example, in July of 2011 introduced its comprehensive graffiti management plan, which shifted the focus from simple graffiti removal – although that is still a central tactic in the plan because vandals are far less likely to hit a wall multiple times if they know their work will be promptly deleted – to prevention, largely through youth and community outreach programs.

“The research we did showed us we had to attack the problem on a comprehensive basis,” explains Elyse Parker, a director with Toronto’s Transportation Services Division, the department charged with implementing the plan. Under the Criminal Code, the creation of graffiti is considered vandalism and people can be charged with “mischief under or over $5,000.” It is also a bylaw infraction in cities across Canada.

“Simply dealing with it only on an enforcement basis was not the solution. Part of the solution was to engage the graffiti community, which we’ve done, finding ways to support businesses and residences, and co-ordinating all of these activities,” Ms. Parker adds.

The Toronto program amends city bylaws to differentiate between illegal tagging and authorized murals – allowing property owners to apply to a panel to have wall art “regularized” and exempted from removal orders – and includes the new youth-oriented StreetARToronto (StART) program to encourage an understanding of street art and build bridges between the graffiti community, citizens and business owners.

As part of the StART program, the city invested approximately $325,000 in 2012 for new street art at 19 locations, as well as four diversion and education programs for youth who had been involved in graffiti vandalism.

Police are also working in local schools to discourage the practice, while bylaw enforcement officials, who have the task of delivering graffiti-removal notices to building owners, have been encouraged to show some leniency to building owners and allow extra time for removal. Ms. Parker says Toronto is also in the process of tendering a city-wide contract to obtain better rates for graffiti removal in an effort to lessen the burden on owners of vandalized property.

While no comprehensive studies have been conducted to quantify the overall impact that graffiti has on commercial spaces in Canada, graffiti-ridden streets and storefronts tend to symbolize urban blight and discourage business.

Given outreach efforts in Toronto and other cities across Canada, some property owners might perceive programs such the graffiti management plan as a way to accommodate vandals. Not so, says Constable Scott Mills, a Toronto Police Service corporate communications officer who has been heavily involved in youth outreach and graffiti-management programs such as StART.

“You’re never going to stop illegal graffiti, but you can implement a strategy where you get value from it.” Constable Mills notes that graffiti artists typically range in age from 12 to 50. Many have jobs and children of their own and the perception of graffiti enthusiasts being teenaged thugs or gang members using tags to communicate with each other is largely a misconception, he says.

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