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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 ...

“What we try to do is to change the mindset of the person that’s spray painting and work with those people to teach them how to use their skills to be a community builder. That involves a great deal of time, co-ordination and program funding, and there’s not enough funding out there, but we do the best we can.”

As for commercial property owners’ embrace of the program and its efforts to have more walls donated as mural space for graffiti artists, Constable Mills says most building owners are willing to co-operate, as long as they’re assured the city won’t eventually make them remove the mural at their expense.

Legal murals, he notes, discourage further graffiti vandalism and come with an insurance policy: artists will usually clean up their own murals when tagged, relieving the building owner of the expense.

Mr. Carter is one property owner who’s turning to alternative methods to curb vandalism on his property. He’s in the process of sourcing artists to paint a mural over his vandalized west wall – he estimates the costs will run in the neighbourhood of at least $5,000, and hopes the city will provide a grant to cover some of the cost.

Other companies have engaged local artists to paint their oft-tagged walls. Property developer Urbancorp launched an initiative last year to transform a railway soundproofing wall in Toronto’s west end into a giant mural, while other business improvement areas in the cities have worked with stakeholders to turn alleyways into virtual art galleries.

While it’s too early for the city to proclaim the graffiti management plan a success – an update on the plan’s progress is due early next year –some have been quick to hail its virtues.

Rob Sysak, the executive director of the West Queen West Business Improvement Area, says the number of removal notices in the two-kilometre main-street stretch managed by his organization have decreased by about 90 per cent since the plan was implemented.

Mr. Sysak feels better communication between graffiti artists, residents and the business community, as well as providing walls for legal murals, has helped minimize illegal tagging and predicts it might even deliver an unexpected benefit.

“It’s bringing a professional attitude to street art,” he says. “Businesses are registering walls and I think we’ll even see [graffiti] tourism in West Queen West in the coming years.”

While Mr. Carter, an architect who prefers to showcase buildings in their purist, non-spray-painted form, isn’t enamoured of the idea of having to paint a mural to cover graffiti on his heritage structure, he feels it’s likely the best way to curb a virtually unstoppable aspect of urban life.

“Police have better things to do than catch guys on roofs with spray cans,” he says. “You have to accept it’s going to happen.”

Graffiti mural a hit with commuters

In the battle to curb illegal graffiti, sometimes a good artistic offence is a commercial property owner’s best defence.

That was the case when Urbancorp Developments found that a sound barrier wall on property it maintains along a railway corridor near Toronto’s bustling Queen and Dufferin intersection in the Queen West Queen neighbourhood was being tagged despite repeated efforts to plant ivy to thwart the tagging.

After repeated replantings of ivy, management decided to take a different approach – namely, working with graffiti artists to turn the utilitarian wall into a legal mural.

The company earmarked $100,000 for the project and approached a nearby spray paint shop – which has close ties to the graffiti community in cities across Canada – and asked for help. The shop owners prepared a mock-up for the approximately 305-metre mural and gathered artists, some from as far away as Nova Scotia and Quebec, who were eager for the chance to work on such a vast concrete canvas.

“It’s a rare opportunity to have such a giant blank slate to do what you want with it,” says Urbancorp vice-president David Mandell.

Corporate donors supplied scaffolding for the project, while artists received a small stipend and were set to work. The move paid off. The wall has been a hit with local residents and the thousands of commuters who see it each day as they ride the rails into downtown Toronto.

“It adds a real flavour to a neighbourhood,” Mr. Mandell says. “It’s achieved a lot of notoriety because it’s managed to create a statement about this type of artwork and its place in the city of Toronto.

“I strongly recommend that owners work with artists,” he adds. “It’s difficult because you may not want a mural on your building, you may like your brick and architectural features, but you may not have a choice in this type of urban environment.”

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