Skip to main content
building management

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/The Globe and Mail

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.

"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."