Graffiti: art or eyesore?
Unsanctioned street art is illegal but some feel it has artistic merit
Sunday, Feb 02, 2014 06:00 am
To some, vandalism isn't a big problem in St. Albert, yet there is evidence of this destructive act all around – from spray paint graffiti on a concrete wall to a broken fence board.
Reporter Scott Hayes looks at the issue in a two-part series. This, the second part, explores the issues surrounding graffiti. Part one of the series appeared Jan. 25.
It was about a year ago that a St. Albert youth was caught by the RCMP and charged with eight counts of mischief under $5,000. This followed a two-year police investigation that tied the girl to 78 graffiti incidents. The extent of the damage to both city- and corporate-owned property totaled $7,231.
While the young vandal could not be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, she has since finished her sentence of community work to repay her debt to society. Rexy, as she asked to be called, explained that her work was only meant to brighten up the community and offer positive messages.
“I was very inspired by the artist Banksy, to get great ideas out there anonymously. I just saw empty boxes and wanted to decorate them.”
Rexy placed some of her work on FortisAlberta’s utility boxes, those same fixtures that are now mostly covered in graffiti-proof decorative wrappings with themes reflecting community and the city’s botanical arts brand.
There are a few districts in Edmonton (most notably the Alberta Avenue and Whyte Avenue areas) that have taken the same approach, except that those designs were created and painted by local artists. Strathcona County has done the same thing.
Rexy said other people commented to her about how much they enjoyed and appreciated her work. The graffiti was very similar to lost pet notices that often get placed around the city. They were images drawn on paper and applied to their final display spots, first with a homemade paste glue that would “eventually wash away with the rain,” then later with a more permanent adhesive.
The drawings featured animals with Xs on their eyes, to promote an ideology called “straight edge”, Rexy said, explaining the subculture that professes an ideal lifestyle of refraining from meat, alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs.
“It wasn’t meant to be offensive. It wasn’t gang-related,” she said. “It was just simply to get out a subtle message and just to have art in the community. The idea of just getting art out and expressing something anonymously makes me happy.”
The law is the law
The official stance on graffiti is that it’s illegal to do it. It’s also illegal to not do anything about it.
“Regardless of style, size or colour, graffiti is vandalism and a criminal offence when placed on public or private property without the owner's consent,” said Cpl. Laurel Kading of the St. Albert RCMP when news of the charges against Rexy emerged last year.
These words are the same as those found on the city-produced informational postcard called Wipe Out Graffiti: Show Your Pride in Your Community. The card also says graffiti can lead to more serious vandalism and crime if left unchecked.
Graffiti, according to St. Albert’s community standards bylaw, refers to any “images or lettering scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in any manner on property without the consent of the property owner.”
While the perpetrators face their own destiny within the justice system, property owners who fail to clean up graffiti in a timely manner can be subject to a $2,000 penalty.
The eyes of the beholder
Dale Fetterly has seen a lot of St. Albert’s graffiti through his involvement with the Neighbourhood Watch Association and the Citizen’s Patrol.
He said he sees lots of graffiti especially on the Red Willow pathways that go under the bridges crossing the Sturgeon River. Some of it even has its artistic merits but he draws the line at giving it social value, saying he won’t call it art, especially since “99 per cent of it is just stupid.”
Const. M-J Burroughs of the St. Albert RCMP said some of the people out doing graffiti are “very talented artistic people.”
“I wish they would use that energy and put it towards something that isn’t illegal,” she said. “At the end of the day, any kind of graffiti tag is illegal. It reflects negatively and criminally on the area that it’s posted in. They’re not using their talents effectively in the community.”
In other words, graffiti might be art but the law is the law. Fetterly suggested that graffiti artists know full well the illegality of their work and should face the consequences.
He said graffiti is, by its very nature, improper in modern society because of where the perpetrators put it.
“If it’s art then why don’t the graffiti artists put it on their own fence? I’ve never seen anybody put graffiti on their own property. They’re always tagging somebody else’s. The fact that they won’t put it on their own property tells me that it’s not even (in their eyes) something that’s desirable.”
Starting from scratch
There are still some, however, who feel that a city that promotes the visual arts as much as St. Albert does should be more accepting of graffiti and street art.
“They are artists, and shouldn't be punished for spreading art in a city that encourages young artists to create and contribute to the community,” said Deen Nault, a young volunteer with the Art Gallery of St. Albert. “If street art isn't a contribution, I don't know what is.”
One Edmonton man hopes there can be a new solution to this old problem. After being arrested for graffiti on more than one occasion, AJA Louden has started what he calls the Aerosol Academy, an educational institution of sorts where he uses his graffiti to teach kids about art.
He has also become a part of a collaborative effort between Edmonton Arts Council and Capital City Cleanup on the Open Source Street Art project to further the cause of public – and legal – graffiti walls.
“I would say 100 per cent that I think that’s a great idea,” he said.
During Canada Day celebrations in 2008, St. Albert hosted a temporary graffiti wall at the Woodlands skateboard park as a feature to attract the interest of area youths. That same year, the town of Morinville offered the public the chance to make its own graffiti on its skateboard park.
Louden suggested that allowing visual artists to decorate utility boxes is a good start too.
He believes graffiti is, in some ways, a kind of revolution against the prevalence of advertisements in the public realm. Billboards and other public marketing platforms have much in common with graffiti anyway, he argued, but with the added objective of promoting consumerism in a culture where economics reigns.
“I think we get closer to the root of the disagreements we might have as a society about some of the value of this type of artwork when you look closer at why we have these laws in place. It really boils down to the fact that we live in a capitalist society … property can be more valuable than human well-being. You start to see that these laws are more about control of public visual space than anything.”
The argument for him then is that, if a cityscape is going to allow so much advertising imagery that intrudes on the public consciousness, then it should also provide spaces where street art can be legally displayed.
“I think it’s so much nicer to see a piece of art that’s not trying to sell you something, it’s not trying to do any bit of branding, not trying to market anything to you … it’s just purely something coming directly out of the community. I see advertising all over the place. I realize there’s a transaction taking place, that somebody’s getting paid to put that advertising up and somebody’s paying them for it. At the same time, I as a citizen am affected by it.”
Louden stopped short of promoting illegal graffiti and agreed that it’s illegal for a good reason.
“It just shows people taking control of their city and I think that’s a really powerful thing.”