Toronto street art facing new city hall bylaw

Published on the Humber Et Cetera website Nov. 2, 2012

The City of Toronto’s new graffiti panel meets to decide the fate of certain pieces of street art following a notice of violation of a new graffiti bylaw issued under the Municipal Licensing Standards Act.

Toronto’s war on graffiti started in April when Mayor Rob Ford said in a news conference, he was going to, “make this city spotless, mark my words.”

The bylaw states the graffiti panel at city hall is mandated to “regularize” graffiti.

Elyse Parker, director of transportation services for the City of Toronto, said the bylaw represents new decisions made in the Graffiti Management Plan.

The bylaw “has some new definitions,” Parker said. “Graffiti is no longer necessarily a violation — there is graffiti art and graffiti vandalism.”

Parker said the panel consists of five members, all of whom were chosen to make decisions about street art in Toronto. She said they are all trained to sit on the panel and have all had experience looking at art or design in neighbourhoods. Parker added that panel members include planners and landscape architects.  She said the panel used to be made up of city councilors.

“The main question about what constitutes graffiti art is there needs to be permission by the owner of the property,” Parker said. “Permission means it’s not about its artistic merit, it’s about the owner of the property that has given permission for the piece to be done.”

The pieces that cover the walls in Rush Lane off of Queen Street West  are examples of what the Toronto City Hall Graffiti Panel considers “graffiti art.” Most of these pieces are done by notorious Toronto artists.

Shari Orenstein, Toronto architect and course instructor at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, said graffiti is an integral part of the city’s culture.

“When it’s not defacing, I think it’s beautiful and adds character,” Orenstein said. “Some of the artists [in Toronto] are getting commissioned to paint so they’re obviously talented. One was commissioned by Louis Vuitton and Nike.”

Orenstein teaches a course called Conversations of the Toronto Art World, which has a focus on graffiti.

She brings artists in to speak to the students, and has a good relationship with many of Toronto’s best-known street artists.

Orenstein said many of the graffiti artists she works with are also very accomplished creators who show their work at juried art shows.

“It’s a global trend,” she said. “It’s not like you can get rid of it. You can try, but it’ll be back the next day.”

Orenstein said she agrees that tagging, a quick scribble of a name or symbol, is different than some of the intricate murals found across the city, and is more akin to vandalism than art.

Noni Kaur, program coordinator of Humber’s visual and digital arts program, said she thinks graffiti is like social media.

“It can be very artistic and it has a message,” Kaur said. “It’s social media for artists. It’s tangible and tactile; you can feel it, touch it and smell it.”

Kaur said Humber students often choose to express themselves using graffiti in school projects.

“There could be positive and negative reactions to graffiti,” she said. “If it’s taken in an articulate manner it can be a very positive art form.”

The City of Toronto also has a Graffiti Management Program in partnership with Toronto Police. This plan states that the city and police are working together to reduce graffiti vandalism for a safer community, and that the presence of graffiti vandalism suggests disorder and lawlessness.

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