Political Spray

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By Corrine Aeschelmann

“Billboards for the rich, spray cans for the poor.” – Graffiti sprayed on a Toronto building.

Across Toronto, the writing’s on the wall: Graffiti is no longer just art or vandalism but dynamic and organized expressions of counterculture.

Few art forms generate as much controversy. Some see graffiti as simply the work of punks, while others view it as a necessary outlet for social and political discontent.

A stroll down almost any street reveals examples of the transient art form. Scrawled signatures or “tags” creep up walls and compete for space on mailboxes and hydro poles.

Aerosoled letters blurt anti-establishment slogans, and larger, multi-coloured murals transform downtown alleyways into outdoor galleries.

At times offensive, and often indecipherable, graffiti is a constant part of our urban landscape. Unlike earlier examples of the art form, such as cave paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphs, modern-day graffiti has a limited lifespan. Artists must work hurriedly, with eyes and ears alert for sirens or flashing lights. Often their images are covered over hours after the paint has dried.

In Toronto, the vast majority of graffiti appears in the form of tagging or “throwups” – street lingo for bubble lettering. Cops tear their hair out trying to eradicate tagging, which they say decreases property value and degenerations entire neighbourhoods.

“Every year, there’s a substantial increase of graffiti in all parts of the city,” says sergeant Heinz Kuck, co-ordinator of the Toronto Police Services Graffiti Eradication Program.

Developed in the summer of 2000, G.E.P’s mission is to stamp out graffiti by painting over illegal street art and imposing harsh punishment on culprits.

According to Kuck, police studies show graffiti leads to other petty crimes such as drinking in alleyways where tagging takes place, drug dealing, and prostitution.

“If we don’t deal with the problem now, we’re going to see huge repercussions,” he says.

Police fear those repercussions will include an increase in organized gangs. Ed Spiva, a United States crime expert who recently visited Toronto, warned that graffiti seen here suggests gang activity in the city is already considerable.

“You’re going to see even more, because once they get their foot in, they grow rapidly,” Spiva told a news conference.

While Kuck says it’s difficult to access, he estimates about five per cent of Toronto graffiti is gang-related. The rest are expressions of hip-hop culture, political beliefs, or folk epigraphy – the “John loves Judy” variety of wall art.

But in the eyes of the law, it’s all the same beast.

“It’s defacement of property, and we call that mischief,” Kuck says.

Dr. Douglas Frayn, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who studies graffiti, doubts hard-line police strategies will snuff out street art.

Frayn spent a summer photographing graffiti around the city and believes it represents voices of society’s suppressed elements – people who, because of economic, social or educational limitations, have no other means to express their concerns.

“It’ll continue forever,” he says. “People have a need to express what they feel.”

While Frayn is against the criminalized of graffiti, he understands why some attracts negative reactions.

“Aesthetically, I don’t like to see poor graffiti on nice buildings,” he notes. “But the artists would say it’s a reflection of their community.”

In Quebec City graffiti artists have been commissioned to create wall art that is more appealing to the mainstream, Frayn says.

Still, under this guise of “community beautification,” many artists manage to sneak in subversive messages.

“They put in anti-English slogans, anti-government slogans,” says Frayn. “You notice it if you look closely, but it’s done beautifully.”

Toronto set up a similar program in 1996 called the Graffiti Transformation Project. It received city funding to “clean-up” graffiti and allow young artists to express themselves legitimately through commissioned murals.

Sady Ducros, a graffiti artist since the mid-Eighties, is now a GTP team leader. She says the program teaches kids to focus their art’s message and translate graffiti into legitimate employment.

However, while planning a recent mural project for the side of a Caribbean restaurant, Ducros says she was mindful to retain the independent spirit of graffiti art.

“I made it a point that we weren’t going to do any substantial advertising for anybody.”

It’s this autonomous attitude that keeps the graffiti movement fresh, Ducros says.

“It really is a free expression because it’s not geared to money, it’s not geared to selling anything, it’s geared only to self-expression. It’s also a reflection of what’s going on in society it’s amazing because it’s a whole movement, it’s worldwide.”

Still, Ducros days of furtively painting in alleyways while dodging the law are long over. “I went through that, but then I realized that I could just approach people and ask them.”

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