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by Roop Gill

There’s a rhinoceros at Church and Dundas Streets. It was taken from a notebook Ryerson graffiti artist Day97 found and put up with wheatpaste left over from his job at a concert promotions company. He considers it graffiti art, but not everyone would agree.

Pussybones, the alias of another Ryerson “writer,” as graffiti artists like to call themselves, says traditionally there are two categories of graffiti artists: piecers and bombers. Piecers create larger, more detailed works that require considerable skill and energy. Pieces represent the artist’s style, says Pussybones.

Bombers, on the other hand, paint basic signatures, or tags, meant to spread an alias. “Bombers throw up all over the place,” says Pussybones.

The oldest evidence of graffiti dates back to ancient Rome with inscriptions in Pompeii, carved on stone with animal bones. Graffiti has historically been a form of vandalism. Now, with commissioned murals blooming around Toronto and off-shoots showing up in mainstream media, graffiti is evolving into a semi-legal art. Pussybones argues that moving into the mainstream has killed graffiti.

“Graffiti has been dead for about 20 years now,” he says.

TAKI 183 popularized tagging in 1971. As a foot messenger, he had no problem marking his signature in spray paint all over New York City. When The New York Times picked it up, TAKI 183 found himself as the first graffiti artist to make the front page of a major daily.

Tagging is one way teenagers start exploring themselves as artists as well as individuals, says Patrick Thompson, an Ottawa artist who started off the same way. “Kids write their name everywhere because they are trying to discover their identity,” he says. Thompson, who has painted professionally for 14 years, says that graffiti also defines its home.

“What would a film of the inner city be without the texture of the hands who live there?” he says. “It would be missing something.”

Funktion, a gallery at 1244 Bloor Street West, is challenging the underground nature of graffiti and introducing new artists to the scene. Not only does it sell and showcase work from local graffiti artists, but it’s one of the cheapest spots for spray paint in the city. Jose Gabriel, who coowns the gallery, says, “When young people come here to buy spray paint and they notice graffiti art for sale, it is motivation for them.”

Gabriel and his co-workers at the gallery are actively involved in Toronto’s graffiti scene. They participate in graffiti parties where they paint alleyways or deserted buildings — after prior permission from the city, of course. Although folks at Funktion gallery do not condone illegal art, they are still frustrated at the restrictions imposed on writers by the municipal government. To do any form of public art, consent from the city is necessary.

“Someone in the City of Toronto board offices sits and decides what is art and what isn’t,” says Gabriel. “Even if you have a business’ permission, you just can’t do a mural on their wall.”

It has been Gabriel’s experience that if someone is drawing on a wall using a paint brush, the city will turn a blind eye to it. The problem comes as soon as the paint comes out of a spray can.

Recently, the city has become more lenient towards artists. A few years ago, according to city by-laws, if someone spray-painted on any wall it was the responsibility of the business to remove it within 48 hours. Alternatively, the city would come, remove it and slap the business with the bill. Now, Toronto businesses and organizations are using graffiti and murals as marketing tactics and propaganda. Graffiti is often seen as background in music videos and on billboards. Even Subway uses graffititype art in promotions.

The increasing popularity and evolution of graffiti can be seen right near Ryerson, on the corner of Church and Shuter streets. The Paint Your Faith project was commissioned by the Toronto United Church to deal with tagging on one wall of its building. The church had two choices, said Ben Weeks, a local illustrator who helped direct the project. It could paint the wall every time a bomber left their mark or cover it in a mural and hope to discourage other writers from defacing the work of their fellow artists. The church decided to have four graffiti artists of different faiths bring together separate pieces into one large production. This approach worked. Weeks said that writers who came by during the painting gave their respect and moved on.

Despite being part of one of Toronto’s most successful murals, Mediah, who painted “Yahweh” in street-style font in the centre of the mural, feels graffiti isn’t appreciated. “Graffiti is not like regular painting,” he qsays. “It will never become mainstream. It is a different culture all together.”

Thompson’s views on the contentious “graffiti: art or vandalism” debate are indefinite.

“Graffiti is energy, destructive to some, creative to others,” he wrote in an email. “It has the power to turn an inhuman cityscape into a colourful landscape of magic and at the same time, to a different passerby, a gang-infested nightmare of scrawls and anger.”

For Kit Knows, a former graffiti artist from Ryerson now working in the music industry, the lines are a lot simpler.

“Graffiti is an art form,” he says. “Art forms are always going to change.”

Just not at Ryerson, where graffiti is vigilantly cleaned up wherever found. Though there appears to be one safe haven for vandalism on campus. Day97 has noticed a resurgence of “latrinali,” or vandalism in the latrines. In the men’s bathroom on the third floor of the RCC, for instance, a latrinali artist has left handy directions on how to use the hand dryer.

“Push button,” it reads. “Recieve bacon. Eat bacon.”

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