first it was helicopters. then it was gangs. Now it's graffiti. If police chief Julian Fantino is to be believed, our city is succumbing to "fear and disorder" because of the spray-painted scrawls and murals that dot the urban landscape. So he's been sending out his crew on a mission to wipe Toronto clean, aiming for the "erosion of graffiti subculture,' according to the cops' recently launched anti-graffiti Web site (www.torontopolice.on.ca).
While cops like to portray their little neighbourhood sweeps as occasions for community groups, prisoner programs and college kids to scrub walls as morale boosters, that's hardly the way urban visionaries and artists see them. They wonder who gave law enforcers the right to be arbiters of public taste or to determine which "subculture" should be allowed to flourish and which should die.
It's a balmy Saturday afternoon in Kensington Market, and I'm hanging with two veterans of the Toronto graffiti scene, Deth ("without the "a' -- that's important") and Asesr, who are part of the Urban Nightmares Crew (UNC) and share 14 years of experience between them. Today they're throwing up what's known in graffiti-speak as a "piece," an elaborate, colourful mural, on the side of the Segovia Meats store on Augusta.
And it's perfectly legal. "We made sure we got a letter of permission from the owner before doing this," they say.
Over the course of the afternoon, neighbours and friends drop by to compliment the artists, including a couple of store owners who want to have their walls done, too. Says Deth, an art-school grad who wants to become a full-time muralist, "Some consider Kensington a dangerous neighbourhood (because of the graffiti), but it's not at all. It's just been tagged a lot. But now we can do these murals. This is my fifth one here."
Why the link between graffiti and gangs? "It's a scare tactic more than anything," adds Asesr. "The thing that pisses me off is that people can look at a mural I did and say, "That's crime.' But a corporate ad can take a graffiti-oriented logo and throw a Labatt Ice on it, and that's considered cool. It's as much an eyesore as mine is."
Misconceptions aside, there's still the thorny question of public image, especially since a big part of graffiti's appeal, like punk music's, is its inherently non-conformist attitude. Says Deth, "For some it's about doing the riskiest thing and not getting caught, so (your peers) know you were on that rooftop and you put your name there."
Having done graffiti for as long as he has, and earned respect, he now looks on those early years with a different lens. "In my ideal world, everyone is allowed to paint anything wherever they want. But that's a fantasy. I have to understand that what I do is a public nuisance to most people, and there are consequences."
Both agree that if there were enough legal walls set aside in Toronto for graffiti, there wouldn't be so much of it illegally spread around. Says Asesr. "Fantino will never realize that at one point he had the entire graffiti microcosm confined to one alley (Queen)." They say they personally don't worry about the crackdown.
I get a different opinion, though, from a younger graffiti writer named Klone, who was recently busted for spray-painting freight trains in broad daylight. He says he was handcuffed and taken to the police station, where officers told him he'd probably be thrown in jail. "I got really worried," says Klone, who's been doing graffiti for two years. Soon after, however, he was told by his duty counsel that it's unlikely he'll be put in jail or end up with a record. "I'll probably have to do some community hours," he says. Like wiping down graffitied walls?
The corner of Queen and Sherbourne is eerily quiet, considering that the police are supposed to be staging a graffiti eradication event here. A few weeks back, when the cops hosted a photo op for their crusade, the mayor showed up along with chief Fantino.
Today, however, it takes a while before I spot the resident cop, constable Joe Smith from 51 Division, who's supervising as a team of police academy students remove tags on storefronts. But it's becoming clear that "eradication" isn't an accurate term for what today's event is all about: large sections of graffitied walls in the back alleys and laneways hidden from the main intersections are left untouched.
It's a people-power problem, it turns out. Despite the fact that one cop in each of the 17 divisions is assigned to graffiti-monitoring, and that police claim to have cleaned 15,212 metres of walls, laneways and bridges last year, the action this morning looks like a bit of a dud. It's been timed to coincide with a neighbourhood trash cleanup organized by the Queen Street East Business Association and local social service agencies. Their concern is to send a message to drug dealers that they're not welcome in the area, and if that means having the cops cleaning graffiti all day, there's little chance the groups will say no to the free service.
Says George Bell from the Salvation Army's Maxwell Meighan Centre, "The fact that the police are here and the constituents see them pitching in -- that lift itself is huge. So is it worthwhile to remove graffiti? If they were doing anything else, that would still be worthwhile. At least something's being done to improve the community."
The question is, who decides what constitutes neighborhood beautification? The graffiti artists we speak to all say there's nothing wrong with cleaning up tags on buildings and mail boxes. The problem is, the cops don't discriminate between the ugly tags and works of art on walls. Says AWOL of the CIV graffiti crew, "I understand that they want to clean up tags, but (murals) give the city character."
What it boils down to, they say, is PR. Says Deth, "Fantino's good at staying in the press. When the cops don't have anything to focus on, they come back to graffiti, because it's always there. It makes them look like they're doing something."