In the art world, ‘art’ is what the art critics, art collectors, documentary makers decide it is, conveying their opinions through exclusion, praise and criticism. Most often, art is inside the ‘white box’, or the museum to the uncritical eye. On the streets, art becomes ‘public’, splashed against walls and garages. It comes in two forms: street art and graffiti. Both are art and both are labelled under the umbrella of graffiti but they are two very different things, with very different social and cultural connotations.
The largest distinction between mural art and graffiti writing, says one graffiti writer (lets call him Tom), is that the first is legal, while the second is highly illegal – even more so in Mayor Rob Ford’s Toronto. Murals are commissioned pieces, where the property owner has payed to have done, while graffiti is unpaid and spontaneous. To the normal passer-by, all they see is cool letters and images on a wall – same aesthetic, same medium.
The line is blurred between the types of street art when graffiti artists transition into murals for money or to just further their career in a mainstream way. Most often, these writers keep graffiti writing, making them sort of hybrids. An example of one is SPUD, a Toronto graffiti artist who had an art show of his Ford inspired mural art at the Don’t Tell Your Mama Gallery on March 8th. His take on the line between graffiti and ‘fine art’ is a testimony to how the medium is perceived by the public:
“People walk down the street and see a sloppy SPUD tag on a building or their garage and get pissed off and think it’s ugly, but then they walk another block and see something by me that affects their feelings or changes the way they look at things. What they don’t know is it’s the same artist”
*tom, who has seen three mayors of Toronto come and go in his career writing, says this is one of the most infuriating examples of peoples ignorance of what graffiti really is.
Graffiti writing is an urban art form – a word, image, political motto can all be referred to as graffiti. Therefore, anyone can write. It is in the skill and time of tags, bombs, burners and pieces that distinguish a ‘toy’, a young blood just out to cause a ruckus, and an actual graffiti writer.
With these differences made apparent, Rob Ford’s latest plans on ‘buffing’ over the city’s streets can be seen in a new light. To begin, when Ford came into power, one of his initiative’s was to crack down on graffiti writers and vandals. His latest move is to introduce SeeClickFlick (CITE), a new app that will enable citizens to inform the city of new tags so they can be removed.
Ford’s government does recognize street art, although in a decidedly ‘Fordist’ way. He overhauled the Graffiti Transformation Project and replacing with his StreetART Toronto. The GTP gave out grants to non-profit organizations and art initiatives to fund mural pieces done by youth – shelling out over 350,000 $ last year alone to more then 20 organizations. StreetART Toronto does the same thing, but only gives half of the original grant, requiring organizations to put up 50 per cent of the money using other public or private grants, or in-kind contributions. “Now it’s a public-private partnership program,” explained Lilie Zendel, who is managing the program for the City.
No longer just for the artistic creation, the new system of street art funding will also be profitable. When profits are involved, it opens the door for corporate influence. You never know, one day an art organization desperate for funds will have to seek the other fifty per cent from private identities, who will then force street art to reflect the company’s motto, logo, re: corporate stain.
Joshua Barndt, co-director of Whippersnapper Gallery, is wary of the fact that the
“…new program is focusing on high-profile walls…it might not make sense for that artwork to happen on a huge artery. It might make more sense for it to happen somewhere within the internal space of a community.”
With more exposure, the stress of profits will again become a deciding factor. The high-profile spots will become sites for corporate advertisements disguised as street art.
Another graffiti writer’s perspective see’s Fords attempt at buffing ridiculous. She says that when the city whitewashes a wall, it becomes prime real estate to graffiti writers. She also points out that property owners sometimes commission graffiti writers to paint their walls, as a way of protecting the spot from inexperienced taggers. When the city gets wind of it, the property owners either have to pay the city an inflated rate to buff the spot or pay themselves.
“The city has dedicated 10 inspectors in its municipal licensing office to hunt down tags on private property and issue notices to property owners that it be cleaned up. It has sent out more than 2,000 notices since Mr. Ford took office.”
If the property owner wants it, then whose to deny them the right to their own property?
The key factor to understand is that the discussed funding and high-profile spots is in regard to mural pieces – not graffiti. Yes, graffiti writers are feeling the burn when a piece that has run, (been left up on a wall for a long time) is buffed, but that is the culture of graffiti. You bounce back, paint again, create a new piece – a continuous of artistic creation. Graffiti writers do not ask for grants, and so it will be the mural artists that will hurt the most from these changes.
What it comes down to in the end is the right to public space. To some, ‘public’ space doesn’t really exist – a public park belongs to the city for example. To a graffiti writer, they do not care if a building’s exterior wall has been labelled ‘public’ or even if the property owner has given them the thumbs up – they will write wherever, regardless of property laws and legal issues. That’s the key factor of real writers, they just don’t care. As long as there are blank walls, there will be graffiti. It’s the urban curse, or in my personal opinion, the urban blessing.