BLOG #625: London is still arguing where the line should be drawn between what we should consider art and what is graffiti, to be painted over or scrubbed off. A more creative city might wonder whether what we see as graffiti isn’t really an emerging art form.
Monday, March 10, 2012 – London
You might think the citizens of a community which enthusiastically embraced the concept of becoming a creative city seven years ago would be over their angst about urban art. But apparently not all of them are.
To date London has done a pretty good job of enacting the major recommendations of the Creative City task force which tabled its report. But every now and then something jumps up that makes one wonder whether we really mean what we say.
A couple of weeks ago city council’s public safety committee considered a request from Robin Armistead, the manager of the culture division – which, incidentally, was one of the task force recommendations.
Ms. Armistead was seeking support for a downtown mural pilot program which, in cooperation with Downtown London, is designed to prevent graffiti.
Graffiti, as you probably know from reading the public prints, is considered by some residents to be the scourge of the city. Mayor Joe Fontana understands that. Boy he was all over this idea, and not in a supportive way.
“What is art and what is graffiti?” he demanded.
Well there’s a question that has divided generations for eons. And London has a very old school definition, embodied in a bylaw: “‘Art’ is the products of human creativity. The creation of beautiful or significant things. A superior skill that you can learn by study and practice and observation. ‘Graffiti’ includes one or more letters, symbols, figures, etchings, scratches, inscriptions, stains or other markings that disfigure or deface a building, howsoever made or otherwise affixed or applied on the structure or thing, but, for greater certainty, does not include an art mural.”
But the difference offered by Orest Katolyk, the city’s manager of licensing and municipal law enforcement services, is a little more ambiguous and conflicting: “Art is for the purpose of beautifying the location. If it is done illegally elsewhere it should not be considered art.”
Some people, many of them the kind of young folks the authors of the Creative City task force argued strongly we need to keep, have a view of art that might push the bounds of beautifying the location a tad beyond where, say, the mayor would feel comfortable.
And some cities determined to be more creative than us have already found ways to let young people express themselves outdoors. Ottawa is one example; there they have a practice wall where those hell bent on graffiti can graduate from being mischievous taggers to bona fide urban artists.
“We’re not contemplating that here are we?” the mayor asked in shocked horror. “No,” said Mr. Katolyk. “It’s just something other cities have tried. Our view is if you want to practice, get a canvass or a little black book.”
Ottawa has more than a practice wall, it turns out. Our capital city has a very active urban arts movement, a spokesperson for which is a gentleman who calls himself Ravens and who describes himself as a photographer, writer, social activist, graffiti mural promoter and grandfather.
He’s involved with a group called Ottawa Urban Arts. “We left out ‘graffiti’ to bypass some misconceptions people have,” he says on his website. “That's one of the goals – to change that attitude and develop an appreciation for this art form and more acceptance of the artists. Right now most of the artists do come from a graffiti art background, and that style will influence some of their work.”
We’re not than enlightened yet – or creative – in London. But Ms. Armistead, in her report to the committee, does trumpet the mural program as having worked in places such as Toronto, Hamilton and Barrie. “Murals in those communities are playing a large role in their anti-graffiti management plans. The proposed definition of a mural will focus on depicting a scene or theme for a designated surface and location that has been approved by the property owner and deliberately implemented for the purposes of beautifying the specific location.”
The operative word in London is ‘manage’. In Ottawa, at least if Mr. ‘Ravens’ has his way, it’s a degree of ‘acceptance’.
There is a continuum that extends from tagging to the Mona Lisa. And there is a point, not far from initials rudely sprayed on the side of a wall in monochrome, where tagging begins to emerge into crude but genuine art. Creative young people understand that, although they may argue where that point is. London could do far worse than asking them for a definition rather than listening to the worries of our mayor only a few candles away from 70.