Graffiti in downtown Oshawa can be seen as art, but not all cases

Graffiti-style mural showing the roller rink's edgy feel, downtown Oshawa
Graffiti-style mural showing the Coachlite Roller Garden’s edgy feel, downtown Oshawa

Spray paint has been used as a medium in art since the early ’60s when it was first used for the vandalism style known as tagging. There is ongoing debate about the difference between art and vandalism. By definition there is indeed a difference.

Art is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Vandalism is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as “action involving deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property.” The distinction between vandalism and art comes down to expression versus destruction. The term graffiti that is often used is a description of the style, not the classification of art. Unfortunately, this style has a stigma attached to it that improperly labels it as vandalism.

Some people might think the world is colourful enough the way it is, while others might see the world as Jonas from the novel The Giver, by Lois Lowry, and decide the world needs more colour and the artistic expression should be shared with everyone.

Graffiti causes many issues in society such as gang-related violence, community discomfort and property destruction, according to the Los Angeles Police Department website. Graffiti also stirs many emotions among citizens. By definition, these reactions make graffiti an art form, by inducing powerful emotions on passersby, be it an emotion of beauty or anger.

Instead of making graffiti illegal, it should be regulated. Many events in the past were attempted to be solved by making them illegal, but it caused more problems than solutions. The prohibition, prostitution and marijuana legalization are very prominent issues and all have shown that regulation is the key to issues that can’t be stopped by making them illegal. Prohibition declared alcohol illegal between 1920 and 1933 in the United States, but people kept drinking and found a way around the laws. The government took notice and decided that regulating alcohol would be easier than prohibiting it. The same happened with prostitution, as well as marijuana most recently. Toronto has begun implementing the regulation of graffiti by creating a new by-law to protect artwork, enacted on October 25, 2011.

A new graffiti by-law was added to the City of Toronto’s Municipal Code in November 2012. It says there is a difference between graffiti art and graffiti vandalism. The by-law defines graffiti art as “markings made or affixed to properties that are approved by the property owner or occupant.” However, the graffiti must enhance the aesthetics of the property and fit the community’s standards. A graffiti artist herself, Julia Ivancic from Durham College, tries to help people see the beauty in graffiti by doing legal artwork for people. “There is a culture behind it [graffiti]. Once you know a bit of the culture, an alley with tags becomes less sketchy,” says Ivancic, who also goes by her tag name “Jules”.

The graffiti by-law defines vandalism as “any deliberate markings made or affixed on property that is not currently exempted or regularized by the Graffiti Panel and; was not made or affixed without permission of the owner.” The graffiti that falls under this definition is often categorized as tagging or tag art.

There are different types of graffiti described by CrimeStoppers as “markings, designs, figures, or words on any surface, building or structure without the consent of the owner. It can be painted, drawn, etched or scratched on the surface.” The most obvious types of graffiti are the tags that are commonly seen in alleys, but there are less stereotypical types of graffiti that many people don’t know about.

CrimeStoppers’ description of vandalism doesn’t contain all the types of graffiti. A popular form of graffiti is slap tagging. It is a quick low risk option compared to the length of spray painting. Slap tagging is the act of drawing on a sticker and having them preloaded, then simply ‘slapping’ the sticker onto a surface.

Even though graffiti is simply seen as vandalism by most municipalities, the graffiti artists who tag buildings have rules and see each other as artists in their own right. A simple Google search for ‘unwritten rules of graffiti’ will yield about 32 thousand results. One of the most important rules is that if you go over a piece, you must do a better job.

‘Go over, go better,’ says Australian art blogger Dean Sunshine.

If graffiti were a true free-for-all the vandals wouldn’t follow any rules. The artists respect one another but they don’t respect the private property. There are many political theories as to why graffiti artists paint on buildings instead of a canvas like other artists. According to Dr. Jeffrey Chase of Radford University, graffiti artists choose to use the city as their canvas because they’re angry at the way buildings are being used.

Local artist Julia Ivancic first adopted the graffiti style in grade seven when one of her teachers brought it up in class, which led her to do research and meet other people that were interested in graffiti. There is a difference between an artist who uses graffiti style and a teenager who has nothing to do. Graffiti is often associated with delinquent teens and because of the stereotyping, these artists don’t get recognized for their talent. Ivancic uses graffiti as inspiration for her artwork and it is a sort of business for her. Ivancic grew up in Scarborough, but currently resides on Oshawa at Durham College’s campus. She has done commissioned murals for townships and families using the skills she developed in the graffiti scene. “I’ve been commissioned by the city of Toronto to do murals under overpasses,” says Ivancic.

The Graffiti Management Plan of Toronto helps to keep graffiti under control. By allowing the graffiti to stay on the walls, it keeps vandalism under control and deters others from tagging over top. “Graffiti brings the city and residents together,” says Ivancic. Seeing the artwork gives people something to talk about and helps bring the community together.

Some people don’t share the same views as the artists and think the art needs to be removed. Many municipalities agree that graffiti is a bad thing and should be erased from the city. The BIA of Oshawa made a request for more funding from the city to help remove graffiti in November of 2014. The plan they had made would cost the city around 23 thousand dollars to remove all the current graffiti and keep the buildings maintained and graffiti-free. Some buildings downtown have gone around their attempts and painted murals on their buildings, including Wasted Space, Caribbean Wraps and CORE 21 art studio.

Creating murals to combat graffiti is a useful strategy because not only does it deter other vandals from tagging, it adds colour to the city which is part of the appeal of graffiti. Maclean’s magazine has a different opinion of murals. In a piece from 2012 titled ’99 stupid things the government spent your money on’ they ranked graffiti for hire at number 56. According to Maclean’s, Montreal spent 150 thousand dollars annually to hire graffiti artists to make murals around the city. However, one million dollars was spent on graffiti removal services in Montreal to help neighbourhoods get rid of graffiti.

Graffiti will be a part of our society for a long time to come but there are ways to make it into a proper piece of the culture and community. By looking to the past, the public can see how some illegal problems such as prohibition and prostitution can be solved by regulating instead of forbidding. By educating people and preserving the artwork, graffiti can be incorporated into the society and widen the views of citizens to more artistic horizons.