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Toronto’s ‘Graffiti Management Plan’ adds fuel to the street art debate

The escalating cultural merit of street art is causing legal wrangles in cities campaigning for its removal

"If someone painted the Mona Lisa on the side of your building, it's irrelevant if its great art, what matters is if you want it there" explains Elyse Parker, the director of Toronto’s public realm section. Her opinions, however, are not universally shared in the ongoing debate over the legality of street art. The dispute has become so contentious that Toronto city council has assigned an official panel to assess the value of graffiti in the city. The five specialists will offer advice as to what works of street art have sufficient artistic credentials to warrant preservation, and what works may be safely removed.

Toronto’s ‘Graffiti Management Plan’ echoes the growing concerns of many culturally-conscious cities around the world. In the past decade, the status of street art has escalated from low-grade urban decay to one of the most prestigious (and profitable) genres in the art world. This critical and commercial acclaim has launched a long-term legal headache for city councils charged with cleaning their public streets and spaces.

The ‘graffiti-panel’ was elected following the inaugural speech of the new Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, who spoke of the need to reduce public vandalism. The practicalities of implementing this, however, are far from simple. The problem is that not all graffiti is created equal; indeed, some of it can routinely fetch six-figure sums at Christies.

Toronto’s panel is, no doubt, an attempt to avoid the awkward mistakes of previous councils who have made costly gaffes in an attempt to rid their streets of vandalism. In 2009, there was the now-notorious incident of the over-zealous volunteers who painted over a £5000 Banksy in Somerset. Earlier this year, Banksy suffered a similar fate at the hands of an Australian builder who unknowingly drilled a pipeline through one of his works.

Since One man’s vandalism is another man’s priceless cultural artefact, debating what can stay and what must go involves confounding levels of subjectivity. However, correctly distinguishing between the two can pay dividends for cities seeking to boost their cultural status. Berlin is the classic example of a city which has embraced the possibilities of graffiti as gentrification. Described by art critic Emilie Trice as ‘the graffiti Mecca of the urban art world’, Berlin stands undisputed for the quality and prominence of its street art. This has played no small part in its recent elevation to the unofficial capital of the art world, and the diaspora of European artistic talent relocating there. Indeed, Berlin street art is now one of its major tourist attractions, with several street art tours being offered daily around the city.

London has, too, battled with disputes about street art, particularly in the East. In the run-up to the Olympics, graffiti was strictly regulated, including a mandate that the copyright-protected Olympic rings not appear anywhere, and four artists were arrested for inappropriate graffiti. Hackney council has several times found itself in fierce dispute – not only when they erased a Banksy cartoon in 2009, but also when they induced a public protest following the decision to remove a painting of a twelve-foot giant rabbit from a café exterior. The order was overturned following a public petition.

In order to lend some clarity and boundaries to potential disputes in Toronto, the council has released two definitions distinguishing ‘graffiti art’ from ‘graffiti vandalism’. Amongst other criteria, the former has ‘regard to the community character and standards’ whereas the latter ‘contains profane, vulgar or offensive language’. One suspects street artists may not unequivocally agree with this assessment.

In a slightly ironic but fundamentally sensible gesture, Toronto has chosen to regulate its subversive street art with bureaucratic channels. The government website advised artists to submit a ‘graffiti art exemption application’ before they begin decorating the streets with their polemic protests.

This, no doubt, will raise something of an existentialist crisis in the eyes of the aspiring urban artist - even if they are approved by the council, they can’t escape the ideological defeat of having had their constitutionally anti-establishment art form approved by the establishment.

Whilst these high-profile disputes may raise pubilc awareness of street art, they may also lead to its demise. Many critics have predicted that the heyday of graffiti art is over, its political credentials all-but redundant since it has become regulated by councils and auctioned to the art world elite. After all, when an underground subculture becomes public commissions, how can it fail to be a victim of its own success?


Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.



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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.