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

New Statesman
A woman walks past a Banksy artwork in London (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

"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?