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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.



Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation