Show Hide image

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.



David Cameron shows Labour how to do it

Leftwing rhetoric masked rightwing reality in Cameron's conference speech.

“The tanks are in the kitchen,” was the gloomy verdict of one Labour staffer to a speech in which the Prime Minister roamed freely into traditional left-wing territory.

But don’t be fooled: David Cameron is still the leader of an incredibly right-wing government for all the liberal-left applause lines.

He gave a very moving account of the difficulties faced by careleavers: but it is his government that is denying careleavers the right to claim housing benefit after they turn 22.

He made a powerful case for expanding home ownership: but his proposed solution is a bung for buy-to-let boomers and dual-earner childless couples, the only working-age demographic to do better under Cameron than under Labour.

On policy, he made just one real concession to the left: he stuck to his guns on equal rights and continued his government’s assault on the ridiculous abuse of stop-and-search. Neither of these are small issues, and they are a world away from the Conservative party before Cameron – but they also don’t cost anything.

In exchange for a few warm words, Cameron will get the breathing space to implement a true-blue Conservative agenda, with an ever-shrinking state for most of Britain, accompanied by largesse for well-heeled pensioners, yuppie couples, and small traders.

But in doing so, he gave Labour a lesson in what they must do to win again. Policy-wise,it is Labour – with their plans to put rocketboosters under the number of new housing units built – who have the better plan to spread home ownership than Cameron’s marginal solutions. But last week, John McDonnelll focussed on the 100,000 children in temporary accomodation. They are undoubtedly the biggest and most deserving victims of Britain’s increasingly dysfunctional housing market. But Labour can’t get a Commons majority – or even win enough seats to form a minority government – if they only talk about why their policies are right for the poor. They can’t even get a majority of votes from the poor that way.

What’s the answer to Britain’s housing crisis? It’s more housebuilding, including more social housing. Labour can do what Cameron did today in Manchester – and deliver radical policy with moderate rhetoric, or they can lose.

But perhaps, if Cameron feels like the wrong role model, they could learn from a poster at the People’s History Museum, taken not from Labour’s Blairite triumphs or even the 1960s, but from 1945: “Everyone – yes, everyone – will be better off under a Labour government”.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.