Raise a Little Green

Soul in the City: Redirecting Graffiti into Creative Expression

When you look at the human body, it breaks out in hives or other nasty ailments as a sign that something is wrong. Could it be that graffiti is a cultural cry for help?

By Darren Kaulback
Published June 01, 2009

It's everywhere. As I walk down my street, I see it on bridges, fences, sidewalks, mailboxes. I'm sure many of you can guess what I'm taking about, especially you urban dwellers: it's graffiti.


This may seem like an odd topic for a blog on "living green", but for me, "green" is much more than just being environmentally responsible. Sure, it's about a healthy planet; but it's also about healthy people living on that planet.

As I observe the tags, the colours, the attempts at more intricate designs, I see the faces behind them - faces of people who want to be seen, who want a voice.

I know graffiti can be ugly, promote other crimes and devalue a neighbourhood. But when you look at the human body, it breaks out in hives or other nasty ailments as a sign that something is wrong. Could it be that graffiti is a cultural cry for help?

Beauty and Playfulness

Does our desire for conformity and control cut us off from a sense of playfulness or the unexpected?

I accidentally attended a neighborhood association meeting a few weeks back. Accidental as it was not my neighboorhood and it was promoted as a "film night." That aside, I was excited to see a group of 30+ people come together to discuss taking back their communities through guerilla gardening, creating murals in residential intersections and erecting public art.

It seems not everyone is happy with the homogeneous style of urban planning. I fully trust that these upstanding citizens will follow through with their plans to "beautify" their community. Check out the video we watched that night: it's worth a look:

Guerilla gardening and graffiti both have one thing in common - they are illegal. But I think they have another commonality. They are both driven by emotion - from artistic passion to rage.

One graffiti artist in Montreal continues to find himself embroiled in legal action as a consequence of his work. Check out these images: they bring a whole new dimension to the streetscape. They are playful and fun. Couldn't we all use a little more of that?

Vandalism Redirected into Creativity

In Philadephia, back in the '80s, they reached out to the graffiti writers in an attempt to redirect their destructive behavior. A long shot you might say, but it worked.

Today's Mural Arts Program is a success and the once vandalized buildings are now a canvass for beautiful murals that decorate the city. These murals are more than just pretty pictures: they are a visual narrative of the city's history - its pain and its hope.

I know this is not a conventional solution, but it is a solution. Perhaps we need a little less uniformity in our cities and a little more soul.

Published on May 29. 2009 in Darren's blog, Raise a Little Green.

Many of us have our own take on what it means to be green. For Darren, "green" goes beyond just the mechanics of living lightly on the earth, to a more soulful understanding of ourselves as part of nature. He authors a weekly blog, Raise a Little Green, where he highlights the "mis-adventures of turning green," challenges our cultural ideologies and assumptions, and asks the deeper questions of purpose and fulfillment. Darren is a TV director and filmmaker who lives in downtown Hamilton with his wife and two children.


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By arienc (registered) | Posted June 01, 2009 at 10:33:12

While we may utopianize the idea of creative freedom and artistic expression, the graffiti which we see has nothing to do with those ideals.

Graffiti is meant as a way for certain groups to announce their presence and signal that presence that to other groups that share their sub-culture. It is also a signal meant to create fear and intimidation with the public.

This type of graffiti has nothing in common with guerilla gardening, as it is meant to tear apart law-abiding communities, not build them up.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted June 01, 2009 at 14:20:43

I think that graffiti ART is good but the tagging is the part that's bad. I love the wall on the place downtown that's covered in art. Repainting it occasionally to allow for fresh art to go up is a nice touch to. The writing all over the place has to stop though...that's the part that devalues.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted June 01, 2009 at 15:11:21

I think that graffiti ART is good but the tagging is the part that's bad.

But who gets to decide when graffiti crosses the line from a tag to art? There are obvious cases where its clearly one or the other, but art is so subjective there's always going to be grey areas.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted June 01, 2009 at 15:56:15

"But who gets to decide when graffiti crosses the line from a tag to art?"--Urban Renaissance (above) I would argue that this depends in part on its location. Just because art is subjective doesn't give one the right to trespass. If Leonardo himself were to paint the Mona Lisa on my garage during the night I would be pretty upset. I am entirely with Frank (above) on this.

That being said, there should absolutely be public spaces made available for spontaneous artistic expression.

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By omg (anonymous) | Posted June 01, 2009 at 20:07:06

As a property owner and taxpayer, i have to say, I hate graffiti... whether it's considered art or not. If people feel the need to "express" their thoughts and emotions with graffiti, then please do so on their own private property! Leave my private property and our collective public property alone. It's all about respect.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted June 01, 2009 at 20:16:01

A few months back, I accidentally attended a meeting that also showed that same video ... but the promoter of that one went way off-topic ranting about the Alberta tar sands and capitalist swine... and then I left.

Regardless, the video itself is inspiring - I especially like how they worked with the design of the neighbourhoods as they were built - something we could learn from here.

As has already been mentioned, tagging and graffiti are in completely different spheres.

I doubt that providing more public space will do anything about tagging. At least tagging is fairly easy to get rid of.. if it's consistently cleaned up within a day, taggers will almost invariably move on to an easier location.

Would more public space for art help reduce tagging? I seriously doubt it. Most graffiti artists I know have painted in space without permission... but the better the quality of their art, the more venues they have found, created, networked with or obtained permission from to do it legitimately: from basements to warehouses to churches to walls to businesses to sheds in the suburbs. It's not uncommon for those artists to use other mediums or have art-related careers.

What frustrates me about projects like Gibson's in Montreal is that they're have great results for a very low investment - boosting image, creating interest, beautifying environment... and they're ridiculously hard to do going through the "proper" channels.

When one can get something like was done in Portland going, the impact can be enormous and work backward, but it's fundamentally different in its relative lack of anonymity, the gathering/affinity of various people, not painting done covertly in the night alone.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted June 01, 2009 at 22:28:06

Found myself thinking today about consequences for young offenders, wondering what some kind of graphic design program might look like for those caught with a spray paint can in their hands (maybe a lighter penalty in return for participation in such). Now I'm not so naive that I think it would be appreciated by all or even most, especially gang taggers, but suppose we caught a few young enough, and tapped into any latent artistic talent that was there. Some of those tags are quite creative-- they just don't belong around the neighbourhood to intimidate others. I know, I know-- you can't really force a young person to channel his energies positively, but if they were forced to at least consider exploring that option for a time... As much as I loathe tags on mailboxes, etc., I'm with the author on the necessity of seeing "the faces behind them - faces of people who want to be seen, who want a voice."

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted June 02, 2009 at 07:43:18

Michelle Martin wrote

I would argue that this depends in part on its location. Just because art is subjective doesn't give one the right to trespass.

I absolutely agree Michelle, any type of graffiti on road signs, mailboxes or private property (without the owner's consent) is unacceptable. I wasn't arguing that artistic merit be the only decider of what gets kept and what gets painted over.

I also agree that some public space (or maybe private space if the owner consents) should be set aside for graffiti. What I was trying to say with my first post was if we went this route who gets to decide what stays up and for how long?. If it was on private property then obviously it would be up to the owner, but for city property its gets a little more complicated. Would it be automatically painted over each month, or would a Councillor(s?)decide?

Personally I'd rather see a web based system where each allowed location is shown on a map on the city's website, each location would have an email address associated with it for complaints/compliments, too many complaints from the neighbourhood and it gets painted over. Not a perfect system I know, but it would be a start.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2009 at 09:13:48

"What I was trying to say with my first post was if we went this route who gets to decide what stays up and for how long?"-- Urban Renaissance, above

Thanks for clarifying-- you're right, this is a dilemma. The web- based system you propose is an interesting idea.

"Would it be automatically painted over each month, or would a Councillor(s?)decide? " You're right. This question has to be considered out of respect for the artists. What about a photo archive of the work (take a picture of each endeavour before it's painted over), with periodic retrospective gallery shows and an artist meet and greet-- something for the city to do in the wintertime when there aren't any festivals going on?

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted June 02, 2009 at 09:46:54

What about a photo archive of the work...

This is a fantastic idea, you could even take it one step further and post the pictures online, attach them to my previously mentioned map of locations and maybe set up an online poll to decide whether the art should be kept or painted over. Maybe tie the meet and greets into the Art Crawls done on James North?

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2009 at 10:33:47

And if the art doesn't get kept as something more permanent, at least it will have been recorded as part of the show-- gives young artists a chance to build their portfolios, have a little something more on their resumes, if they hope to pursue it as a career.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 04, 2009 at 00:14:06

Graffiti is a reality of urban life. As much as drab grey roads, sidewalks, bridges, buildings, postboxes (which probably get tagged about thrice as much as the red ones) and bus furniture are going to get covered with ink, paint and abrasives. Maybe it's a reaction to the near-total disappearance of inspiration from design and architecture that came with modernism. Or maybe it's a re-emergence of the childhood urge to write on the walls. Either way, as long as massive parts of our city are designed as afterthoughts by office workers at city hall, they're going to be the victims of those with more imagination. Stand at Stinson and Victoria, where the mountain access touches down, and ask yourself why no matter how many times it gets painted over (with those ugly, telltale mismatched grey blotches) people just keep tagging it?

And if anyone doubts that vandals will keep writing when things are painted over, take a walk through the McNab St. tunnel. The graffiti there was so bad that at one point, as discussed in graffiti on the wall, one of the artists themselves started repainting it to open up new space, and the city (despite being within spitting distance of city hall itself) gave up repainting it for almost a year.

Hamilton's real problem is that in our multiple crackdowns on graffiti, we've driven everyone with skill out (or into custody) and covered up all their work. Nature abhors a vaccuum, and thus the biggest, loudest and most obnoxious artists have filled the gap - witness big, bold Chillen or omnipresent Keenur.

My suggestion - create a class of public space which is "fair game" for graffiti, and make that clear. Certain walls (eg train tunnels) and objects (eg. traffic signal boxes) would be there for anyone to decorate as they see fit. This would mean that people wouldn't have to fear being arrested for doing such things and could take the time to do it right (imagine your mother painting flowers on the overpass railing). Another class would be for residents of the area to collectively decide upon (so as to grant individual character to each neighbourhood), such as telephone poles or sidewalks. And for Bob's sake make the rest well enough designed that they're not worth painting over - like it or not there's a pretty direct correlation between ugly, seemingly uncared about public space and graffiti, and things like prominent public artwork tend to discourage it pretty effectively.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 04, 2009 at 12:42:44

Here's an interesting idea:

A Saskatoon woman has opened her fence to anyone with a marking pen and a thought they'd like to express.

Kim Krueckl, 26, told CBC News that the idea of transforming her fence into a space for public discourse had been percolating with her for years.

The concept became reality Monday when she announced her fence, at 1122 Broadway Ave. in Saskatoon, was open for commentary.

Krueckl calls it a message board for people without computers.


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By Hammerhead (registered) | Posted June 05, 2009 at 13:57:58

Sorry, defacing someone else's property or public property in the name of art expression is vandalism.

If you want to express your artistic endeavours, do it legally.

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By Hammerhead (registered) | Posted June 05, 2009 at 14:07:26

..and stop calling these people graffiti "artists" - The more appropriate term is graffiti "vandals".

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted June 09, 2009 at 22:40:07

Not sure if anyone is still reading this thread but I had just one more thought to add...

I recently noticed the latest ad campaign the city is running to deal with the graffiti problem. The posters basically say that if you see someone tagging a building you should call 911 immediately.

I hadn't really given it much thought until tonight when I had to call 911 for an actual emergency. (Fyi, everyone's fine, thanks to the amazing work of the responding firemen, paramedics, the St. Joe's doctors and nurses and the 911 operators.) After fumbling my cell phone out of my pocket and dialling 911, it took 6 or 7 rings before I even got through and even then it was a recording telling me to stand by. Maybe 20 or 30 seconds after that I finally got transfered to a live person who could assist me. The whole ordeal took a good 2-3 minutes that may not sound like a long time but believe me it felt plenty long and for some emergencies that could mean the difference between life and death.

Now I know that its highly unlikely that a rash of graffiti related calls to 911 is what caused my delay, but it got me thinking; aren't our police and 911 operators busy enough as it is without also having to deal with an irate property owner watching a wannabe thug tag a wall? Since when did graffiti rank up there with house fires, robberies and heart attacks? Everyone has a camera these days, if you see someone tagging your property then just record them and turn the tape/digital files over to the police. Let them investigate and apprehend the taggers. Graffiti endangers no one and is at worst just an eyesore, it in no way qualifies as an emergency and should never be treated as one.

I'd really like to find out who authorized those posters and ask him why he/she thinks graffiti is a life or death matter.

Maybe I should call 911 and ask...

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By cruncky (anonymous) | Posted August 30, 2010 at 22:12:22

if you have a building that is always getting tagged,get a well respected graffiti artist to paint a mural on the wall an kids wont tag it anymore!

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