Roadsworth: Art or Vandalism?

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 26, 2009

Alan Kohl has directed a great documentary called Roadsworth: Crossing the Line about Peter Gibson, the celebrated Montreal artist whose elegant, provocative street art has gotten him into serious legal trouble and spurred a vigorous public discussion about the boundary between artistic expression and vandalism.

His work is notable for its clever, sophisticated integration with existing public infrastructure: climbing vines wrap around a crosswalk; scissors cut along the 'dotted line' of lane markings; dandelion seeds ripen on the tips of parking spot lines and are picked up by the wind.

Roadsworth explains, "My original intention was to simply introduce an element of surprise into an otherwise very uniform and predictable environment."

Marc Meyer, director of the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, says of his work, "At first, because they were so slick, so well done, and so clever, I just presumed that it was a grant that somebody got with the city's permission."

But the art is neither funded nor even approved. It's vandalism. Roadsworth faces 85 charges of public mischief with up to $100,00 in fines and possible jail time. He approaches the trial unsure whether to "treat this as a crusade, a defender of freedom of expression" or to "just try and get off as easily as possible."

"I don't know," he concludes. "I don't know how much integrity I have."

Vandalism, Art and Public Interest

It's unclear to what extent a court would consider either the popularity or the arguable public interest value of his work, given that it is, technically speaking, vandalism on public property.

Yet as Francine Lord, Montreal's Public Art Commissioner, notes, "To my knowledge, this was the first time that pedestrians, the public, ordinary people addressed the municipality in support of an artist's work. It's really quite special."

Much of what makes a community livable is precisely the creativity and engagement of its citizens in leaving a personal, idiosyncratic mark on their environment - an activity Roadsworth undertakes literally.

This entails active citizenship - residents caring enough to work toward making their community safer, more vibrant and more welcoming, and to support the efforts of active citizens.

When engagement through the political process doesn't work or takes too long ("justice delayed..."), citizens sometimes take matters into their own hands. I'm thinking, for example, of the King William Guerilla Gardening project or amateur transportation planners like Toronto's Urban Repair Squad, who have decided to establish or refresh bike lanes where the city is dragging its feet.

Art: We Know it When We See It

The critical issue here is the local government's tolerance for activism and willingness to let residents make the city their own. Places that tend to be more receptive to citizen engagement also tend to be more willing to let citizens take the lead directly on transforming public spaces.

On the other hand, cities must struggle to tease out the line between public art / active citizenship and reckless vigilanteeism / vandalism. Cities thrive on rules, and it's tempting to err on the side of shutting down anything that might fall under the latter category.

Yet it seems fair to apply the famous line of reasoning from US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on an entirely different matter where a fuzzy lines separates expression from harm: we know it when we see it.

The benefit to this approach is that it frees communities to set their own standards of what they're willing to celebrate, support, and/or tolerate.

The question is whether city governments and public courts can live with this provisional, ad hoc approach to the public interest. Will the judge hearing the case against Roadsworth decide that "a reasonable person" would accept his work as a positive contribution rather than vandalism?

(h/t to brodiec for finding this)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Deputy Dawg (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2009 at 10:53:09

Here is a prime example of graffiti 'art' being painted with the same brush as graffiti 'tagging'...yet, because there was no permission to create the 'art', the judicial system is correct in charging Gibson. My hope is that he will not face any convictions, but rather hired by the City to create more creative 'art' pieces.

This is a sad case wherein a highly talented individual fails to seek permission, or create a 'business case' to showcase his art accordingly, and as such, is lumped in with the neanderthals who scribble their signatures on anything that doesn't move. There needs to be a better way to communicate to individuals who want to create images on how to do so correctly...or else they are going to be continued to be piled into the same group as those which seek to willfully damage property.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted March 26, 2009 at 11:54:53

Part of the problem is that there are rarely any decent mechanisms in place to allow people to "do so correctly", and where there are, they are very very slow and tedious, and borderline impossible to navigate.

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By OLDCOOTE (registered) | Posted March 26, 2009 at 14:50:08

It was right to charge him. I guess the only question lies in the sentencing.

The system can't let vandals and taggers hide behind a veil of freedom of expression, so a message may be sent in this case.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 26, 2009 at 15:16:07

Where do I contribute to his defense fund? :)

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2009 at 15:48:28

How can a member of the public deface public property? Isn't he an owner? Or is it just the politicians who get to decide how public property gets to be utilized? If he had defaced someone's personal property, then he should have to repair the damages. But the threat of jail time, that seems a little over the top.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted March 26, 2009 at 20:02:40

Personally I think his work adds warmth, color to the drab , cold environment. I really liked the sunflowers in the parking lot, that looks cool.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2009 at 00:26:44

Grassroots and A. Smith together at last? Now I've seen everything!

Seriously though - would anybody in all honesty consider King William guerrilla gardening to be a crime? Why not? For the life of me, I can't discern a fundamental difference between the two situations. . . Both involve individuals altering the exterior appearance of private property; both involve an attempt to beautify an otherwise bland, harsh urban landscape. . .

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By arienc (registered) | Posted March 27, 2009 at 09:44:05

An interesting debate.

Do we allow any citizen to individually decide how to go about beautifying the urban environment? Or do we as citizens require that this type of activity first receive our permission?

I've long been concerned about the impact that graffiti has on a community...the broken window syndrome, where the impression is given that society does not care about its assets, and therefore does not care about the community that uses them. Allowing "tagging" is tantamount to telling citizens that the things that they have worked hard to pay for are not worth properly taking care of.

However when it crosses the line and becomes creative and artistic, and actually adds value to the community, such as seen here, it has the opposite impact.

Do we accept the "bad" graffiti that is more prevelant, equivalent to dogs marking their territory, in hopes that some of it will be "good"? Who decides what is "good", and what has artistic merit? The taggers? Civic administrators? Voters? It's a slippery slope.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 27, 2009 at 11:43:37

I ascribe to the view of the Supreme Court Justice quoted in the story, that "we know it when we see it." I don't think it's as difficult as you might think to sort out the difference between what adds value and what takes it away. Nor is it simply a matter of deciding what has artistic merit based on individual tastes, which may differ. For instance, the motives of the creator should be an important factor in how we view the results. It's pretty difficult to argue that taggers are attempting to beauty or edify their communities.

Roadsworth also seems to have confined himself to public property, which is a statement in itself, and another quantifiable difference between what he is doing and the activities of those with less compunction about private property rights.

The KWGG is in dicier territory in this regard. The LIUNA parkette is a quasi-public space, but still technically private property. Are our actions justified because they are clearly adding value? Does the quasi-public nature of the space give us a say in how it should be managed? More likely our butts are simply being saved by the ephemeral nature of plant material; no one could seriously argue any lasting, material damage has been perpetrated.

As for who gets to decide, I think it should be the intended audience: the community at large, and as I said earlier, I don't think it's actually that difficult to get a consensus on what adds value since it's about alot more than just individual aesthetic taste.

As you say, an interesting debate, but then I think that's part of the point.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted March 27, 2009 at 19:21:33

There is definitely a difference between art and vandalism, but there is definitely an issue with letting the court decide what is art. It's a tough quandary.

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By permission shpermission (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2009 at 20:21:01

A Smith doesn't like the consequence of politicians being "leaders". Neither do I. If they were truly our "representatives" then Smith's supporting argument might collapse.

That's an aside. Has anyone been harmed by this art? Anyone crash into a boulevard because they couldn't stay between the lines, fall over gawking or attack their neighbours with the madness of it all? I say if it looks good, do it.

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By Crln (registered) | Posted March 27, 2009 at 22:28:11

It's cool to read about Roadsworth here, but I think you're a little late in the game, Ryan.

If anyone's curious, Roadsworth decided to plead guilty, was fined $250 and had to perform 40 hours community service, plus was on probation for a while. A McGill Daily interview from a month after his Jan. 2006 sentence is here: His site says that his extremely light sentence may have been because of all the public support.

Afterwards, he started doing commissions, some of which were for the city. I think I read that they could still technically arrest him at any time, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't. Montreal's behind him.

Here's a spacingmontreal article about how the citizens and employees from the St-Pierre neighbourhood hired him to revitalize their main street:

It's neat reading interviews with Roadsworth because he's never pretentious, he doesn't have some kind of manifesto-- I feel like he'd read the discussion on this board and elsewhere and say, "Hmm. Good points." Then he'd shrug and go out and paint another pool ladder on the road's edge. I don't know how lawmakers should deal with people like Roadsworth, but he definitely has brightened many of my days.

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By K Joann Russell (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2010 at 18:33:11

As a painter of sunflowers I must admit that they will add a smile wherever they are "planted", urban concrete or rural landscape.

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