Column: Young graffiti ‘vandals’ should be recognized as urban artists

By Tina Depko

Young graffiti ‘vandals’ should be recognized as urban artists

It’s everywhere. On buildings, bus stations, bridges and even mailboxes.

Large, brightly coloured letters and symbols, with no apparent meaning, and no particular purpose.

While graffiti has been around Ottawa for decades, it is getting on some people’s nerves.

Last August, Bay Ward Coun. Alex Cullen declared war on this form of artistic expression.

“There is a plague of graffiti in our town,” the Bay Ward councillor said then. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Cullen suggested some radical steps to stop graffiti, including an education program to change attitudes towards such vandalism and working with police to combat the problem.

But nothing has materialized from these proposals and, since August, it appears Ottawa and particularly Centretown, has become more graffiti covered then ever.

But is declaring war on graffiti necessary?

I don’t think so.

While vulgar obscenities spray painted on mailboxes is vandalism, some graffiti can be art. Like it or not, most of the creations are very detailed and carefully executed. While many people turn a blind eye to the works, a closer examination will show the artists’ attention to form, line and colour. Contrary to popular belief, it can be more than a bunch of squiggles.

And like any art form, graffiti adds to the cultural identity of the city. Downtown Ottawa is filled with unimaginative concrete and brick buildings, making the sector quite unattractive, especially in winter. However, the sections with graffiti offer a glimpse of colour in this monotone world.

One example of beauty amidst banality is the outdoor basketball courts across from the Ottawa Technical high school on Slater Street. Graffiti covers the back concrete wall of the courts, and every few weeks a new mural replaces another, even more brilliant than the last. It seems that this location has become universally accepted as a canvas for murals among graffiti artists, rather than an outlet for profanity.

While councillors here in the nation’s capital continue to fume over the spread of graffiti, some members on the city’s arts boards are more open-minded.

Nichole Zuger, manager for arts development, wants to see collaboration between recognized local artists and graffiti artists.

“Graffiti is not vandalism, but rather a form of public art naturally originating from the community,” Zuger says. “It is a way for young people to express themselves, and by teaming them up with professional artists, it would create credibility for this art form.”

One such place where collaboration would prove fruitful is along the O-Train tracks. An abundance of bridges and tunnels has resulted in some graffiti, but much gray space remains. Zuger says if both sides were interested, they could create an artistic program for the cement spaces. The organizational structure for this idea already exists under the community arts program.

“We would be very interested in pursuing a project like this,” Zuger says. “The impact would be tremendous.”

Zuger says that covering up graffiti insults the artistic merit of the work.

She is definitely on the right track.

Cullen also made a worthwhile proposal. While his ideas on educating the public and introducing law enforcement are overbearing and would likely drill people’s opinions of the art form and the artists into the ground, a suggestion on graffiti-approved areas does have merit. An example would be a business wall.

A graffiti-approved area was implemented in London, England. A team of young graffiti artists painted a skateboard ramp in a city park through the city’s Youth Awareness Program. The outcome was the largest legal graffiti project in the city, and an appreciation of the art form by residents.

The problem of graffiti can be solved if the city is willing to work with graffiti artists to come up with a happy medium. These youth need an approved outlet for their art form and once this happens, they may be less inclined to put it on property not approved by the city.

Let’s hope an agreement can be reached soon before both the artists’ reputation and more private property is destroyed.