Nowhere to Paint, Nowhere to Learn

Nowhere to Paint, Nowhere to Learn (Find Original Article Here)
Posted By: Jason Youmans
07/30/2008 8:00 AM

By cracking down on street art of all sorts, has the city lost a valuable tool in the battle against bad graffiti?

As Monday learned after publishing a recent editorial in defense of graffiti, it seems no one in Victoria likes the lowly tagger. But in a city quick to buff the first sign of unsolicited spray paint from its walls while offering no alternative for budding Banksys* to feed their egos and make their names known, the Garden City is setting itself up for a tourism-dependent town’s worst nightmare—an endless cycle of really crappy graffiti.

Monday recently caught up with a decade-long veteran of the local aerosol art community to talk about the city’s graffiti scene, why there are so many trashy tags and what happens when there’s no place for people to hone their skills without fear of getting cuffed by the cops. For obvious reasons, he wishes to remain anonymous, so we’ll call him Rusto—after a paint popular among that set.

Like a true old-timer, Rusto recognizes that quantity, not quality, seems to drive today’s writers. “You’re right, there’s a lot of crap in Victoria, and I’ve noticed it because I’ve been doing [graffiti] with my friends for so long,” says the 29-year-old father of two. “It’s happening in spots where it shouldn’t be.”

Of course, there is no shortage of property owners downtown and in periphery neighbourhoods to attest to the thousands of dollars spent trying to keep their storefronts, fences and warehouse walls graffiti-free. But there’s also a growing number of businesses—Ho-Ting Restaurant and Budget Steel for example—that have found one of the most effective tools to keep ugly tags off their property is to commission big names in Victoria graffiti history to let rip on their walls.

And that’s where Rusto and his friends now get to make their mark.

“We get legal walls now,” he says. “We don’t need to go out and smash through to a wall and throw up something illegal because we’ve already got the fame, we’re already well-known and we can walk up to a business and talk to the owner and he’ll give us a wall. And he’ll be blown away by what we do there. That’s something I tell businesses: ‘Let us do this, and you will never have a problem again.’”

There is a hierarchy in the underground art world—those who have paid their dues are repaid with respect for their work. The problem is, the pool of artists who command that respect is dwindling as the number of places to practice the craft seems to shrink with each passing year.

“You’ve got to have dedication,” Rusto says. “If you’re not in it to win it, what’s the point of even bothering to excel in what you’re trying to achieve?”

He readily admits that, like every aspiring graf artist, he got his start scribbling tags around the city, but he came to the urban art form at a time when graffiti in Victoria was flourishing. In the late 1990s, the warehouse walls along the E&N;rail line in Esquimalt existed in a legal grey zone. Because it was out of the public eye, the police gave some latitude to the painting that went on there. Rusto estimates that at one time there were 10 city walls that were in that same murky legal territory, but the tracks were the undisputed centre of the scene.

“The tracks were where me and my friends learned our skills,” he says. “And all of us who are still doing it now learned from that one spot and it grew from a seed into this huge flower from just practicing over and over in this one area.”

However, the luxury of having a place to spend time gaining genuine artistic outdoor art skills in Victoria has passed, with the rise of anti-graffiti groups bent on eliminating all unsolicited paint and penmanship and a crackdown on the walls where the right to paint was regulated by the hierarchy of experience.

A group called Esquimalt Together Against Graffiti [E-TAG] formed in 2004 was a catalyst for ending graffiti at the tracks, a move universally deplored by the graffiti community—and panned by some unexpected voices.

Tom Woods is an Esquimalt firefighter, former police officer and a founding member of the Rock Solid Foundation formed in the late 1990s to help youth in the city find positive outlets to escape violence. He was also an advocate for graffiti writers who used the trackside walls as their canvas.

Woods says aerosol art at the tracks was allowed under a gentleman’s agreement with the business owners. The walls could be used for graffiti—as long as some degree of police presence extended there.

However, E-TAG, in conjunction with the municipality, soon determined that artists coming to the tracks were bombing everything in site from Victoria into Esquimalt and the bleed-out could be traced to the trackside walls. Woods recognizes that tags seeping from the tracks was inevitable, and was initially happy to have E-TAG around to keep the rest of the neighbourhood looking good. However, he says the decision to turn the tracks into a graffiti-free zone was simply wrong.

“I told them, ‘If you want to spend your time and energy painting over an 800-metre-long stretch of artwork, that’s crazy,’” says Woods. “But, they were vigilant about what they thought the problem was. I told them that if they paint over that stuff, someone’s just going to paint on it again with swear words, call the cops pigs and call you guys names. And that’s exactly what happened.”

“As Rock Solid we try to help kids that are disadvantaged,” says Woods. “If you’re a victim of violence, or if you’re confronted with that kind of stuff, we’re a place you can come to lean on. And I really think that a lot of the kids who express themselves through aerosol art are those kids.

“It’s controversial to say, and if you’re a merchant and your building’s been tagged a bunch of times and it’s costing you a fortune, fair enough, you have a right to be angry,” says Woods. “But I understand that a lot of the time these are disadvantaged kids who have a right to express themselves, and right now we just arrest them. There must be a better way.”

What that better way is, of course, is a matter of perspective. For Rusto, stopping it all together is a non-starter.

“An addiction is what it is,” he says. “It’s like drugs or alcohol. You write your name on the wall and people are going to talk about it and you become addicted to the fame. It’s like being a street celebrity. And there’s no way to stop it. It’s what’s been going on since the early 1960s in Philadelphia and now it’s never-ending.”

Mike Reed is on the other end of the spectrum as the Esquimalt municipal employee tasked with keeping his town free of unwanted paint. He says he has no choice but to buff it all, regardless of the quality or the location.

“Graffiti has a tendency to multiply. If you get one tag on a wall, just watch and within a week you’ll have five. There is either no graffiti, or there is a lot of graffiti,” he says.

In a recent letter to the Times Colonist, E-TAG member Peter Justo wrote that graffiti walls don’t work and the tags continue to bleed out to the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Maybe that’s the case, but judging from the fatigue in Reed’s voice when he talks about being one step behind Esquimalt’s prolific taggers, having no permanent city graffiti sites doesn’t make his job any easier.

Perhaps it’s time to return to the days when aspiring graffiti writers who cared about the art form, rather than the havoc it wreaks, had a place to ply their craft without having to look over their shoulders for the red and blue lights. M

* The internet is a handy tool. Look him up if you don’t know who he is.

It all starts from the scribble

For the Victoria Police Department, cracking down on graffiti is not a matter of artistic taste, but one of location and circumstance.

“There is no definition of what constitutes good or bad art,” says Victoria Police spokesperson Derek Tolmie. "All we care about is when it’s people applying their art on property that doesn’t belong to them without permission. That’s the criminal offense.”

In the past, the Victoria Police Department endorsed programs to beat unwelcome graffiti writers to the punch by supporting artists to paint murals on popular tagging sites.

Ocean Concrete general manager Dave Buchanan was one the first to sign on to that program. The company’s wall on Bay Street was often riddled with quick and dirty bubble letters.

“It was unpleasant for the public to drive by that,” says Buchanan. “And we certainly spent a lot of time and energy trying to repaint it, but that wasn’t happening.”

Then Buchanan agreed to a colourful mural chronicling the company's century-long history in Victoria. The mural went up five years ago and has been largely tag-free since. "Unless of course you look at the side of our building where we don't have a mural—it's all graffitied up."

Local lawyer and property owner Ron Lu Poy recently allowed the commercial tenants of his building at the corner of Douglas and Bay Street to put up a huge mural on a two-storey wall that was often covered in scribbles and scrawls—he even deducted the cost of paint from the tenants' rent.

And it's not only graffiti writers that can deter taggers from leaving their mark. Oceanic Market in Vic West was always being heavily bombarded with graffiti until a local community group painted a mural. The same is true of the wooden construction barriers on Yates Street and on Pandora Avenue where local students have been allowed to paint verses from their favourite poets.

Of course, these anti-graffiti graffiti projects seem to have an expiry date, says municipality of Esquimalt facilities and operations manager Mike Reed. He points to the concession stand in Gorge Park and the gigantic smiling sun mural near Victor Brodeur school as locations that held taggers at bay for a while, but have since fallen victim to uninvited spray paint.

“It really is an addicition,” says Reed. “These guys simply can’t control themselves. They are habitual, pathological taggers and you can’t control them. I won’t give you their tag names, because that’s the kind of notoriety they’re looking for, so part of our philosophy of eliminating every tag as they occur is to eliminate that “hey, did you see my tag on top of the so-and-so.”

Veteran Victoria graffiti artist Rusto says the destructive habits of the city's young taggers causes a headache for those who practice graffiti as an art form.

"I almost want those kids to get roasted," he says. "Let those kids who go out and bomb everything for their two minutes of fame get caught, because they're causing more of a headache for building owners than we are. I'd rather do something that looks awesome for my portfolio than I would a tag on the wall. It's a waste of time. But, at the same time, it all starts from the scribble."