There is a public storage building that I pass everyday on my commute to and from home. "Clean" would be the best way to describe it; it is white, it has a simple cubical design, and, in our 18 years of acquaintance, I have never seen its surface blemished. My neighbourhood has seen its share of graffiti, both the innovative and aesthetically pleasing mural variety as well as "tagging," a hastily completed, illegible spray-can scrawl. When I noticed the latter on the storage building during my morning commute, I was upset, not only because this building had been needlessly cheapened by some ugly, indecipherable phrase, but because I didn't know how soon it would be removed. The very next day a team of City personnel were restoring the storage building to its former glory.
Shirley Hoy, former Toronto City manager, said that, "public service work tends to be invisible unless something goes wrong." Ms. Hoy was among the jurists at the 2014 Public Sector Leadership Awards, sponsored by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada and Deloitte, which recently awarded Toronto's Graffiti Management Plan with a Silver Medal for Leadership in Municipal Government.
The Graffiti Management program is implemented through StreetArtToronto (StART) initiatives which combines enforcement and removal of vandalism with support of graffiti and murals as well as the artists who create them. The program is led by Transportation Services and Municipal Licensing and Standards in conjunction with the Toronto Police Service and community groups such as Business Improvement Areas, arts organizations and artists. Key partners in the project also include the AGO and St. Stephen's Community House.
A visit to the StART website demonstrates the lengths to which its organizers have gone to truly embrace graffiti as an art, lifting it from the stigma of vandalism. The program's statement of purpose is to "develop, support, promote and increase awareness of street art and its indispensable role in adding beauty and character to neighbourhoods across Toronto, while counteracting graffiti vandalism and its harmful effect on communities."
Its initiatives are certainly a testament to this. Most telling of the initiative's support of street art is its Directory of Artists, which shows thumbnails of work along with a short description of their practice. There is also an interactive map of graffiti art and murals around the Toronto. StART also has several programs which elicit the help of street artists to beautify the city's public spaces. The Outside The Box program asks for proposal to create art on City traffic signal boxes at various locations throughout Toronto. Over 2013 and 2014, 56 traffic signal boxes were hand painted. The intersections where these decorated boxes are located is listed along with the names of their respective creators. StART also has a new initiative of similar nature, the StreetArtToronto Underpass program, which works under the mandate to make the city's underpasses "safe, walkable and beautiful."
Aside from StART, the Graffiti Management Plan also includes a Graffiti Art/Mural Exemption which under City Code Chapter 485 allows for graffiti to be regularized. As long as the work is authorized by the property owner, works within the framework of its community's character or standards, and aesthetically enhances it surface, it may be allowed.
The Program's vandalism removal initiatives are equally as honourable. The website explains that graffiti vandalism which, is privately and municipally unapproved tagging or defacement, can be reported to the police. Furthermore, if the vandalism involves hateful or gang-related messages it will be removed within 24 hours of notice. There is also an initiative to assist residential and commercial property owners who have been repeat targets of vandalism by facilitating the creation of an approved mural on their property.
Institutionally legitimizing murals and graffiti as art and lifting those who practice it tastefully and meaningfully from the sidelines to pedestals of public recognition is a major accomplishment for the city's image, physically and figuratively. More than that, this initiative helps to weave the people in our city closer together – those who always knew graffiti as art with those who are now recognizing it as such.