Toronto not actively pre-empting graffiti

Despite graffiti on its buildings, walls and sidewalks, the City of Toronto has no plans to prevent it from happening in the first place.

City hall defines graffiti as one or more letters, symbols, figures, etchings, scratches, inscriptions, stains or other markings that disfigure or deface a structure or thing … but does not include an art mural. However, Toronto doesn’t actively pursue the prevention of graffiti on city walls.

According to Lance Cumberbatch, the director of investigative services under the Municipal Licensing and Standards Office, the city plays a passive role.

“The city simply responds to complaints from the public rather than actively seeking out graffiti,” he said. “The city is strictly responding.”

The process of determining what is graffiti and what is not, turns out to be quite arbitrary. Once a complaint is made, a municipal standards officer goes to the graffiti site. The officer follows the municipal code to determine if it’s graffiti. But Cumberbatch points out that the assessment is not absolute.

“Property owners can challenge the assessment,” he said.

The matter is then sent to a local community council for a final decision. Residents can also attend the community council meetings and voice their concerns.

“Community council will hear all submissions and then make a decision,” Cumberbatch said. “They’ll either agree with our assessment or the owner’s.”

Of course, everyone’s definition of graffiti is different. And some graffiti is legal.

Centennial College fine arts student Brandon Ing says the government should not decide what goes on people’s exterior walls.

“If the building owner is fine with it, then there’s no reason as to why it shouldn’t be there,” he said. “A lot of the walls that you see downtown with graffiti are legal. The graffiti writer has gone to the property owner and asked if it was OK.”

Some graffiti artists admit that to gain recognition among fellow street artists, they feel they can’t just do graffiti the general public finds acceptable.

“You can go and do all the legal walls you want, but if you don’t go and do illegal graffiti, real graffiti writers will come and take it out,” Ing said. “In order to get respect in graffiti you need to do illegal graffiti.”