Friday, August 21, 2009

Graffiti, Art, and Ideology

Next week's Transportation Committee meeting at City Hall has an item on the agenda called "Graffiti Management Program Enhancements - Mural Program/Legal Graffiti Wall Monitoring," which includes many provisions to enhance the Graffiti Management Program, specifically by allowing murals on graffiti-targeted walls and allowing legal places for graffiti to take place (such as the Ottawa Tech wall).

This seems like a good opportunity to bring up this message I received a copy of last month. It's a detailed response by André Brisebois, Executive Director of SKETCH Orléans, to a call to arms against graffiti by someone by the name of Francis Rizzo. The entire message was so long, Gmail trimmed it.

To briefly summarize Rizzo's message to various local politicians and leaders (which you can read in full in the Ravensview blog post linked at the end of Brisebois' message), he suggested that the City's Graffiti Management Strategy is being tainted by art mural projects. One of the people included in the message forwarded both messages to a list I'm on.

Rizzo makes many unsupported claims, which he uses to spread dissent, a tactic known as FUD, which Brisebois calls him on. These are highlighted in Brisebois' response (copied to the original list of recipients), which responds to Rizzo's comments point-by-point and is reproduced in full below with permission. (For clarity, excerpts of Rizzo's original message are shown here in blue italics).
From: André Brisebois
Subject: RE: Graffiti in Ottawa - A response from SKETCH Orléans
Date: Tue, 7 Jul 2009

Dear Council Members, Community Leaders, Business Improvement Areas, Mr. Rizzo,

Graffiti art VS. graffiti vandalism in Ottawa has been a very hot issue for the past few years. It seems to come back every year around Spring-Summer time.

I am writing to you in order to set the record straight for the Orléans Youth Resource Centre, operating as SKETCH Orléans - a local non-profit community organization with the mandate to “involve and empower Orléans area high school youth in the realization of social, cultural and recreational initiatives.”

Firstly, I encourage you to contact us if you have any concerns with some of our activities. We strive to be as open, inclusive and collaborative as possible with both youth and the community as a whole. We seek positive solutions in order to address some of the youth issues in our community. Furthermore, we seek to involve youth in the development of our/their community. This is no easy task so we are open to constructive suggestions and positive ideas. We are willing to sit down with any group that has a problem or issue and work collaboratively towards a community AND youth based solution.

With that said, I wish to respond directly to Mr. Rizzo’s comments on the graffiti issue. I will have more to say at the end of this message.…
With this behavioural trend in mind, some things you should know so that you and your communities aren’t taken advantage of, embarrassed, or exploited by graffiti vandals presenting themselves as legal mural painters.
Mr. Rizzo talks about being “taken advantage of, embarrassed, or exploited by graffiti vandals”. In our case, when we worked on the Orléans Auto Tech mural, a private initiative requested by the business owner on his private property, we talked about involving youth at risk in a supervised activity, with permission and for positive results to the community. Please know that nobody was embarrassed nor exploited.
  • The function of an art mural is to beautify and enrich a community. An art mural becomes the face of a community. Mural content should have community in mind…as it infringes on “air rights” and, like advertising billboards, could create visual sprawl that may negatively impact residents and communities…or may offend local property owners who have been fighting graffiti vandalism attacks against their properties.
In our case, this has always been done in collaboration with the property owner, Mr. Copeland from the Orléans Auto Tech. In this case, the mural WAS his effort to fight graffiti vandalism – and it worked, as it is often the case in many other cities! SKETCH Orléans even prepared a Graffiti Art Day in order to raise awareness to the issue and the proposed activity in the community.
  • Art murals do not curb vandalism
– It worked at the Orléans Auto Tech and the 174 sound barrier, both of which are still tag free since 2008.
- If you wish to curb vandalism on a surface do not put up an art mural. The most cost effective and successful remedy for vandalism is to repaint the surface…and maintain it rigorously immediately after. Graffiti vandals choose surfaces for their visibility and the lack of maintenance/care to the area (in order to maximize the effect of their paint and effort). Maintaining a previously vandalized surface that has been newly repainted will wean vandals off of that surface.
I encourage Mr. Rizzo to talk to business owners, such as Mr. Copeland, to see what they think of this solution… I believe that murals are much more cost-effective in the long run than constantly repainting the same surface. Murals also have other positive impacts such as enabling youth involvement in community development.
- Vandalism may be immediately curbed on a specific surface by installing a mural wall, but typically this will end up drawing and redirected vandalism onto adjacent properties, turning your problem into the problems of your neighbours
Since the beginning of Gatineau’s graffiti prevention initiatives, back in 2001, they have seen a 70% decrease in graffiti-related complaints. (Source: Commission jeunesse de Gatineau,, Contact person:, 819 243-2345 poste 2418. [Brisebois' emphasis]

Gatineau has 50 legal graffiti walls spread out in 29 sites in the community and they have not run into this problem. a=culture&c=en-CA&p=quoi_faire/murs_graffitis_autorises

Note: the Orléans Auto Tech mural has not been vandalized since it was done in the summer of 2008. The business owner’s graffiti problem has been solved with the mural.
- If the mural is put up by “Graffiti Mural” artists, the mural may be supporting active vandals with financing, excess paint supplies for future acts of vandalism, and recognition/visibility/acclaim
Unfortunately, I am certain that graffiti artists can find and buy their own paint supplies without the “support” of mural clients. Nonetheless, I agree that owners could keep the excess paint instead of returning it to the artists… This however might cause a new problem which I talk about further below…
- If the mural is put up by “Graffiti Mural” artists, the mural may include the graffiti tags of vandals and raise their visibility and profile. Ensure that you put thought/control into the content of a graffiti-style mural…and make it community-oriented and meaningful
Content is always approved by the owner – it was in our case at the Orléans Auto Tech. Artists were allowed to sign their art work in their own way.
- If the mural is put up by “Graffiti Mural” artists, the mural may draw fans of graffiti to the area to admire the mural…and they may choose to leave their own vandalism marks nearby out of inspiration/homage to their graffiti idols
Quote: “They may choose to leave their own vandalism marks…” Well, they also may choose not too! So far I have not seen this happen at the Orléans Auto Tech mural…I have also never heard youth talk of their “graffiti idols”…
- Using graffiti mural opportunities as a means of rehabilitating graffiti vandals and reintroducing them into our community can promote a business model where young vandals are presented with a toxic example of success. This example encourages them to continue building their skills via acts of vandalism, in the hope of one day becoming paid mural artists like their vandal idols. If you are going to select artists, reward artists who have chosen to work within the system…not against it. They will respect your property and the property of others, both during and after they have finished your mural.
What about youth who are not “in the system”… how would you bring them back in the system? How else would you do skill development with them? What if you could use their illegal hobbies to train them to use them for something positive, maybe even “bringing them back in the system”.

There are two sides to the coin: A toxic example of success might actually turn into a life-changing success story for a young future entrepreneur. I believe youth deserve that chance. See KeepSix’s mission:
-If the mural is put up by “Graffiti Mural” artists, they may take the opportunity of being in the area to scout out interesting locations to put up graffiti, and vandalize the surrounding area after their work day is done (as they make their way to/from the site)
“They may take the opportunity…” They also might not… This is not fact based. This comment seems to be meant to inspire fear. I could come up with many other positive “what ifs”. For example: What if young artists appreciate the time they had to paint a mural with permission and stress-free so much that they get tired of doing it illegally and actually take a step down the right path… Sure, some have not “kicked the habit” yet, but there are some graffiti artists who have. Mike Mesa is a wonderful example and I applaud his hard work.
  • When selecting artists to put up a mural wall…consider the following:
- Select a professional and legitimate mural painter (it may be more expensive but you will not be supporting graffiti vandals or drawing additional vandalism to your community)

We have the mandate to involve local youth and provide them with positive and rewarding experiences. We involve local youth in community development.
- If someone if offering to paint your mural for cost or for supplies…it’s probably too good to be true. They may have their own agenda…and use the opportunity you present to further it.
How else do emerging artists build a portfolio? All artists need a portfolio to make it in their industry, to develop their career. What could be on their secret agenda that is so bad? This comment is not fact based and only inspires fear and ignorance. However, it also implies that artists are approaching businesses to see if they are interested in a mural. Hence, the artists are offering local businesses a solution to a common issue. This is a good thing. Let’s not be afraid of positive and new solutions to a common issue.
- Create your own Do It Yourself (DIY) painting team by enlisting the involvement of your local community (children, artists, community leaders). You’ll build stronger bonds in your community, create a team building exercise, and involve/invest community interest into the care and maintenance of your community and the mural surface
That is precisely what we did at the Orléans Auto Tech mural. We connected local young artists with a local business owner. The owner requested a “professional” mural – a very nice and colorful one… Considering that graffiti is a valid art form, we thought it best to hire artists in order to meet the owner’s request. In order to fulfill our own mandate, we thought it would be good to get local youth and to facilitate the relation with the business owner. We even organized a graffiti art day (GART) to raise awareness in the community and to facilitate dialogue between young artists and the business owner.

The original highway 174 mural, with cartoon butterflies and flowers, was done in the way Mr. Rizzo is suggesting. Result: it was very nice but it was also mocked by many for being too childish and amateur. Hence, it got vandalized. If we want a mural to portray the image of our community, it must be a professional mural that makes us proud. Cartoons and flowers did not make teenage youth proud of Orléans and in the end, the mural got a makeover with Mike Mesa and other artists. Note that I agree that the original mural was a good initiative, I just think the mural is better the way it is now than the way it was before. It has also not been vandalized since its graffiti makeover, apart from one early incident where the graffiti community publicly condoned the unfortunate act and came out to clean it up.
- If using “Graffiti Artists”, know who you are dealing with. Review IDs, request criminal record checks, and collect information on who will be painting your mural (and be present during the painting to ensure the same “artists” are actually doing the work and not being substituted) in order to weed out vandals/criminals
We have not come into a situation where artists were substituted. I am starting to assume that Mr. Rizzo does not work with youth at risk. By his standard, all ex-convicts, even if rehabilitated, should not be allowed to work. This is not constructive for our society, nor is it for youth at risk who wish to turn their life around. SKETCH Orléans believes that youth deserve a chance to do something good for their community and need various opportunities to do so.
- Set some conditions/guidelines on what expectations you have from the artists following the completion of the mural…for instance that they do not engage in future vandalisms and inform them that their actions now represent you and your community
This is a good idea but it is impossible to follow-up with the artists. Unfortunately, it is not realistic.
- Set some repercussions for breaking the guidelines you set….for instance, that their tags be removed from the mural…and that they will not be trusted with involvement in future mural initiatives
It will be very hard to judge if the set guidelines were broken… ie. You can accuse the artist of tagging another property after he/she completed a mural. The artist could respond that it was not him/her or that it was already there… Innocent until proven guilty is the way we work in our society.

Personally, I believe that this negative consequence will push at risk youth even further away from “the system”. Any where you work with youth, it is all about positive reinforcement – not negative put downs. Having positive consequences will reinforce a positive activity done in a proper way – with permission, supervision and professionalism. We should work with youth, not against them.
- Keep/recycle any leftover paint used by graffiti artists so that it does not end up being used to vandalize properties in Ottawa/your community
I agree. This is a good idea. However, this means that we will be stuck with graffiti spray paint cans… What else could we do with leftover paint other than offer more graffiti activities in order to get rid of leftovers. And the cycle will then continue… If, and I emphasize the “if”, we are to do more graffiti activities, as this is not specifically our mandate, then it is clear that a strong education and awareness-raising component should be present.
- Play a role is selecting/directing the theme/content of your mural. Have a design produced in advance by the mural artists…and review/approve it. Don’t give a graffiti mural artist carte-blanche to paint your wall. They will use the opportunity to incorporate their graffiti tags into the mural design out of selfishness
All artists sign their work somehow. It is not done out of selfishness, but rather for recognition and respect. Ministers and Bureaucrats sign their reports; Academics and Scientifics sign their research papers and articles; Accountants sign their reports; I will sign this email; Artists sign their artwork; Graffiti artists sign their murals in their own way. As far as I know, a design is always produced and approved. It was done so at the Orléans Auto Tech.
- Involve local residents/businesses/communities in the design and planning of the mural. Don’t surprise them with graffiti-based murals when they may have had their own negative personal experiences combatting vandalism. Use the opportunity to build community bonds and create dialog.
In the case of the Orléans Auto Tech mural, it was the owner’s initiative and request to have a graffiti mural. SKETCH and CAVE helped the owner in realizing his wish. The owner is very pleased with the result and was involved in its realization since the beginning. It is a perfect example of collaboration between non-profit community groups, a local business and local youth. The actual objective was to “build community bonds and create dialogue”. The objectives were met. The wall is much nicer with a mural than without.

Also, the mural was definitely not a surprise. We organized a “Graffiti Art Day”, GART, last year before the realization of the Orléans Auto Tech mural. The activity was announced in local papers in order to raise awareness to the issue so as not to surprise the community. It also created a dialogue between young graffiti artists and a local entrepreneur. Both parties were able to meet, talk, share their concerns and agree on a design for the mural.

If Mr. Rizzo is serious about building community bonds and creating dialogue, I would be happy to facilitate a meeting with him and local Orléans youth to discuss the graffiti issue. I could also invite Mike Young, Mike Mesa and some graffiti artists. Both sides could share their opinions and concerns in a professional and respectful way, hopefully come to a consensus on solutions and then we could all move forward on this. My contact information is at the end of this message.
Some “Graffiti Mural” teams/advocates to stay away from:
Again, I would be happy to meet with Mr. Rizzo to hear his concerns. Communication is very important at all levels of our society and I do sincerely wish to find solutions to some of the youth issues in the Orléans community. If Mr. Rizzo or anybody else has any positive ideas, constructive suggestions, or even legitimate concerns about some of our activities, I encourage them to let us know so that we may come up with a solution. I think we all agree that it is important to involve youth in the community. So let’s find the best way of doing so… so far, we have had nothing but positive responses and feedback from youth. Personally, up until today, I had not heard any negative feedback on the Orléans Auto Tech mural.

SKETCH is an innovative, young new organization with the mission to involve and empower Orléans area high school youth to realize social, cultural and recreational initiatives. We have a volunteer Board of directors from the community as well as a bilingual youth committee composed of 11 local teenagers coming from 8 different local high schools. I am not surprised that some people are uncomfortable with some of our new and innovative activities. However, we would not be as successful as we have been so far in our development with youth if we had always “stayed in the box”. Our mandate is for youth and so far, from my experience and discussions with them, they approve and support what we do. However, I appreciate Mr. Rizzo’s concerns and feedback and will definitely keep it in mind if we do any other future graffiti-related activities.

I would also like to point out that the vast majority of youth, not to say all of them, who I have spoken to truly appreciate the mural on Orléans Auto Tech. They find it beautiful! The owner of Orléans Auto Tech, Mr. Copeland, is the one who initiated and requested a graffiti mural on his own private property. A sample drawing was done before hand by the artists and approved by the business owner. The mural has not been vandalized since. According to Mr. Rizzo, the best solution to graffiti vandalism is to repaint the area and keep it clean. Mr. Copeland tried that for a long time, at a very high cost, and did not get any results… If you ask him, the bylaw has not solved his vandalism problem; the solution was the graffiti mural, as it has also proven to be in many other Canadian cities with graffiti mural programs such as Gatineau, Toronto and St John’s.

Please see the attachments for before and after pictures of the Orléans Auto Tech Wall. We have also included in attachment the plaque that was put on the mural to commemorate the moment.

Finally, I encourage all to take the time to read Mike Young’s graffiti blog where he presents both sides of the picture. There are also many links and statements that highlight the positive impacts that graffiti murals have had on communities, and especially on youth.

I have been collecting his (Mr. Rizzo’s) messages and my responses online in a long blog post.

This is the link to the “con” side

And this is our link to the “pro”

Blog and pics -

Street art murals -

Please contact Mike Young if any questions or comments about his blog, ravensview - at - gmail -dot- com. Mike Young and KeepSix’s views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Orléans Youth Resource Centre.

Sincerely and with best wishes,

André Brisebois
Directeur général / Executive Director
SKETCH Orléans
Centre de ressources des jeunes d'Orléans /
Orléans Youth Resource Centre
211-210 boul. Centrum blvd.
Orléans, Ontario K1E 3V7

Kudos to André and those like him, who not only reach out to youth at risk and help to give them stability, but who also take the time to reach out to ideologues who champion ineffective and uncreative ways of solving social problems.

Oh, and for calling him out on the FUD.

- RG>

1 comment:

David McClelland said...

Thanks for passing this along. I'll be linking to it once I'm at home and can log on to WordPress.