Graffiti: a crime or an asset?

Posted 06.02.10

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | The Gatineau city plan to require businesses to clean up graffiti on their buildings is not a good idea by itself. Graffiti is a social problem, not something caused by any business, so why should businesses pay directly for social ills?

Every social ill requires many social resources to cure.

One Quebec businessman told the Aylmer Bulletin that "if graffiti is a crime, it's up to the police to stop it. If the police can't, why should businesses -- the victims of this crime -- be forced to bear its burden?"

In fact, "if the police are unable to fulfill their mandate, they should have their own bucket brigade to get out and clean up the mess. It's more their mess than the shopkeepers."

That won't fly either. We have to move away from assigning blame, and create solutions. A solution will be cooperative and inclusive -- everyone affected must contribute to solve it.

If we can't blame "government" for streets littered with graffiti, why should we blame the victims, shops merely with a handy wall?

The cost will weigh heaviest on small businesses and start-ups, which we are told will provide the jobs of the future. A punitive bylaw will become part of an unwritten reputation that sees Gatineau as business-hostile. Now that we are in the post-industrial age, when large factories are no longer the motors of economic growth, Gatineau must take the high road as supportive of business ventures.

Extra taxes, fees, penalties, inspections, deadlines and so on only create difficulties for business, especially for new entrepreneurs who may have trouble raising the investment they need to start off.

Our city council does see the big picture, and is placing the graffiti problem in a larger context. It seems understandable that leaving graffiti stand will attract more, and that an area full of tags and "visual vandalism" will discourage shoppers and diminish local pride. So, yes, the graffiti should be cleaned up quickly from inappropriate sites. But cleaning is not a tool to prevent it.

City council's positive approach includes setting up billboards or walls where graffiti or "public art" is acceptable and encouraged. This is likely the single most effective and cost-efficient tool for limiting graffiti.

Public art is just that, art for public places, and like other art this form can build Gatineau's positive image as a cultured city. Large pieces of public art will be created (at minimal cost). A graffiti festival would catch attention across the country. We could encourage not foul language on stop signs, for example, but genuine artistic endeavors on a public scale. Some that are already complete are impressive.

Prizes would give the taggers the recognition they obviously seek -- for artistic merit, not for bravado.

A heavy-handed approach will discourage business investment and will encourage a defiant response from the taggers. We can make these kids feel valued. And make the rest of us proud to be part of such a creative Gatineau.

Copyright © 2010 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/05.10