The tags are being done by rooftop vandals, another challenge in the area of graffiti crime.
“These guys risk life and limb to go tag something,” said RNC Const. Joe Smyth, when asked this week about the rooftop acts. “That’s part of the draw of doing it, to get it in these places. It’s difficult to get to and it’s difficult to remove. I mean, we as a police service can’t condone endangering a life then to get back up there and (immediately) repair it.”
Rooftops are not the only dangerous sites where graffiti can be spotted. Tags and illegal graffiti-styled art are also visible inside closed construction sites and fenced-off areas near dangerous drops.
The sites come up as Smyth is interviewed about the changes he has seen in graffiti in the city since 2007. That was when he began developing records and working to get a handle on local taggers.
“I don’t think there was a lot being done with (graffiti) at that point in time. There was no concerted effort, no dedicated, investigative effort. If they received a complaint, it went to a member of street patrol and they had a singular file,” Smyth said. “If you didn’t have any suspects and you didn’t have any witnesses, it usually got written off after a period of time. That was ultimately the reason to create a dedicated project, because then you take all the files and you get a bigger picture and then you start speaking to people on the street.”
As he built his files and consulted with RCMP and metro police dealing with graffiti in Saskatoon, Ottawa, Vancouver and other areas, bringing some of their techniques back to St. John’s, the city gathered a committee to address the movement of graffiti from its traditional home under bridges and other generally sheltered areas to … well … all over.
The city committee included members from the City of St. John’s, the Downtown Development Commission, St. John’s Clean and Beautiful and the RNC. Together, they developed the Graffiti Management Plan — remove graffiti as soon as it goes up, mandate businesses do the same. It is a zero-tolerance policy that is meant to discourage graffiti taggers and it remains in place today.
“The whole idea was to get a fix on what was the rampant graffiti in the city,” said Mayor Dennis O’Keefe, who was part of the committee.
2008 to 2010
O’Keefe said he felt the combination of police efforts and the Graffiti Management Plan saw the issue “dealt with effectively” and added he has consulted with city employees and feels that there is less graffiti in the city now than there was in 2008.
In 2007-2008, the City of St. John’s spent approximately $35,000 on the removal of graffiti. Last year, it was also $35,000. This year, there is a $30,000 main budget, according to the mayor’s office, but added some additional funds may come from individual departments.
Meanwhile, Smyth also said 2010 has not been the worst year for graffiti crime so far by any means. “I think we do see less, I’d say it probably came to a head in 2008,” he said.
He would not detail any investigative techniques, but said “probably in the realm of 60 to 80” young people — ages anywhere from 10 to 30, but typically in their late teens or early 20s — were identified in 2007-2008 and dealt with by police. The actions had an effect on the number of cases reported since.
Sometimes “dealing with the problem” was having the youth confronted by police, some were asked to remove the graffiti, other times offenders were charged criminally.
“It’s mischief. It’s unsolicited damage to property,” Smyth said. “The quality of the work was never taken into account.” Neither was size or purpose.
“This is not about art. It’s not about what’s art and what’s not. You break it down quite simply and if Picasso came here to the front door to the police station and did the Mona Lisa, you know, yeah, great, looks great. However, does the individual responsible for that property not want it there, do they have to incur costs to remove it. If the answer’s yes and they want to proceed with a criminal investigation, then that’s what we do. It’s not for me to look at something and say, ‘Yeah, b’ys, great work.’”
Art and not
Graffiti tags that take time, design and multiple colours are known as a “piece,” or a “masterpiece.” However, the title “masterpiece” has given them no greater credit within the local business and art community, according to Eastern Edge gallery director Michelle Bush.
“I don’t agree that someone should go along and tag all over all sorts of private property and wherever they want just because they want to see their tag everywhere,” she said. “I think that is vandalism.”
Bush calls the illegal graffiti in the city simple “defacing” rather than public art. She has a very simple example to show the difference.
“These guys risk life and limb to go tag something." - RNC Const. Joe Smyth
“This alleyway here. That was commissioned and it was very graffiti styled,” she said, pointing towards an alley just down from Eastern Edge, running between Harbour Drive and Water Street. The alley was completed by artist Monty Hall. “But that’s been defaced, graffitied. It’s too bad.”
Smyth echoed Bush. “Could a graffiti artist do mural work? Sure. But they would have to be contracted by somebody to do that,” he said.
One example of this legal art is found on the outside walls of Water Street retailer Johnny Ruth. Owner Kim Winsor was approached “about a month and a half ago” by a group of artists interested in painting a mural on the building.
“They gave us the design, we approved it and we paid for the paint. So I guess it is a commission,” Winsor said. “We don’t allow anyone who tags and vandalizes to do our graffiti on the wall and we really enjoy it, so I look forward to the next one.”
Winsor said the cost to the store was about $600. “You should see the people who are coming by now. It’s warmed the whole alleyway. There are people who were once intimidated by that alley,” she said.
Like on the alleyway mural pointed to by Bush, Winsor said illegal tags are not welcome on her wall, even though it had been vandalized with tags since its initial completion.
“The guys (who created the mural) were reliable … they fixed it up for us. They cleaned up the mess immediately,” she said.
Back at Eastern Edge, Bush said the gallery’s 24-Hour Art Marathon Festival in August will include the start of a revolving wall of art outside the gallery, with murals painted by different artists over time. “And to me, that’s art and that’s a contemporary practice and that’s using spray paint and stencils. It’s a medium and there are artists who are using and developing that medium,” she said.
As for the hot topic of illegal graffiti … “Usually, for the most part, it’s not that complicated. It’s simpler than what people make it out to be,” Smyth said with a shrug.
For more on graffiti art — legal and illegal, see the online photo essay at www.thetelegram.com