Grappling with graffiti

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Published on July 31, 2010

Modern graffiti off Water Street in downtown St. John’s. Today’s graffiti is “popularly known as hip hop graffiti or tagger graffiti” according to both police and the Graffiti Management Plan of 2008.

Published on July 31, 2010

A closer look.

Published on July 31, 2010

A stenciling amongst the work on Henry Street.

Published on July 31, 2010

Can you spot the graffiti here on the former CBC Radio building on Duckworth Street?

Published on July 31, 2010

If none of that seems dangerous enough, how about the graffiti on Wild Things on Water Street?

Published on July 31, 2010

The dangerous areas are also at heights — can you spot the illegal graffiti?

Published on July 31, 2010

Here it is close up.

Published on April 24, 2007

A wall in downtown St. Johns sports an eclectic mix of graffiti a growing problem causing concerns for local businesses, city officials, tourism operators and others. Photo by The Telegram

Published on July 31, 2010

Here it is up close. “These guys risk life and limb to go tag something,” said RNC Const. Joe Smyth.

Published on July 31, 2010

Here it is up close, again right to the edge. The city has a bylaw that would require business owners to remove graffiti even in these dangerous areas — but only if they are issued a citation.

Published on July 31, 2010

It is not only painting, stenciling, stickering and postering that can violent law against mishief. This “Free Marc Emery” concrete message falls under the same regulation in the Criminal Code of Canada (Section 430.1.ccc).

Published on July 31, 2010

Graffiti and street art can include controversial or political messages. This stencil was seen in Florence, Italy.

Published on July 31, 2010

A positive message tag in the downtown. To see another, there is a “Stay in School” on Duckworth Street.

Published on July 31, 2010

Less political commentary is similarly seen. In St. John’s, it would be no less illegal for its thoughtfulness. This image of a starving child is also from Florence, spotted near a cluster of restaurants.

Published on July 31, 2010

Another illegal stenciling seen in the downtown.

Published on July 31, 2010

A stencil of Super Mario may seem harmless and artistic…

Published on July 31, 2010

A larger slap-up on Water Street.

Published on July 30, 2010

A slap-up in Florence, Italy seen in June 2009.

Published on July 31, 2010

Graffiti is not new. Here, a piece of graffiti at Pompeii is protected today, originally preserved in the ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. This was electoral graffiti, urging citizens to vote for the candidate named.

Published on July 31, 2010

Since late 2007, police in St. John’s have been keeping up with graffiti trends worldwide. Near the Parthenon, inside the main tourist area of Athens, Greece, an unidentified man waits for his passenger in the shadow of graffiti.

Published on July 31, 2010

In a downtown alley two other main types of graffiti: left of the window is a “throw-up,” larger than a tag with bubble-style letters and using one or two colours. At right, a “piece” or “masterpiece.”

Published on July 31, 2010

RNC have connected St. John’s-based taggers to pieces outside of the province. The “West” tag was popular in St. John’s around 2008 and spotted in Halifax with a “709.” A youth using the tag was charged and convicted of mischief.

Published on July 31, 2010

… but it is one more item that must be removed from this door, on back of the former Wordplay bookstore.

Published on July 31, 2010

Some illegal street art employs stickering, often called a “slap” or “slap up.”

Published on July 31, 2010

A piece from Santorini, Greece begins to move into the realm of illegal street art — by adding a face to the tag.

Published on July 31, 2010

A piece of illegal street art on the side of a power box in Barcelona. Street art, different from tagging, can move from paint and also include the use of items such as stickers, posters and stencils.

Published on July 31, 2010

A mix of street art and tags can be seen at the back of the former CBC building at 25 Henry St. in St. John’s.

Published on April 27, 2008

Quebec Provincial Police investigators look at graffiti left overnight on the Trudeau mausoleum in St. Remi, Que. today. Vandals defaced the tomb of former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau with the words FLQ and traitor. Photo by The Canadian Press

Published on July 31, 2010

If St. John’s follows on illegal graffiti experiences in other areas, stencils here may get more complex. For example, here’s one seen at the back of a restaurant off Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy. Note the use of multiple colours.

Published on July 31, 2010

An illegal piece of street art accompanied by a throw-up on the side of an overpass that runs over Southside Road in downtown St. John’s. A few meters from speeding cars, it is an example of the dangerous areas where taggers are now leaving their mark i

Published on July 17, 2010

A wall at a shopping center is covered by graffiti that reads in Spanish

Published on August 02, 2010

One reason given for illegal graffiti is the taggers and street artists are searching for recognition. In some cases, it is fame within the sub-culture, in some cases it’s the attention from the general public — like with this street art piece in Barc

Published on August 02, 2010

Some see graffiti as a way to express themselves artistically and practice their ability, such as the individual who created this street art image in an alleyway in Venice, Italy.

Published on August 02, 2010

The illegal art can get less attention than the artists hope for.

Published on August 02, 2010

Another face, this time on the side of a mailbox on Water Street in St. John’s.

Published on August 02, 2010

Here it is up close.

Published on August 02, 2010

Graffiti can take a promotional slant. Here is a tag supporting the RebELLEs Movement of young feminists ( While this is an illegal tag, graffiti is being used legally by advertisers and marketing companies.

Published on August 02, 2010

“Hobo sign” is a form of graffiti using specific symbols to provide directions and information (often to rail-jumping homeless in the early 20th century). These days, symbolic graffiti remains. Looking for a coffee shop? A stencil like this could dir

Published on August 02, 2010

Low self esteeem and boredom have been provided as reasons for tagging. “Can’t get lost if ya got nowhere to be” on Duckworth Street reflects that idea. Some cities have collaborations with youth groups to attempt to draw taggers away from graffit

Published on August 02, 2010

According to mayor Dennis O’Keefe, graffiti left unremoved suggests “dirty” and unwelcoming streets in the City of St. John’s.

Published on August 02, 2010

Negative instead of positive messages can add to that feeling.

Published on August 02, 2010

Aside from the atmosphere of the city as expressed by City Hall, the cost of graffiti removal to both the city and local businesses is an obvious impact of illegal graffiti. This year, $30,000 is budgeted for removal from public property. Some privately o

Published on August 02, 2010

Under the city’s zero-tolerance policy, graffiti is removed asap from public property and any private business can be forced to remove graffiti at their own cost if given a citation. The City of St. John’s hopes to avoid tags breeding tags, as on this

Published on August 02, 2010

The Errorist has been a problem tagger in St. John’s, using slaps like this one and tags created with paint and markers.

Published on August 02, 2010

Tags can be representative of groups of taggers working together. Some crew tags that have appeared in St. John’s are: Stylin Your Streets (SYS), Amateur Vandalism Crew (AVC) and the ADIO Visual Crew. Here, an ADIO tag is spotted on Henry Street.

Published on August 02, 2010

While tags may stand out in the downtown area of St. John’s, taggers are not just in downtown. VALD was found at Bowering Park.

Published on August 02, 2010

While the tag might suggest no apologies, for those found tagging it can lead to criminal charges. Illegal graffiti falls under Section 430(1) ccc of the Criminal Code of Canada. The charge is mischief.

New spaces, still less than in 2008: mayor, RNC officer

Look up. Look way, way up on Water Street or Duckworth Street and you might spot some of the graffiti concerning police in St. John’s these days.

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.

“These guys risk life and limb to go tag something." RNC Const. Joe Smyth

“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.

“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

Organizations: RCMP, Downtown Development Commission

Geographic location: Saskatoon, Ottawa, Vancouver Water Street

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Recent comments

  • Legal spraypainter
    June 22, 2013 - 10:09

    There needs to be a better outlet. Painting huge murals is amazing, artistic and fun. But where can these people do that? Especially youth who have little money or space to do it. Make seedy back alleyways legal walls and watch them turn into beautiful ever-changing artwork. Promote young artists who need an outlet.

  • Chris
    August 03, 2010 - 12:49

    ever think about the sociological or anthropological importance of this as a youth culture? probably not because many people in this world can only see one side of the argument. i agree that hitting personal private property and small community business's is wrong. but who honestly cares about the grubby back ally's most of these kids are painting, or the derelict building that the owner's clearly don't even care about? in one breath we brag and boast about having the most artists per postal code in canada, and in the other we condemn the action's of the next generation of great artists this city has too offer. anyone also ever try and understand the compulsion these people have too create? that willingness too want too not only live in, but be a part of the city, too make drab walls feel organic and alive? it won't ever stop, its too long of a human tradition too want too leave your mark. respect and tolerance needs too come from both sides!!

  • Mr. Skeptic
    August 02, 2010 - 14:03

    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. So it's not art unless someone pays for it?

    • Will Burton
      August 02, 2010 - 14:55

      Upon my arrival last year for a summer visit of St. John's and being a trained graffiti removal technician out of Toronto, ON, I can honestly say that with my return this year I have seen with my own eyes the progression of graffiti growing. Having removed thousands of tags, throw ups, pieces and even murals and glass restoration during my three year tenure with a company that specialized in ONLY graffiti removal it kills me to see it has reached the far east of beautiful St. John's, Newfoundland. The difference between a tag and a mural? A tag is merely a quick unrecognizable scribble by a person who is simply vandalizing property. Whereas a mural is an artistic piece put up by a graffiti artist. In the graffiti world, an unwritten rule amongst taggers is no tagger shall hit (spray paint) on a mural. A lot of the times murals are done in reference to someone who has passed away. The Toronto By-Law Enforcement Officers will ticket store owners if they do not respond in a timely manner, I believe they have 72hrs upon receiving a warning, to remove the graffiti either themselves or by a company. The By-Law will hire someone to do it for them, the store owner then must foot the bill for the graffiti removal as well as pay the ticket. Easier for a store owner to pay to have a mural put up. But then the question becomes who decides what is art and what is not? The By-Law Officers? The store owners? Graffiti is a constant ongoing issue across the globe. Montreal, CA is the hardest hit city throughout North America. Graffiti will never be beaten, it can only be maintained. Thank you.

  • Bea Real
    August 01, 2010 - 22:56

    picasso painted the mona lisa? give me a break. does the rnc intentionally try to sound dumb or is does it come naturally?

  • Mindy
    August 01, 2010 - 09:18

    I do not agree with tagging ... by far not art work. If these people are so eager to paint put their talents to good use. On a lighter note...Mr. O'Keefe should find out what type of paint these people are using and put the lines on the city streets ... the tagging seems to last thru all types of weather and condtions as to the street paint used by the city.