Archive for May, 2005


On the City, Graffiti and Property

1. Introduction

There are indeed some journals one never thought one would ever write. This is one of those journals. It concerns the nature of street art in general, and that of graffiti and the issue of its legality in particular. Why ask this question, you might wonder. At a personal level I have, a bit to my surprise, found myself impressed by the works of graffiti one finds all over the gorgeous and welcoming city of Toronto. These are for the most part beautiful and complex works of art usually found in city spaces where an “artistic” atmosphere prevails; such is the case of famous Kensington Market. Talented artists have clearly left their mark, for the most part without upsetting the space of public institutions. But at a more general and political level, there is currently a “debate” within Toronto itself —between its political leaders and graffiti artists— regarding the very legality of graffiti. The fundamental question revolves around the question as to whether graffiti is a form of art which beautifies the city and expresses certain discontents among its citizens, or whether it is a criminal activity which damages the private property of citizens whose rights are in this manner trespassed without consent.

But the issue, I believe, goes beyond the status of the law. The impact of Graffiti is felt by the totality of citizens within a given city. Graffiti is out there to be seen, even if only in some neighborhoods. One need only recall the infamous Berlin Wall; hardly anyone would have denounced THAT graffiti. As a citizen of Toronto perhaps I myself might contribute to the debate. What can we learn from the constant appearance of graffiti in modern cities prone to the difficulties which overwhelm them at times; social inequalities, discrimination, pollution, bureaucratic indifference? What indeed could be learned by all citizens alike? It is my hypothesis that the best of Graffiti may teach us something about how we should reconsider our understanding of the role of private property in our society. In this respect one is led to ask what seems to be an utterly incredible question: can the love Graffiti artists show to the forgotten walls of the city, point to a different way of inhabiting our modern cities and of relating citizens to each other? This is the question to be considered here which, I repeat, necessarily move us beyond a mere consideration of the legality of graffiti. This journal is but a brief and inadequate attempt to deal with the complexity of the issue.

But first, I must let you have a taste of the graffiti which I have been photographing lately here in Toronto. I have only photographed a minimal amount —–for reasons some of you know— but it will help as a starter. This is an exercise in imagination, faculty crucial to the resolution of conflicts. Politicians may learn this from artists.

Toronto Graffiti

Now imagine yourself walking down a busy downtown area, underneath massive skyscrapers, and finding yourself suddenly impressed by the bluish tones of a sidewalk which has been taken over by a street artist which allows us to reflect on what sidewalks might be good for. What are sidewalks for? Obviously for walking; for safeguarding pedestrians in a world dominated by cars. But you would never know it from what the following street artist, with his exceptional ability, has brought to life. The sidewalk has become the temporary canvas for the appearance of heroes that govern the imagination of many. Batman and Batwoman arise as those heroes who safeguard precisely the common interest of an imaginary city; the conflict-ridden city of Gotham with all its evil Jokers. Check him out and be briefly humbled, let yourself be open to what this artist provides to our city without demanding much in return:


(For other examples see the graffiti found at Keele metro station, one of the subway stations here in Toronto: [link] )

Perhaps now you understand why I had the need to try to understand my attachment to these artists, though I myself know little of Graffiti and unfortunately could never paint one because of my lacking such amazing abilities. And of course, the issue in question regards ONLY great work by talented artists. We are not speaking here of simple tagging which merely destroys the very possibility of intelligent graffiti by truly creative and thought provoking artists.

And more importantly this walk generates an incisive question: whether Graffiti in particular allows for a reconsideration of the way we understand property rights. To put it very directly; would YOU allow for the presence of such art within your own private area? What would YOU do as political representative if your voters disliked graffiti? To this issue of property we will return below. But the issue of property rights goes beyond the issue of graffiti and therefore this argument might later be extended to other areas. You can think of the following debates: Windows vs. Linux and the GNU project; shareware vs. freeware applications (e.g. such as Photoshop vs. Gimpshop, Open Office vs. Microsoft Office, Pixia vs. Illustrator); ourmedia.org vs. privately owned media; and of course, decisively, political debates regarding the role of property in society and the question of just distribution.

2. The debate

2a. The law

As in all debates two sides deck it out. On the one hand, political representatives in multiple governmental agencies –usually at the level of cities—have sought to produce laws which portray graffiti as a criminal activity. One such example is provided by “New York’s Graffiti Laws”. As the law reads, in some excerpts provided below:

§ 10-117. Defacement of property, possession, sale and display of aerosol spray paint cans, [and] broad tipped markers and etching acid prohibited in certain instances. (my emphasis)
a. No person shall write, paint or draw any inscription, figure or mark of any type on any public or private building or other structure or any other real or personal property owned, operated or maintained by a public benefit corporation, the city of New York or any agency or instrumentality thereof or by any person, firm, or corporation, or any personal property maintained on a city street or other city-owned property pursuant to a franchise, concession or revocable consent granted by the city, unless the express permission of the owner or operator of the property has been obtained (my emphasis)……
§145.05 … a person is guilty of criminal mischief in the third degree when with the intent to damage property of another person, and having no right to do so …. (for the compete law see: “ [link]

This law as well establishes the creation of an “Anti-Graffiti Task Force” whose purpose is to clean the city of graffiti. It: ”assesses the scope and nature of the City’s graffiti problem, examines the effectiveness of existing provisions of law aimed at curbing graffiti vandalism and proposes amendments to strengthen such legislation. (Title 10 § 117.1)”

Now it would be fine and well if we could just destroy the law and consider it simply an arrogant proposition by the citizens who question graffiti, many of whom I am sure are not simply rich folk. But this is a dangerous and self-destructive proposition. Again, just imagine if you —if you indeed own a property— were to see graffiti on YOUR walls. I think at least two things should be pointed out from the law so as to curve the passion and anger of some artists. One the one hand, it clearly specifies that it is applicable “in certain instances”. But the issue is whether politicians, or for that matter the police, are artistically educated so as to judge in which instances Graffiti has in fact broken, or not, this law. A second concern might be that of older graffiti which has already been painted without consent; in New York some have had to actually erase their work if they cannot find the owners who once consented. Perhaps in this case the solution might be to ease the legislation retroactively.

The third problem the law states is much more important, it clearly specifies that the central issue is the damaging of private property. It is against the law to “damage property of another person, and having no right to do so.” Of course, defenders of Graffiti might point out that in many cases, and herein lies a deep irony, they have been asked to paint the very walls which have become their canvases in truly forgotten neighborhoods. One need only recall that Canadian commercial in which an inner city school is compared to jail because of its lack of green spaces, among many other lacks. But isn’t the law blind to a certain reality which street art expresses? Isn’t this particular law somewhat blind as to the more positive role Graffiti may play within a society in crisis? Will erasing walls erase the malaise? Isn’t it clear that some owners may actually want graffiti on their grounds, as is clear from walking around places such as Kensington Market?

2b. The position of one Graffiti artist: Zephyr

Zephyr, a well-known artist from New York, expresses great concern in a defense he wrote against the city law. I would simply like to point out the idea that Graffiti artists are extremely talented artists, not simply wall painters from a hardware store. If you want to have your house painted, well that almost anyone can do; but to have an engaging mural done, well that very few can do well. These are some of Zephyr’s words:

“The attacks on the graffiti “muralists” is probably the most troubling and disturbing new twist to an already frightening situation. These modern-day Picassos specialize in multi-artist, and sometimes multi-day, productions. Elaborate masterpieces replete with scenes, figures and symbolism. Huge sprawling paint jobs that can run full city blocks. The neighborhoods where they’re most common are neighborhoods where they’re most welcome. Take, for example, the South Bronx. The local communities embrace and protect many of the “graffiti murals” painted there. Many of the works inspire joy and unity-and represent how a simple gesture with the right energy is capable of manifesting a measurable positive transformation on. It is this ability for communities of color to empower themselves through public art, that poses a threat to the racist regime of the Giuliani administration. The right for a community to paint their own neighborhood falls outside this mayor’s fascist rules of “appropriate behavior.” [link]

His acute argumentation is clear. Graffiti artists are amazing artists. This I have tried to portray myself above. However, the very language in which the position is expressed —–allusions to “racist regime” and “fascist rules”—– can only deepen the suspicion of authorities. In this respect both parties can polarize the debate only to the detriment of them both and, specially to the citizens themselves. Much more can and should be said in defense of graffiti and public art, but instead I would like to focus on the question of property itself. (Source of the debate: the incredibly instructive and “featured” article in wikipedia: [link] )

3) Some brief considerations on Graffiti and property

One of the roles of Socratic political philosophy, perhaps the single most important one, is to curb anger. The violence which ensues from enraged parties ruins cities, and even nations. Anger may disrupt the political as no other deeply ingrained emotion can. One need look at my dear Colombia. A political philosopher might aid in reaching alternative positions which may broaden the debate. This is why I want to focus on an issue dear to me as a political philosopher, the question of property.

Since the fortunate, and long awaited fall of communism, the idea of collective property has been shown to be a dangerous and illusory proposition. Stalin was, is and will be a nightmare; as was foreseen by Plato over 2000 years ago. In my dear Colombia, the FARC (infamous Guerrilla forces who tag the walls of my beautiful Bogotá) have not received the message yet. So it seems the permanence of private property has been shown to be crucial to the stability of a functioning society. In general, one could say that there are two broad models of the role private property might have in a given political society. They are not mutually exclusive, but require a certain degree of balancing out for the good of the political community. In this sense there might be two very broad and ideal models for private property. I will call one, the “inward looking” view of property, and the second, the “outward looking” view of private property.

3a. The “inward looking” view of private property

Historically one could consider the work of John Locke as the basis for this perspective on property. It is the founding conception of modern views on the role of property within political society. To put it as briefly as possible, the emergence of modernity goes hand in hand with a given comprehension of private property and the role of the individual with respect to its accumulation and utility. Under this view of private property, emphasis is placed not only on the fact that the property is radically MINE, but in a more radical development, that I am free to do in the private sphere as I desire. We have grown so accustomed to this view that it is hardly seen as problematic, except of course, by those who lack the very private property defended by our liberal societies. It is to something like this conception of property that the political leaders against Graffiti hearken because they obviously see street artists as trespassing what is a fundamentally the possession of each individual citizen. The political sphere, and specially the law and its enforcement organisms, are there precisely to safeguard our private rights. It is therefore no surprise to see graffiti as a criminal activity. The law is clear; graffiti damages the property either of private citizens or of the city itself bent on safeguarding the security of its citizens. And I bet that even graffiti artists will defend this view of property when their own property is actually abused by others. For example, if there were a break in at a graffiti artists’ house, I am pretty sure he/she would call 911.

I say this view of property is “inward looking” for it seems to promote, in a disproportionate manner, the defense of the private over the role of the public; the ‘mine’ overruns the ‘ours’. Contrast the ideal view of healthcare in the US and Canada to have a feel for this. The radicalization of this view can be easily seen in many examples of unquestioned practices which have become normal for us: the impossibility of generating carpooling in North America where possessing a car is the mark of freedom (not to mention in Toronto the lack of funding for PUBLIC transportation), the inward separation of the house into ever more private and inward looking spaces (one constantly hears in North America that young people argue: this is MY room.), the constant search for MY space in interpersonal relationships, a blind eye towards the homeless as radically unsuccessful citizens precisely because they have not been able to create the conditions for a private home(thus burdening individual tax payers who have lost sight of the sense of the whole), the flight to the suburbs where privacy is the dream, and finally, the dismissal of claims of property from Native Americans (see for example James Tully’s powerful Strange multiplicity .)

3b. The “outward looking” view of private property

But there are other traditions of political thought besides this liberal Lockean one. Very briefly, and in very general terms, one could call this view the “outward looking” conception of private property. One could say it is best expressed originally by Aristotle. (See his Politics Book II; a text which lays the foundation for an understanding of the city and its citizens as no other). In discussing private property he argues that the best of possible worlds would be one in which property were actually possessed privately, but could be used publicly.

This view is “outward looking” for, although it likewise safeguards the possession of private property for individual citizens and their families, it nonetheless seeks to reactivate certain interpersonal ties amongst citizens; the ties of generosity and friendship without which a community may not generate the best of conditions for its excelling over others. Under this view, the radical privatization of citizens may lead to the overall malaise of the society of which they themselves are part. Think again of the rush to the suburbs and the creation of inner cities; a problematic which has slowly been changing as a more conscious model of the interrelation of citizens has been taken up. In a sense, politically speaking, we are of the city, rather the city simply being for us. It is in this respect that the city I was born in, Bogotá, has become a model for the developing capitals of the world. This is due to its civic education model, its concern for the public space, and its demand for a redressing of class inequalities. (exemplified in its model public transportation system ––called Transmilenio—, its gorgeous public libraries, and its Sunday bike day where millions take over the city street in bikes). The city as a whole becomes healthier, beautified and populated by better citizens capable of taking on –as intelligent and alert citizens should– a questioning perspective.

Now, if all this is even partially true, then graffiti allows us to
break down the usual way of perceiving property simply as that which is my own. Mothers may teach us to share as kids; but they seem to be fighting a loosing battle in our society. Street artists, I repeat, particularly the great ones— seek to make art become public at the very edge where the private meets the public. By placing their work at this border (the wall is private, but the message is public) they call our attention to the dilemmas previously noted. They might just be reminding us that the city is more than the sum of its individual houses and privatized walls.

To rephrase it; what seems to be terribly uncomfortable about graffiti is that it lies in a privately-owned wall, but its expression is simultaneously meant to grab the attention of ANY public citizen walking the city streets. Now, if our society is one which concerns itself simply with an “inward looking” view of private property, then of course, graffiti is seen ONLY as damaging and criminal. But if our society recognizes the value of private property, AND AT THE SAME TIME concedes that our modern malaise may lie precisely in not having concerned itself with other possible, and perhaps more “generous” relations to property, then the common interest of the city and its good may start to become a central concern for us all. Graffiti in this respect would be both pointing to the tension and to its solution, for it beautifies the whole city by giving expression to an “outward looking” perspective of property which might provide the conditions for the good of many, if not all.

4. Conclusion

To conclude, perhaps the debate can become more interesting and open-minded if both parties recognize the different view of property they emphasize. In this respect the city has every right to protect its citizens from unwanted graffiti; and at the same time graffiti artists must seek to convince other citizens to allow for the creation of their paintings in the shared public space. The crucial problem is with that graffiti which already exists; those works must be looked and assessed by dealing with each particular case to see which stays and which goes. Graffiti artists must be willing to take the time to argue for some of their creations. For instance, the graffiti at “Keele station” is now a landmark; this is also true of the work found in unique and historical “Kensington market”. Others might go, and yet others might stay. And perhaps those who know the city well –usually dedicated politicians— can provide artists with other spaces to express themselves and reach out to the community. (Of course, sending the best of graffiti artists to an “indoor” warehouse does not work, precisely because the issue is the outward looking public space; however, this might help for aspiring graffiti artists who want to practice their skills.)

In sum, this journal has tried to understand —-at least in small part and by someone who is neither a politician nor a graffiti artist—- the debate over graffiti and its possible positive role within our cities. By letting ourselves be open to its appearance, it reminds us of possibilities regarding our own unquestioned understandings of property which might make of our cities, and of us involved citizens —the very life of cities— much more outward-looking, solidarity-prone and generous beings. In this respect, perhaps the street artist AND the city may find some common ground from which to resolve their impasse in favor of the benefit, not of this or that faction, but of the community as a whole. Will we be able to find our common interest, acknowledge it, and work to understand the basis from which each position springs? Or, will we make the problematic idea presented by Plato —expelling the poets from the city—a reality in the 21st century?

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