Graffiti has been a part of urban life since ancient times. There’s also a long history of trying to get rid of it. In many North American cities, civic leaders are experimenting with new ways to eradicate graffiti. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, urban artists are determined to keep it alive:
Graffiti has been a part of urban life since ancient times. There’s also a long history of
trying to get rid of it. In many North American cities, civic leaders are experimenting
with new ways to eradicate graffiti. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen
Kelly reports, urban artists are determined to keep it alive:
About twenty artists, most of them men, spread out on either side of a canvas wall set up
in the middle of a parking lot. They wear baggy jeans, baseball caps and gas masks. The
ground is littered with spray paint cans as they splatter color across the canvas.
The artists build on each other’s ideas. Horizontal purple stripes are transformed into an
exotic bird. Pen and ink drawings peek out beneath layers of orange and brown, slowly
disappearing under the paint. This is Ottawa’s first graffiti fest, organized by
local artist Juan Carlos Noria. He arrives by bicycle, wearing splattered jeans and
carrying two backpacks stuffed with spray paint.
“This is our way of giving back to the city true expression and unfortunately I do agree that some of it
is ugly but it’s like a hammer, you know? It’s a tool for building or destroying.”
Noria is a full-time artist who sells oil paintings and sculptures. But his best known work
might be his graffiti. He creates detailed pen and ink drawings on white paper. Then,
late at night, he glues them to downtown buildings.
His drawings depict the plight of humans in the modern world. One shows a man using
one hand to pour coffee into his mouth, as he pounds a hammer with the other.
Another depicts a person surrounded by bubbles representing thought – about money,
heartbreak, and the passage of time.
For Noria, this sort of unexpected art is comforting in a city that prides itself on
“My living room isn’t this clean, you know? And a lot of these Ottawa streets are super
clean. In an alley that is vacant, it’s almost like a mark that a human being has been there
and I think that’s important, you know?”
But to many other people, graffiti is a sign of crime, decay and danger. That’s prompted
Ottawa to join other North American cities in introducing a graffiti management policy.
The plan includes a special phone line to report graffiti and tougher fines for those who
The city estimates it spends about 250 thousand U.S. dollars cleaning up graffiti on city
property every year.
Paul McCann is head of Ottawa’s surface operations office. He says the biggest problem
is tags – initials or names scrawled in marker.
“I’m not talking about the nice graffiti art that a lot of people appreciate but the problem
is the tagging. Some of it is gang related. It’s not in the right place, it is considered
vandalism if you don’t have permission.”
McCann says there’s been a sharp increase in tagging. And it can make residents, and
tourists, feel unsafe. But he draws a distinction between the taggers and the so-called
While graffiti will never be tolerated in places like the parliament buildings, McCann is
looking for areas where graffiti can flourish, such as skateboard parks. It’s a strategy
that’s been used in other cities, including Toronto and Montreal. And it’s something Juan
Carlos Noria is eager to support.
“Graffiti is a movement of the youth. We must embrace it, say it’s not going to go away
so let’s give them spaces to work in and I think that by offering them these spaces, the
older artists will realize these are gifts, so they will in turn speak to the younger artists and
educate them and that’s what it’s all about.”
For Noria, graffiti offers a public venue to vent his frustration about pollution, capitalism,
and the ubiquity of advertising. Not long after the graffiti fest, one of his works
appeared on the wall of an abandoned theatre. It depicts an angel imagining a beautiful
gift as it sends a spray of paint onto the building.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly in Ottawa.