City Space:

A Semiotic and Visual Exploration of Graffiti and Public Space in Vancouver

by C. Noble

This paper is part of a project that includes a documentary called City Space, which was released on DVD in late 2004.


The city as physical entity and symbolic construction is in a continuous cycle of development, destruction, and re-development. Cities establish a vision and a symbolic conception of place that predominantly protects the economic and social interests of the private sector and owners of capital. The symbolic economy of the city is of great economic and political value to groups with vested interests in maintaining the status quo and promoting their vision of the city. Through civic bolsterism, Vancouver's image as clean, beautiful and safe is protected and understood as essential for the city's economic prosperity and future growth. As a result, there is a lack of support for cultural activities not associated with or viewed as constructive to this symbolic economy (Zukin, 1996), particularly those activities practiced outside the system of commodity exchange and financial gain. Graffiti falls into this undesirable cultural category and is largely seen as a subversive and destructive activity, practiced by individuals with criminal mentalities who have little regard for others or for public and private property (Miller, 2002). Just as the natural beauty, cleanliness and safety of Vancouver are symbolically maintained, graffiti and other visually threatening cultural activities are demonised (City of Vancouver, 2003).

In this study I focus on graffiti, particularly "tagging," "throw-ups," and "piecing" aspects (Cooper and Chalfant, 1984), and examine Vancouver's current practice and social context. The method of investigation largely involved participant observation and information collection was structured through video (and at times audio) interview scenarios, as well as through informal social interaction. Although this study is grounded in the practice of contemporary graffiti, I feel larger social issues and circumstances become apparent when analysing the graffiti community, their practices and other players directly related to graffiti practices.

Although there are positive aesthetic dimensions of graffiti as an art form, and this work neither glorifies nor endorses the practice. It is important to recognise the association of graffiti with certain destructive characteristics such as vandalism of property, yet one must also acknowledge the historic and social function graffiti serves. By framing Vancouver's graffiti conflict in terms of counter-hegemonic practice, connotation and denotation, strategies and tactics, idiolect, and the continuing process of privatising public space, I argue that graffiti is not only an inevitable part of the urban experience and culturally valuable to the city's inhabitants, but it is visual evidence of a resistant practice and subculture that reveals some glaring inequalities and oppression present in public space and the construction of place in Vancouver.

This paper expands on the relevant and important aspects of graffiti identified in City Space, the accompanying video component, through an explanation and analysis of Vancouver's urban conflict. The first section of this paper explores graffiti as a counter-hegemonic practice. Comparing the stances and rhetoric of city authorities to the practices and attitudes of graffiti writers makes the tension and power relations between the two opposing groups apparent. The second section deals with the differences and similarities in graffiti's connotations and denotations held by these opposing groups. The very definition and understanding of what graffiti is and means is essential to understanding the conflict. The third section analyses the conflict in terms of strategy and tactics. The City of Vancouver's efforts to control and abate graffiti are analysed for their authoritative and strategic elements. Opposing these actions and policies are the tactical aspects of contemporary graffiti practice. Looking at the practical and strategic application of Vancouver's Anti-Graffiti Program and the tactical qualities and 'ways of operating' adopted by graffiti writers resisting these actions and policies reveals the complexity and division surrounding this practice. The fourth section expands on the idea of graffiti as an idiolect and subculture by exploring the 'otherness' of graffiti writers and of their art form. This analysis provides a more personal perspective on the writers themselves and the importance of their practice. The final section discusses public space and the conflicts surrounding its understanding and construction by examining issues of control and containment, advertising and resistance. This analysis questions the legitimacy of and current trend toward the privatisation of public space. Identifying and expanding on these issues adds to an understanding of the richness and problematic nature of graffiti practice in Vancouver.

This project is constructed as two interdependent parts. By analysing the characteristics of the conflict surrounding graffiti and related issues I argue a perspective that is pro-graffiti, not because I am in full agreement with all of the practices, methodology and attitudes of graffiti writers, but because of the importance of sub-cultural resistance and the value of publicly expressive culture. Graffiti - along with culture jamming, stencilling, political graffiti and murals - is a form of communication that belongs to the street, the quintessential public space and arena for a form of dialogue outside commodified media. Whether graffiti's message is explicitly political or sub-culturally implicit, it is a "guerrilla incursion" (Potter, 1995: 76) upon hegemonic codes and, as a result, is often identified as a threat that must be subdued.

Counter-Hegemonic Practice

Gramsci, Hall and others have offered tremendous insight into the nature and relations of power and the manufacture of consent in societies.(Gramsci, 1971; Hall, 1975) Any form of production outside of the hegemonic system is regarded as either trivial or a threat to established consent. As such, these forms of productive resistance are considered counter-hegemonic practices (Hall, 1975). In this understanding of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic practices, graffiti falls into a counter-hegemonic characterisation primarily because vandalism of public and private property violates the hegemonic respect for property and ownership. Graffiti writers or "vandals" defy hegemonic codes and stir up a considerable displeasure and discomfort for the form and for the writers themselves. Not surprisingly, during the course of my research I encountered a great deal of animosity among City of Vancouver officials, property owners, and police toward graffiti's form and its practitioners.

The amount of time, resources and energy put into stamping out this "epidemic" (New York Times, 16 September 1972: 41) indicates graffiti's disruptive power and the degree to which it violates hegemonic codes. Cities will spend millions of dollars on establishing anti-graffiti programs, enforcement and removal strategies. For instance, New York City throughout the 1980s spent $150 million to clean their "decimated" (Austin, 2001: 114) subway system, which did effectively remove the graffiti from the subway system in 1989. However, New York City is continually unsuccessful in eliminating graffiti from its streets, subway trains are repeatedly painted, and the city is still one of the most heavily graffitied in North America. Fear provoked by graffiti in the general public is often pointed to as justification for these extreme and costly measures.

Fear among the general public is largely unsubstantiated and the association of graffiti with gang and other criminal activity is played up and utilized by hegemonic groups to develop anti-graffiti programs and strategies to "eradicate" (Miller, 2002) the problem. Statements from members of Vancouver's police force are indicative of these perceived criminal associations:

Graffiti tends to cause fear; cause as we know the majority of the population doesn't understand it and/or, they have a perception of graffiti that causes them to be fearful. You have that with the broken windows, with the panhandlers, with the litter, with the abandoned cars, then people feel fear. So if graffiti is inserted into a context then you have people walking down the street with more fear, and if someone walking down the street with more fear, someone who wants a crime offered to them will be more likely to commit that crime, right? -- Detective Constable Elizabeth Miller
It goes beyond a quality of life issue, because it's no different than a break and enter. We don't call a break and enter a quality of life issue, it's even bigger than that, but this is someone who feels just as victimized by their property being tagged as if they were a victim of a break and enter. They get agitated. You can see their eyes fill up with tears, like this, all tensed up. They're very, very affected. -- Constable Valerie Spicer
And to turn around and think that they are just a bunch of kids going out and partying and putting up a little bit of graffiti, this is a huge sub-culture where individuals are involved with drugs and alcohol. But also in the studies they found out that - Elizabeth Miller did with the city of Vancouver when they were preparing the report to council along with Constable Steve Elson, her partner at the time - 70 percent of these individuals, those that have been identified for graffiti, are responsible for other crimes than just graffiti. They steal their paints and their goods, whatever offensives they end up with. To think this is just a bunch of kids out there, it's not. -- Special Constable Wendy Hawthorne

Although I do not doubt these observations are based on the respondents' experiences and firsthand contact with graffiti through their duties as enforcement officers, these remarks require qualification. In my experience with graffiti writers I have found them to be rather benign - more artists than vandals. There are definitely traces of vandalism and destruction in the art form, but as far as a cultural characteristic the malicious and hateful attitude of "the graffiti writer" (Miller, 2002) described by police is largely unfounded. The type of graffiti writers the authorities come into contact with are, I would argue, more disposed to possessing the stereotypical delinquent qualities because of their actions and inevitable arrests. They are not, however, representative of the entire graffiti writer community. Statements such as those by the enforcement officers help establish a consensus that graffiti writers are a threat to public order and safety, so resources can be diverted from other areas of more pressing public concern to combat the perceived threat.

Counter-hegemonic practices can be interpreted as consciously political or social phenomena of resistance without any coherent, obvious philosophy or stated agenda to back them up (Hall, 1975). Many younger writers I spoke to did not attribute any significant meaning to their work nor did they see any purpose behind it. To some, graffiti is about "getting up and getting over" (Powers, 1999), a fun, clandestine act, which does not require analysis.
People think it's about marking territory, or whatever. It's not really. It's just, people getting up, wherever ... It's all about getting up, like that's what bombing is all about. It's just like a popularity contest really. You are just trying to get up more than the next person. But I mean, at the same time as that, you want to see yourself up too, just as much as you want other people to see you up. It's also about self-satisfaction. Seeing yourself up and having your shit up everywhere. -- SLER, graffiti writer

'Getting up and getting over' is the motivation and explanation I received most often from graffiti writers, but it is one of the most difficult aspects of graffiti to explain because it is based so heavily in practice. You really cannot understand the desire to see your name up on walls and other surfaces throughout the city until you actually immerse yourself within the culture. This aspect is one of the most basic and fundamental tenets of graffiti, but is generally dismissed by hegemonic groups as shallow, evidence of insecurity (New York Times, 29 August 1972: 66), trivial and certainly a nuisance.

Fuck the rich, fuck the polished. I would like to go into the West End and paint but it would just get buffed because everyone is so rich and fucking tight ass you know. Unfortunately, it's the poor people that get stuck with it. That's something I do regret in a way, but at the same time I think it's part of the environment. I think its part of these realer places that aren't polished and aren't fake. It's real interaction with your environment. -- OAPH, graffiti writer

Some older writers harbour resentment for rich property owners and the authorities because of the inequalities they perceive and experience within their immediate environments. Being so familiar with the city streets, alleys and forgotten or neglected parts of the city - the sites where they practice their art - writers have an intimate relationship with these spaces that the majority of Vancouver citizens will never experience. They are witness to violence, drug use, prostitution, police intimidation, and everything that qualifies these spaces as dangerous and threatening to most citizens. Being present during the day and in the wee hours of the morning this experience shapes the practitioners of graffiti and collectively cultivates certain attitudes that could be interpreted as threatening and hostile, but which I see as a product of their experience and environment.

The majority of the writers I spoke with live in Vancouver's core. By conducting interviews and research in active locations throughout the city I learned a tremendous amount about how space is used by writers and the inhabitants of the core. This group comprises users of public transportation and pedestrians who frequently "poach" (de Certeau, 1984: 165) opportune spaces adjacent to bus and SkyTrain routes as well as highly visible locations accessible from the street. They see, experience and use spaces most inhabitants of the city interpret differently and will never venture into. The majority of Vancouver citizens may view back alleys and empty lots as places of dirt, filth and lawlessness (Stewart, 1987), whereas graffiti writers, users and creators of these spaces view them as opportunities for improvement and as canvases for their form of public expression. Graffiti is a fleeting triumph of the individual over the "monuments of authority" (Cresswell, 1992: 37) and "the name over the nameless" (Atlanta & Alexander, 1988: 166). Historically speaking, the role of the city as 'site of desire,' conflict and the "quickening of processes (exchange and the market, the accumulation of knowledge and capitals, the concentration of these capitals) and site of revolution" (Lefebvre, 1997: 109) should allow for at least a minimal tolerance for cultural practices of all kinds. When business, political and law enforcement leaders criticise graffiti's practice and form they are doing so from a privileged position.

Connotation and Denotation

The concepts of connotation and denotation are at the very foundation of the graffiti conflict. The term graffiti is imposed from above and reinterpreted from below (Fiske, 1993), an authoritarian nomenclature that defines graffiti as illegal marking on walls or objects.

Graffiti is termed mischief, which is a criminal code offence. You're not allowed to damage property or, render it inoperable, or destroy the enjoyment of the property etc. -- Detective Constable Elizabeth Miller

People who own property, who possess wealth, and who occupy positions of power, define graffiti as illegal, immoral, and an eyesore. It denotes criminal activity and indicates the presence of hostile and malicious forces, disturbing the capitalist aesthetic of clean, ordered space that promotes consumption (Zukin, 1995).

So graffiti is just the first catalyst in the eventual decline of a neighbourhood and it creates an atmosphere of lawlessness. It's not safe and I think it's imperative that we start to deal with graffiti in the community and a typical aspect of it is a house. Add a little bit of graffiti, then you get a broken window, and then you start to get squatters in there and there's the garbage and the needles all around and stuff like that, so I think when we think of unsafe we just don't think of that little tag, because graffiti begets graffiti, and from there comes the rest. -- Special Constable Wendy Hawthorne

The contentious "Broken Window Theory," authored by James Wilson, Catherine Coles and George Kelling (1982), assumes that if acts of vandalism such as broken windows, graffiti and litter are allowed to exist and proliferate, more serious crime, such as rape and murder, are soon to follow.

If graffiti vandalism is not cleaned up, the perception is that the behaviour is condoned and the area is not being watched. This opens the door for other property crimes and creates an environment that tolerates violent crimes such as serious assaults and robbery. -- Detective Constable Elizabeth Miller

A year after the application this theory in Vancouver, glaring contradictions still exist. First, although graffiti has, for the most part, been successfully removed from the Strathcona area, for example, there continues to be an open-air drug trade, street prostitution, and an increase in property crime (with the exception of graffiti vandalism). Second, in Kitsilano there is more graffiti than ever, with virtually none of the violence and crime present in the Downtown East Side. This contradiction is similar to what occurred in New York City where the decrease in violent and other more serious crime was accompanied by a rise in the amount of graffiti in the streets. The idea that graffiti and other forms of crime are directly linked is misleading and dealt with at length in Bernard Harcourt's Illusions of Order (2001). Third, graffiti has not stopped, it continues and I know from experience and observation that the city is provoking the writers into a reactionary stance. To think that if you remove the graffiti you remove the graffiti writer is foolish and such an approach could result in graffiti becoming more destructive and malicious. These technicolor violations of the symbolic order challenge the image and effectiveness of the city and the police department (Miller, 2002), which has brought about an increase in vigilance.

Graffiti, as most writers understand it, is an illegal activity that involves risks and rewards. For many of them the outlawed nature of the activity is essential for their continued involvement with the practice.

Me, I like it illegal, just pure vandalism, doing nothing but vandalism. I mean, once graffiti becomes legal it's not even graffiti, it's just art. Graffiti is illegal, that's it, period. -- YEAR, graffiti writer

If graffiti were legal the meaning of the word and the practice would change for many writers and they would stop because the rewards and motivations of "getting up and over" would disappear. Even when defining the art form, graffiti practitioners differ. Some see it as vandalism while others view it as a pure art form devoid of any criminal connection. These complexities and disagreements around the very definition of the practice display the graffiti community's lack of coherence, unity and political voice.

Graffiti, aerosol art, street art, graffiti vandalism, or whichever term you choose to call it is a form of urban expression. It is a cultural form, which is visual, living, and ephemeral. Graffiti, tags, throw-ups and pieces, in all levels of sophistication and technique, indicate and symbolise a human and creative presence on the street free from institutionalised markers of taste, appropriateness, and permission.
You start off a toy and you get better, and a toy in a sense of your mentality, your understanding and your style, your originality. Everybody strives to be original, but at the same time if you're too original you're doing something else, then you're not doing graffiti anymore. If you're doing just characters or if you're just doing some bugged out letters then you're doing something, but it's not necessarily graffiti. So I think it's important to learn history and to learn where it came from and know who did what and all of that cause if you lose all that then you're doing something else totally. I believe graf is like, it's not totally free rein. There's unwritten rules and that's the way it is, you know. And if you want to go paint like Picasso then go paint like Picasso, you're not doing graf. Graf is letters, that's the way it started and that's how it should be, you know. If you want to do something else then do something else, but don't call it graf, or don't call it writing, or it's not part of the sub-culture that I'm a part of. -- VIRUS, graffiti writer
I think that people need to, the general public needs to, recognise what's really going on and the dialogue that's intended. People I talk about graffiti to hate tagging, and to me it's the richest form of dialogue going on. Because when I look at a dumpster and I see 25 names on there, each one of them is someone that I know has ... It's a culture and when you get involved with the culture there are symbols, like a legend. It's like a legend on a map where each one of these symbols represents a whole group of information. It's, I'll be like, 'oh look at that tag, I know that's a girl. I know her, she great.' Or 'that guy's really funny,' or 'that guy is an asshole.' Or whatever, you know? It's rich with detail if you take the time to learn it and they are all triggers to remember different things. And you can see, as well as people's style what influences their art through the type of spots they choose to tag in. Some people will write everywhere or anywhere and some people will choose the spot exactly where they want. Or even the pens that they choose to use, you know, the inks that they have. The pens that they have, there is just so much information in these scribbles, you know, that people just don't get it. -- OAPH, graffiti writer

Although graffiti seems to be an anarchistic practice free of rules and structure, this is not the case. There are implicit rules, expected but not always followed behaviours, and discipline in the art form or folk art (Powers, 1999). Much of what graffiti is about is its implicit nature, the unspoken rules, undefined meanings, and emphasis on practice over theory. Through the use of alleys, empty lots, abandoned buildings, bleak walls, and any visible or available 'public' surface, writers indicate and assert their presence in a hostile and exclusive environment. The use of location, style and colour add to these often ugly and depressing non-spaces, a physical manifestation of a largely exclusive dialogue between members of a practicing sub-culture.

It just reminds you that there are other people out there who are creative and who are doing their thing and who are questioning the use of this space as it is now. Why is this abandoned and what do we get out of this spot by this being completely abandoned? Like, is it really helping anybody? Like, these walls behind us here, are just they've got nothing going for them? They just actually depress you, really. It actually makes you feel like, 'wow, no one cares.' -- YESCA, graffiti writer

The sheer bravado and disregard for hegemonic codes and behaviours can at times be inspirational to those that occupy and exist in these spaces. The necessity of "getting up" and the skill and nerve of "getting over" not only symbolise an "ethic of action" (Potter, 1995: 138) but also exemplify the audacious, at times incredulous, spirit of the graffiti writer. When exploring the dark, unkempt alleys, lots, and nether regions of Vancouver, I was, at times, astonished by the illumination and aesthetic additions to these otherwise ignored and avoided spaces. The metaphor of "silent thunder" (Miller quoting Lee, 2002: 87) would be appropriate for this repeated experience. Turning a corner, entering a train yard or jumping a fence, many times trespassing, and boom - colour, design and the presence of individuals who risk physical harm and persecution to add to these spaces for themselves, their peers and often an unappreciative and unwelcoming public.

There is this whole sub-culture, which I see as a kind of folk culture really, that has developed and has grown and it's turning into this whole tradition where people are saying, 'I don't want to fit,' you know, or 'I want to resist', you know, and I think that's why people don't like it. I mean, that's going to be the case with any form of resistance, you know. -- NEOS, graffiti writer

Graffiti is uninvited public expression and a form of resistance to the visual status quo. In our culture "we pay for the right of propaganda" (Culture Jam, 2001) through advertising. The poor, disenfranchised and alienated are excluded from the dominant, commodified symbolic exchanges. Whether graffiti is defined as art or vandalism, creative or criminal, it adds to the symbolic dialogue of the city, not with messages of production and consumption but with messages of uncensored presence, creativity, and ego. The street as a "position of democratic, visible, and accessible" (Zukin, 1995: 262) participation is being eroded. The hegemonic forces and camps have rallied against this form of expression and have created a strategy and bureaucracy to fulfil their mandate of "eradicating" a criminal and dangerous art form from the streets of Vancouver (Miller, 2002).

Strategies and Tactics

Strategies are top-down relations of power insofar as they are "rationalised" (de Certeau, 1984: 38) management schemes for controlling a perceived threat in their defined place of power. This organisation of space and definition of place stems from a need to define "one's own place in a world bewitched by the invisible powers of the other" (ibid: 36) and is ubiquitous in modern politics, science, and military strategy. Vancouver's graffiti management program is no exception.

Graffiti's perceived threat to the cleanliness and order of the city is dealt with in a strangely contradictory fashion. Vancouver's Anti-Graffiti Program insists on the removal of all graffiti from both public and private property within 10 working days on the presumption that the policy will curtail future acts of this form of vandalism (City of Vancouver, 2003). Without compliance, a graffiti removal contractor hired by the City of Vancouver will bill the owner of a private property or business for the clean up of their building. This policy further victimizes private property and business owners because not only are their buildings vandalized by the graffiti but they are responsible for its removal.
I have absolutely no choice but pay it because I can't have my city licence without paying my bills. So, I don't know how that can be described as a democratic act, of any kind. So the program as they would see it as being very successful, whereas I don't really, you know. To have the heavy hand of the law come down on you and force you to do something that you have no inclination to do is just, it's not on, you know. It's, you know, if I have no problem with the throw-ups and the tags, who are they to say I should have a problem with the throw ups and tags? Bottom line and ... personally I do, so I resolved that on my own (by having a mural painted), but that should be left up to the individual and certainly not the city and the heavy hand of the law. -- David Campbell, business owner
I'll give you a great stat here. We sent out probably, I would say, probably seven to eight hundred information letters to people to remove graffiti. And this is not an actual order yet, just the information, a letter saying, 'hey, you have graffiti on your property, please remove it.' Just more of an info letter. We're having about 80 percent compliance with that. And with the other 20 percent we sent out about 200 some odd orders, out of those 200 some odd orders, the city has had to go on their property 12 times, to remove graffiti, so as you can see it's a pretty successful program. People, you know what it is? People, the biggest complaint was, 'I might do it, but my neighbour's not going to do it, so why should I do it?' That's not the case any more. It's straight across the board that you know graffiti is an issue. We're all going to have to deal with it. -- Jag Sanghara, Mural Coordinator, Graffiti Management Program
And the economies of scale for them have been phenomenal. I mean they're having everything cleaned in the entire city of Vancouver for, it's costing them almost $3 per graffiti removal in the city. And that's remarkable when you think about that. If you phoned up a contractor, it costs around $150 or more just to get someone to show up, suddenly they're getting it proactively removed every week without their involvement necessary. For 3 bucks a pop, I think it's fantastic. So my hats off to them, they've been proactive, you can see that the problem in Vancouver is trending downwards not up. So they've, we have the flagship program in Canada, right now. There is no municipality program that I know of that, in Canada, there are a few in the States that are as comprehensive as this one. They are having every single piece of equipment and buildings, that's about 75 000 pieces of equipment cleaned every single week without their involvement necessarily. That's a statement and I think the police would concur. There's a message out there this is happening so how the graffiti community will deal with this we're not sure yet, but at this point it seems to be trending down nicely. It's becoming a manageable cost. It's something we can deal with.-- Perri Domm, President, Goodbye Graffiti

Vancouver's Anti-Graffiti Program is sponsored by various paint retailers and manufacturers who directly profit from the city's increased vigilance (Graffiti By-Law, 2003). With the establishment and expansion of the city's bureaucracy, corporate partnerships, and methods of enforcement, the economy of graffiti is expanding.

And it's important to have corporate partnerships in the field because you know what? A) We want to be able to provide information to property owners about graffiti removal services out there. B) We want to know the trends of graffiti, so it's good to have connections in the field. What kind of graffiti are you seeing? What kind? What styles? Is acid etching really in this summer? They are kind of our ears out there and we are able to gather that information and also plan with that information. Going to Colour Your World to be one of our corporate partners with paint supplies, we get a discount rate for our free paint program. Which is, if we didn't have that it would be a real expense to the city. They also provide another discount to a returning customer; they provide you with paint at a discount rate again. So it's important that the public is getting fair deals on the paints cause you know what it is? A financial burden, we know that. And having corporate partners, you know what? They're able to absorb some of the costs. And also, you know what? It shows leadership within the community. It's just not the city talking about it, it's other agencies involved that see what graffiti does to a community as well. -- Jag Sanghara, Mural Coordinator, Graffiti Management Program

The most interesting and contradictory element of this scheme is that on all levels of the economic cycle this program depends upon the continuation of, if not an increase in, graffiti in Vancouver. This scheme, which supposedly attempts to minimise the presence of graffiti, has benefits for all parties involved if graffiti proliferates and expands. With questionable municipal enforcement strategies, a diversion of police funds and manpower, as well as the expansion of private corporate interests, this strategic control mechanism compromises not only the rights of the citizens of Vancouver but also contradicts itself by trying to combat this form of property crime with the further victimization of the citizens immediately and directly affected by it.

Another facet to this strategy is the mural program. In theory this program could be an effective avenue for promoting graffiti art in the city, but in practice it is a bureaucratic nightmare that sends contradictory signals to all participants involved. By making legal outlets available to graffiti artists to practice their craft this program could be an effective strategy for eliminating a lot of "ugly," bleak or continually 'vandalized' walls in the city (Graffiti By-Law, 2003). Unfortunately, the bureaucracy involved in the current mural program is too slow, cumbersome and logistically impractical for the majority of graffiti writers. This research found that graffiti writers do not follow the schedules or timelines that strategies such as this function and depend on. Graffiti writers are frequently late, do not take direction well, and are suspicious of outsiders and people who maintain positions of power. Most graffiti writers harbour resentment for the legitimisation of their practice by city officials and do not trust the city's attitude toward it.

I don't care who tells you it's art, it's an act of vandalism, it's a crime, and we put that point across. And we don't shy away from saying that. What we do want to do with this group is, you show that you are a legitimate artist and we have a program that will work with ya.... You know what, having to say that we have worked with 20, 75 percent (on a guess here) probably were working with graffiti artists, and some of them were past taggers. There's no ands or buts about that, but if we can get them out of the tagging and getting them into doing murals I think we're doing a successful thing with the program. -- Jag Sanghara, Mural Coordinator, Graffiti Management Program

This resentment held by the graffiti community toward the city and its mural program is due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of writers and their internal policing and control mechanisms. At times, the work that does get put up is not appropriate in the graffiti community's eyes. If the city funds an artist or artists that have not earned the respect of the community through a loose system of apprenticeship and display of adequate skill and mastery, the respect usually given to mural art will disappear and the program will fail miserably. I have spoken to established and respected writers that are enthusiastic about being paid to do legal murals if there was less red tape, fewer public art committees, and less bureaucracy. An example of the hassle and inefficiency of this program is AVERS's mural at Yukon Street and Broadway. AVERS was arrested for the first time while painting the mural. Although he had permission from the City of Vancouver and the property owner, he did not receive his permit before he started. He also did not receive payment from the owner because he did not receive his permit in a timely manner. He later received an apology from the Anti-Graffiti Task Force and from the officer that initially approached him about the mural.

I just should have said no. But it started off the first day priming the wall and my car got towed, I had to deal with that. And then the next couple of days I started painting it and I got arrested and I was completely freaked. That was completely awful. I'm realising with Vancouver, it's just not a mural, it's just not graffiti, it's everything. Everything is tied into each other. Everybody wants a piece of the pie. -- AVERS, graffiti writer

The contradictions present in this program seem to indicate a haphazard approach to reducing graffiti in the city. On one hand calling for the eradication of graffiti and on the other censuring and sponsoring "legitimate" (City of Vancouver, 2003) forms of art is indicative of the program's lack of direction and most likely its failure. Intensifying the removal of graffiti in all of its forms will not cease the practice. If anything it will encourage writers to tag and concentrate on quick, inexpensive "outlines and fills" (Cooper & Chalfant, 1984), the most unappreciated forms of graffiti. If their work is going to be quickly and indiscriminately removed then they will not spend the time and effort to do (master) "pieces" and "burners" (Cooper & Chalfant, 1984).

Really the response of not caring about style so much and caring more and more about 'ups' is in direct response in the way the city's dealing us, pushing us harder and harder ... The future of graffiti is going to be uglier and uglier shit, unless they decide they want to have some venue to, you know, for illegal, nice graffiti to exist and serve in certain places, all your gonna have is glass etches and scribes and bombs, which is fine with me if that's the way they want to get down to it. You know what I mean? If that's really what the city wants, but as far as thinking they can eradicate it, that's just a joke. - YESCA, graffiti writer

There is now a considerable cessation of graffiti on the streets of Vancouver, but it will only last as long as the current level of pressure is applied. If the program is successful in the short term the walls and streets will be clean, funding and vigilance will decrease, and the cycle of graffiti and its removal will continue. One of the most disturbing and questionable elements of this strategy is the increased intimidation, surveillance, and harassment of the graffiti community. Most writers do not have much to lose and issuing fines they cannot pay and ordering jail time is not a productive, justifiable solution. In some cases, such penalties create career criminals.

Well whenever you get a cop that stops you, for any type of graffiti they say, you know, 'well you don't own this space so, it's a crime,' you know. No matter what you tell them about it, and I always remind them is that I don't own shit, you know what I mean, and most writers don't own shit, so the idea that you have to paint on your own things is kind of laughable. -- YESCA, graffiti writer

The current resources devoted to the cessation of graffiti in Vancouver reveal the transparency of the city's priorities. These rationalised strategic actions taken by the city are based on economic imperatives and political pressure applied in response to a misunderstood and unappreciated cultural form. The eventual failure of this strategy is in fact due to the writers' guerrilla tactics and their resistance to projects and strategies to contain them.

Trickery, ruse, deception, in the way one uses or cheats with the terms of social contracts. Innumerable ways of playing and foiling the other's game (jouer/dejouer de l'autre) that is, the space instituted by others, characterise the subtle, stubborn, resistant activity of groups which, since they lack their own space, have to get along in a network of already established forces and representations. People have to make do with what they have. In these combatants' stratagems, there are a certain art of placing one's blows, a pleasure in getting around the rules of a constraining place. (de Certeau, 1984: 18)

With the notion of strategy established it is important to understand 'the tactic' and the tactical elements involved in the practice of graffiti. In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), Michael de Certeau describes the tactic as "a manoeuvre within the enemy's field of vision, and within enemy territory" (ibid: 37). Its mode of operation, known as "poaching" (ibid: 200), requires mobility and acting on opportunity. What it wins, it will never keep. The effectiveness of the tactic is derived from the element of surprise and its ability to be visible where it is least expected. Tactics as opposed to strategies is the art of the weak, powerless, and desperate. According to de Certeau, the beauty of the tactic is that it combines freedom, creativity, and action to achieve its goals. With these characteristics, space triumphs over place. Practiced space is a form of knowledge that the bureaucratic machine does not possess. The refusing-to-fall-into-line mentality of the tactic is both "playful and threatening" (ibid: 130).

One of the most interesting and resistant methods utilized by the tactic is its ability to absorb and flip top-down (Fiske, 1993: 26) strategies and to "make do" (de Certeau, 1984: 38), as demonstrated by the "bricolage" methodology of the graffiti writer. During my interviews the topic of "the buff" (Cooper & Chalfant, 1984) kept re-surfacing, as did the significance of the city's anti-graffiti policies. The overwhelming consensus among writers was that Vancouver's crack down was inevitable and not surprising. Many of the writers view 'the buff' as separating the active writers, those that "get up," from the less-active writers that do not. 'The buff' also refers to a third party canvas cleaner. City Hall is taking responsibility for clearing the palette of the city, focussing the writers' collective aggression and animosity on the authorities and not within the community. That being said and holding true to the contradictions that are rife within the community, some writers see the zero-tolerance policy of increased fines, increased surveillance and removal of walls as exacerbating the political divisions in the graffiti community. Writers and writing crews have to fight for decreasing wall space that could lead to more violence within the community. As evidenced in my audio interview, officers of the Anti-Graffiti Task Force expressed concern about violence in the graffiti community and cite it as one of their justifications for the crackdown on graffiti. From my conversations with older writers, graffiti in Vancouver has traditionally been more aggressive and oppositional in nature. It has been the Anti-Graffiti Program and the recent crackdown on the graffiti community that has aggravated the tension and animosity within this group.
It is about destabilization. A lot of the lettering, for example, is about angles and about illegibility and it's about, you know, this kind of pushing of the boundaries in terms of creating something that's not rigid, that's not the grid. And I think at a fundamental level a lot of what graffiti is about is negating or resisting the grid, the city streets, you know, the law. So, by resisting the grid, there's a way that somehow, there's an empowerment. I think that the way graffiti resists the grid, if you will, it kind of, like the way, somehow finding your own power within a place that is disempowering and alienating. You know through creativity, actually through a way of saying, 'here I am, this is my name' and, in a way, it's an affirmation if you will ... I think one of the major things I learned from it was that I have the power to be creative and to pick something up, like a can of paint or whatever, and just put my work out there. That I don't need to wait for anybody, you know. I was, I didn't need to be applying for a show at an art gallery. I can just do it. I could go down to some crappy alley and make it beautiful. And so that kind of empowerment or that kind of - just ability to create something out of nothing, you know, was quite good for me. -- NEOS, graffiti writer

The tradition of graffiti is primarily based on the collection of "flicks" or photographs, black books and oral history. These photos are reminders of past work and indexical evidence that you "got up and over" (Powers, 1999) if only for a brief moment. Unlike established art practices that are based on the materiality and exchange value of the art itself (Cresswell, 1992), the true value of graffiti is measured in shared experience and ephemeral achievements. The tactical "ways of operation" (de Certeau, 1984: 93) of graffiti writers are not dependent on systems of commodity exchange, property ownership or the need for legal sanction to function as a cultural practice. It is "guerrilla semiotic warfare" (Eco, 1990: 143), opportunistic, ephemeral and unstoppable.


The primary function of writing as a means of communication is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings. (Claude Levi-Strauss 1955: 292)

Style is everything in graffiti. It has been called a "crime of style" (Ferrell, 1993: 15). Names such as Philly Tall, Broadway, Bronx Style, Gothic Futurism, Iconoclastic Panzerism, Computer and Wild Style (Cooper & Chalfant, 1984; Powers, 1999; Miller, 2002) are stylistic mutations of the Roman alphabet. It is the evolution of the alphabet and the changing of meaning - "you can make it your own" (Miller, quoting VULCAN, 2002: 79). Graffiti artists are guerrilla linguists. The "lettering is not linear or reductive, it is expansive expressing many layers of experience at once" (ibid: 68). It incorporates elements such as political protest, structural beauty and at times spirituality.

It's honest and it's real, it's about as real as you can get, as far as art goes. You know what I mean? It doesn't mean that people have to like it or even think it's art, but it's, in that sense it's really spiritual. You know what I mean? Someone who contributes to it, or lives by it, it's deep to them and there's something in them that ignites that. You know what I mean? And they get satisfaction out of it. -- VIRUS, graffiti writer

Graffiti is the formation of an "anti-language" (Hodge & Kres, 1999: 78) based on collective meanings reliant on a distinct semiotic system. Graffiti is a "performative act" (de Certeau, 1984) in a public forum for its own informed audience. In fact, if one is not aware of or familiar with the dominant styles and techniques, graffiti may just confuse the viewer. This complexity, and at times incomprehensibility, is one of the most problematic characteristics of contemporary graffiti (besides the fact that it is considered vandalism). The re-ordering, re-defining, and re-contextualizing of language is subversive and resistant.

Although threatening and often intimidating, this linguistic mutation can be understood in terms of an idiolect. An idiolect is an individual's specific use of language or semiotic activity. It is an individual variation of the norm, but this variation cannot be too excessive or communication is jeopardized.

The most important thing about graffiti is style. Graffiti is all style and you got to be original because you're putting up a part of yourself. You're not trying to mimic other people. Of course when you start, comin' up, you got to learn the lines and everything, so obviously you mimic people. You got to copy people, you look at magazines, you do sketches, but eventually you got to step out on your own with your own style and put it up, and that's what's important ... It's a pure form. The alphabet is one of the first things they teach you and you know, they show you how to do it - 'this is the right way, this is the way a letter is suppose to look like, it goes like that.' We took that, and we took it on our own, and we freaked however we wanted to. -- RHEK, graffiti writer

To outsiders, graffiti writer's use of lettering, style and colour may seem anachronistic and indecipherable, but there are only so many styles accepted within the practice. The function graffiti style serves is to "sustain difference and cohesion and declares the ideology of the group" (Hodge & Kres, 1999: 79). There is also a system of respect and codes of conduct within the group, contrary to what most people think. It is a subculture with norms and expected conduct.

Normalcy is rejected in favour for difference, not unlike "surrealism's war declared on the world of surfaces" (Lippard, 1970: 70) The Surrealists attacked and horrified the bourgeois by loudly proclaiming its nonconformity, not through literal meaning or rational arguments but by the freedom of association and the manifestation of the unconscious through art. "The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd" (Breton, 1924). Graffiti "is the triumph of process over fixity, disruption over unity, collision over linkage, the triumph, that is, of signifier over the signified" (Hebdige, 1979: 19). Graffiti's semiotic assault is not contingent upon rationalised thought or defined ideology, but rests on imposed artistic expression and ubiquitous physical presence on all visible surfaces.

A practical application of this idea of graffiti-as-idiolect concerns a story of failed typographic analysis. During one of my many conversations with DECT (February, 2003), he shared his experience and knowledge involving an attempt at the control and rationalisation of tagging. The Vancouver police, as part of their vigilant surveillance of this sub-culture, thought it would be useful and productive to fly in a typographer to help in the investigation of the city's writers to assist with prosecution. It turned out that because of the conflict between Vancouver's writers and their drive for identity, originality and stylistic tradition, it was inconclusive to compare the tags of writers and differentiate between them. DECT had to physically display that their techniques and styles are so similar writers are able to mimic and replicate the tags of other writers. This element of the tradition is very similar to calligraphy and systems of apprenticeship and mastery (Miller, 2002).

The discipline required to be a practitioner of graffiti can be regarded as a threatening sub-cultural characteristic. For writers to spend the time and energy on an "anti-language" (Hodge & Kres, 1999) with no inherent exchange value must seem utterly foolish to many people. To devote so much time and passion to painting and writing one's name in a style that is at times illegible is the terrain of the 'other.' Individual writers redefine themselves by distorting the alphabet, imposing their presence and identity with an element of secrecy. To take this understanding of idiolect and meaning of style to a macro level of semiotic hierarchy (ibid) such artists as PHAZE 2 and RAMM:ELL:ZZE have taken concepts of letter structure, movement and battle philosophy and have formed not only idiolects but also cosmologies based on traditional elements of graffiti (Ramm:ell:zee, 2003).

If you put it up in public it's gonna be read and you're gonna interrupt someone's path to work. They're gonna look at it and they're forced to think about what it is they do in life and why it's important to them and who is this person doing this and why is it important to them. 'Should I re-think my role, my goals in life?' You know, I think for me, that's my goal: to invade public spaces and putting people in check and knocking them out of their routine for a second and making them look at what else is out there. There's actually people willing to paint on surfaces for free because they love it. I think to deny that desire is inhuman. -- MENTOS, graffiti writer

The "noise" that graffiti creates in the "teeth-gritting harmony" (Althusser, 1971: 150) of mainstream society is a disruption of the symbolic/visual order and hegemonic forces will try to stamp it out or commodify the form, making it an undesirable form of resistance (Hebdige, 1979).

One of the things I like about graffiti is that it can never be fully acceptable, right, like even though the corporations may try to use it to have us identify with them, or say that, 'oh they're cool,' or they're accepting of our, what we're about and they're supportive of our culture and you know, it's like they're still going to walk outside of their building and there's going to be a tag there and it's going to piss them off. There's an aspect to it that you can never just tame it; you can never just control it, you know. -- ACROW, graffiti writer

Here again is the difference or 'other' that is graffiti. It refuses co-optation at a very basic level (tags or hand styles) and refuses to be made safe for consumption. Most writers' level of commitment and earnest involvement with this stylistic resistance is deeply ingrained. This directly contradicts the stereotypes perpetuated in the media and by the authorities. Graffiti is not a fad or a product of commercial culture though it has been influenced profoundly by aspects of commercial culture. It is a cultural tradition full of complexity and meaning for its practitioners.

Public Space

The functioning of all space is "a dynamic set of historically and economically contingent relations" (Zukin, 1996: 32). Be it private, semi-private, semi-public or public, space is shaped through social use and practice. The urban landscape, like all landscapes, is both material and symbolic in form and function. It is a site of markets, cultural expression and power relations (Zukin, 1991). Historically, these relations have played out through places such as the Agora, various commons and the street. These spaces, although seemingly democratic and inclusive, have always been subject to definition by society's powerful and elite. The construction of place is contingent upon enforcing and maintaining its physical and symbolic order. Exclusion and control are essential to understanding public space because it denotes "proximity, diversity and accessibility" (Zukin, 1995: 262). The image consumption essential for the construction and maintenance of the post-industrial landscape is dependent upon symbols of "ecology, leisure and liveability" (Zukin, 1991: 74). City buildings and their symbolic economies are dependent upon several key relationships and constructions, such as the use of traditional economic resources of land, labour and capital, and what Zukin (1995) identifies as the manipulation of the symbolic languages of exclusion and entitlement. Along with entrepreneurial abstractions of place, civic pride and the establishment of a "patrician class" (Zukin, 1996: 133) create a symbolic vision of "the city."

Modern symbolic economies depend on a service economy and are organised around themes, which facilitate the visual and material consumption of the place. This consumption takes precedence over all non-commodified forms of exchange or practice. Vernacular culture is marginalized and oppressed if it occupies or interferes with the defined and protected symbolic construction. Gentrification continues to homogenise and exclude, displacing the poor and powerless to re-make space as defined by the urban utopia of cleanliness, convenience, and safety (Lofland, 1988). Elements at odds with this process will be ostracized and displaced so they no longer disrupt the coherency and visual order of the place. Graffiti is a direct challenge to this order. It questions the very values that this image depends on. Graffiti's unwanted inappropriateness is likened regularly to dirt, animal characteristics, the uncivilized, and the profane (Stewart, 1987: 168). Here the obscenity becomes the utterance out of place, a permanent defacement, a creative act, and a claim to 'the street.'

The city has traditionally been a place of diversity, culture, and economic prosperity. The public realm, an essential component of the urban experience which is "often loud, abrasive, and contentious," (Lofland, 1998: 129) is now being marginalized. Urban landscapes are now more defined by the public use of private space than ever before. The militarization of public spaces through the use of private security forces and increased surveillance is seen by property owners, business owners and authorities as necessary for reducing the criminal element and alleviating perceived fears of the 'other.'

As tourism expands its economic and symbolic reaches, more pressure is applied and more money is spent on these measures to ensure the expansion of the sector. As the significance of tourism as an economic engine in the post-industrialized city increases, the tolerance for disruptive and "dangerous" cultural activity decreases. Vancouver tourism brings in approximately eight million visitors each year contributing to the $9-billion provincial industry (the second largest industry in British Columbia), and it provides seven percent of the province with employment within this sector and its related economy (Tourism B.C, 2003; VEDC, 2003). Considering the economic imperatives, physical and symbolic attacks such as graffiti are not welcome.

Well, basically the threat is basically the broken window syndrome, and that's deals with what happened in New York, and that's why we've seen the change in New York. That we have seen to an extreme, they're probably the model for the world on the success of graffiti and graffiti abatement. What they've done, the broken window syndrome, is basically, 'let's deal with the small stuff, we'll clean the broken windows, we'll clean up the graffiti, we'll get rid of the derelicts and the pan handlers, because that is the beginning of a decline of a community.' So graffiti is just the first catalyst in the eventual decline and it creates an atmosphere of lawlessness, it's not safe... And I think we need to take a proactive approach because Vancouver has always been a beautiful city and I think we need to keep it that way and I think just the simple graffiti scrawls that you see on the pillars and things like that does not do our city any justice whatsoever. I think the Olympics will have a huge influence on it, on graffiti. I think we will see less tolerance for it because of the fact that we don't want to portray ourselves in that way. We want a clean beautiful city. That's what Vancouver always has been and hopefully will continue to be and what is our selling point. People don't come to see our graffiti; they come to see the beauty that we have here. So I think in that sense of, we've opened the door to the world to come and view our beautiful city. -- Special Constable Wendy Hawthorne

The recent displacement on the Downtown East Side and the increase in anti-graffiti measures indicate a move toward a "disnification" (Sorkin, 1992) of Vancouver - a place where nothing shocks, disgusts, or is feared. It makes for great tours and family outings, but it does not contribute to the cosmopolitanism of the city and it does not solve some of the larger social issues and factors that create these conditions. The visibility of these problems makes for easy targets and the demonization of the individuals involved. The "desire for security rather than interaction" (Mitchell, 1995: 119) in these contested spaces is based on ideas of homogeneity and domestication rather than diversity and disruption. To simply visually remove their presence is not a long-term solution.

It may lead to the end of graffiti as an expression, as a public expression because I'm not sure how other people can deal with it. Other people's appreciation of their space needs to be respected as well. And I think after, I think we're on 4 million removals now, and I would say we're about 2.5 of them in Vancouver. You put up 2.5 million pieces of graffiti back up tomorrow in this town and I think people in this town would realise what we've done and I'm proud of to have done it and I'm proud of the city in taking the initiative they have and I think were going to make this a cleaner, safer city, a place for people to live, and I think that's really is the point. -- Perri Domm, president, Goodbye Graffiti

The forces and relations that manifest themselves in these undesirable forms such as graffiti, uses of and practices in these spaces are still present. The solution offered by the City of Vancouver is rather short sighted. The design, use and indeed proprietorship of Vancouver urban space is now decisively determined by corporate interests. Boyer (1996) argues "these spaces are now becoming a site of struggle between a particular kind of public interest (the police) and private interests masquerading as 'public' interests (e.g. private security industries)." The pacification of these areas is in the interests of the owners of capital, not necessarily the occupants of the spaces. The 'place' is forced on the occupants by forcing them to choose between conforming to the designated behaviour and codes of the place or leaving, either by choice or by economic or authoritative imperatives.

It's part of what makes a city a city. It's what fills in the notches and crannies. It gives it texture and it gives it, it's real, it's not sterile, the city is the city. This is where, walk through Main and Hastings, man, look what's going on - there's like poor people and there are people that are addicted to drugs and people that are mentally ill, you know they are parts of the city. It's what makes a city a city and what makes it really rich. It is a variety of things going on there. It's not clean buildings, it's not all like all just one coloured concrete. Sorry, it's that dialogue, there are more people speaking that dialogue in the community, so darn right there is going to be more graffiti.-- OAPH, graffiti writer
Sure I've messed up some stuff. It's been stuff, you know, I don't really like, you know. I don't think grey concrete, the prevalence of grey concrete in this city is really necessarily. A strategy towards people getting together and becoming a happier better people, and if anything it pulls people apart and makes people feel upset, you know. Like, why is all this stuff so grey and bleak, you know? -- YESCA, graffiti writer

The "marketing of fear" (Lofland, 1998: 78) is an effective tool of gentrification and pacification. If people believe that lesser crimes such as graffiti vandalism is a direct cause of rape, murder, and other violent crime then funds will be allocated and freedoms will be curtailed in the name of law and order. The current "broken window theory" adopted by the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department was implemented by both increased surveillance of writers and greater economic opportunities for removing graffiti. By limiting the amount of graffiti, the city is seen as securing us from larger, more violent crime and the program is, therefore, seen as being worth the millions of dollars spent on removal and enforcement. By functioning outside the system of commodity exchange and hegemonic codes of Vancouver's symbolic and real economy, writers are being increasingly harassed and their practice curtailed.

The increased presence of billboards and advertising in all forms of space reinforces the importance of commodity exchange and the economic imperatives of sanctioned symbolic communication in this city and globally. A Viagra billboard can occupy 100 square feet of sky while tags, throw-ups and pieces are considered eyesores and promptly removed. People pay for the right of propaganda and, unfortunately, this excludes a majority of the working poor, lower classes, and the disillusioned from participating in the symbolic dialogue of the city.
But there is another element, say like on a grassroots level, where people are saying 'I want to produce my own culture, I want to produce and create my own images.' Or there are people that are realising the power of advertising and are saying 'I want to do that. I want to create posters; I want to create tags,' you know. -- NEOS, graffiti writer
So it's important to, that it's an individual speaking out in a place where really individuals really don't have much right to speak out. And if you're a corporation you're allowed to put up as much stuff up as you want anywhere. -- YESCA, graffiti writer

The need for control of place and the freedoms expressed in public space will always be at odds. The issue of graffiti as public expression, public art, in and on privately and publicly owned property, is a social phenomena produced by economic and political realities of city life. The increasing presence and ubiquity of advertising in our lives is forcing people to act out against this imposition of images and messages. Graffiti is one of many forms of resistance in response to the increased presence of advertising, using its own techniques to either explicitly or implicitly resist promotional messages and to fashion its own message publicly and materially.


By collecting an assortment of perspectives from the players with vested interests in graffiti in Vancouver, a problematic conflict emerges through rhetoric and posturing. Graffiti, something that is defined as both vandalism and an artistic practice, not only indicates criminal activity and an act of sub-cultural resistance, but also sustains an economy of removal and cultural debate. The material existence and continuation of this practice reflects both its development as a cultural tradition and its resistance within an "environment already saturated with visual signs" (Stallabrass, 1996: 147). Graffiti re-contexualizes language - the very base unit of social organisation and power. It violates one of the central pillars of our economic system by rejecting the hegemonic codes behind the ownership and respect for property.

For all of these glaring ruptures of the status quo and visual order, and subsequent authoritative reaction, the practice of graffiti thrives and is passed on through youth culture as a means of public expression. With the expansion and growth of graffiti in Vancouver the economy of removal and containment has been strengthened. The necessity for the city to protect its image, property values and perceived authority justifies its actions and the resources allotted to the recent anti-graffiti initiative. Simultaneously, the city's actions provoke the graffiti community into a defensive posture, challenging their form of creative expression and their right to exist as a practicing sub-culture. This opposition between the city and the graffiti community is mutually reinforcing, providing practices and evidence to be examined and removed by the authorities while providing the risk and confrontational mentality that ensures graffiti's ubiquitous presence.

With the increasingly commodified and privatised nature of the public realm, public space is subject to corporate interests and institutional regulation. The push toward homogenisation and control of the urban environment fosters a culture of fear and "questions the legitimacy" (Mitchell, 1995) and value of the democratic mix of the street. The image of the city as a site of diversity, accessibility and tolerance is losing ground to a different symbolic vision - one of cleanliness, control and containment.
I think it's important to have dissent and I think it's important to have different opinions and I think it's important to have richness. It can't all be the same. I mean, this is the whole thing ... I'm interested in diversity and in culture or whether it be in terms of different kinds of people or be it in terms of what kinds of communications are being produced, whether it's a diversity of creatures out there. I'm not interested in monoculture and I think that this is one of the things, problems that is part of what's happening with global-laid capitalism. And that it wants to create a mono-culture and graffiti is like a virus, as VIRUS would say, that's going in there and it's putting a wrench in the cogs, you know. And I think that's okay, you know, and I think that's what creates a rich culture, you know. It creates a dialogue and it creates a kind of polemic. -- NEOS, graffiti writer

Having become familiar with Vancouver's alleys, underpasses, rooftops and the writers' practices reinforces my concerns about the future of public space and the privatisation that continues to restrict and confine movement and practices within the urban environment. The bursts of colour and form that appear overnight have the power to provoke fear and loathing, hatred, awe, and astonishment among the city's inhabitants. Something seemingly so base and simple reveals not only the political and economic tensions within our society but also functions as a symptom of various and compounding social forces that threaten the very space and the freedom to use space that we all inhabit and create. There is a need for an increase in knowledge and awareness of the larger issues of space and constitution of place, the importance of the social ramifications of the aestheticization of fear (Lofland, 1998) and the expansion of the panoptic mechanism (Foucault, 1977).

The symbolic economy and image of the city does not depend upon the sanitization of all undesirable elements that seem to disrupt the visual order and provoke disdain. Instead of suppression, intimidation and displacement these identifiable, visible issues and social signifiers should be open to interpretation and negotiation. By continuing to implement an anti-graffiti strategy using public funds the city is provoking a sub-culture into far more destructive and defensive acts of resistance. In Vancouver, contrary to the reinforced stereotypes, we have some of the most intelligent, resourceful, and talented graffiti writers anywhere. To assume that this cultural practice can be contained, even curtailed neglects the consequences of heavy-handed approaches to eradicate writers and their expressive culture.

The present the trajectory of gentrification, domestication and intolerance in the city will only exacerbate the conflict's existing tension and resistant elements. The general consensus among the older, more mature writers in the city is that with the indiscriminate removal policy of all graffiti, the emphasis has shifted from an artistic "piecing" aesthetic to a more graffiti vandalism mentality with an emphasis on tagging, scribes, acid etching and "bombs." This reactionary shift will continue and develop until the city, in cooperation with property owners, makes concessions and provides the space to allow the free and uncensored expression of graffiti writers in certain places in neighbourhoods throughout the city. This would give the general public an opportunity to see these artists at work and to see what they are capable of producing, alleviating much of the fear associated with this group and their actions. The provision of space for graffiti will not cease the tagging activity in the streets or even stop those individuals who have more of a vandal mentality, but it will display an act of goodwill on behalf of the city and create a more open and less confrontational relationship. At the very least it would add to the cultural diversity of Vancouver and bolster its cosmopolitan image as a tolerant and vibrant metropolis. As NEOS put it, "we do not need simple solutions to complex issues."

For the city to back away from its zero-tolerance policy and its conservative, reactionary stance would require it to acknowledge graffiti as a cultural practice and an inevitable product of the urban experience. For any kind of meaningful and positive change to occur the city will have to pursue an active, informed and tolerant role in the negotiation of these spaces and these kinds of practices, not based on fear or intimidation, but founded on the appreciation of the diversity, accessibility and visible elements of public space and expression.

by C. Noble

This paper is part of a project that includes a documentary called City Space, which was released on DVD in late 2004.

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