Spray for mercy

Editorial by Kyle Shaw

illustration Graham Pilsworth

I'm a graffiti snitch, a narc, a stool pigeon. The Man is on a crusade to clean up the town, and I've happily done his bidding, ratting out urban art day after day. Being an informant doesn't make me happy, but I have my reasons. The city's war against graffiti is escalating to the point of insanity, and I figured I could make more of a difference by joining the fight instead of protesting. Working from the inside, I set out to prove once and for all the city can't win. This was a reckless mission with a chance of dragging on for a long time. It took a week.

A new anti-graffiti by-law will be coming to council at an upcoming Tuesday meeting, date TBD. Details of the by-law aren't publicly available1 yet, but at a graffiti seminar held mid-April in Halifax, local police constable Jim Bennett described it to a group of police and municipal officials from across the Maritimes.2 The most important feature of the by-law is that it gives the city authority over private property. If there's graffiti on your house, the city can order you to clean it off. Refuse, and the city will clean it then hand you a bill for services rendered. The city might also get fining power, for use on homeowners or people carrying spraypaint and markers.

Getting a by-law in place is one of the steps called for by the city's Graffiti Management Plan3, passed by council last August and publicly launched with fanfare and a website November 2.4 Although the city has been waging a futile battle against graffiti with fanfare and plans for years, the website introduces an unprecedented commitment to action: Members of the public are invited to report instances of graffiti on public property, and the city promises to clean the graffiti in either 24 hours (if the graf is racist, obscene or offensive), three days (if it's in a "priority area" like the downtown Capital District) or five days (everywhere else).5 The site has a form that makes reporting easy, and lets you make your complaint anonymously.6 Even without specifics of the new by-law, common sense says that it will take advantage of this already existing reporting mechanism, enlisting busybodies and tattletales to help expand the city's focus from public property to private.

Setting neighbours up to rat each other out to a government's sanitizing squad7 doesn't have the ring of democracy in action, yet such is the city's anti-graffiti zeal. It was in hopes of finding the limits of this fervour that I recently started snitching, using the website to request action on graffiti on public property. After all, tough talk and freedom-squishing laws are easy to produce; actually getting out there and scrubbing walls is hard. Could the city honour its pledge of dealing with graffiti complaints in five days or less?

The first day of my campaign, I pointed out the tags covering the bus shelter on Robie Street at Jubilee. Another day was the scoreboard at the Canada Games baseball diamond on the Common, which has been hit with a large throw-up, and last Thursday, April 26, was my favourite: The long black garbage bin behind City Hall itself, tagged with a big, dripping "Ender." (I'll post photos and dates for these and more on Bloghorn. If you do any snitching, email me so we can compare results.)

So far, none of my reports have been dealt with. The city's convenient site lets me check the status each clean-up I've asked for. That bus shelter complaint is 13 days old, and counting, with the same progress report every day from the site: "Your request is anticipated to be completed within the standard period of time for this type of service." Another empty promise from city hall.

Halifax has too many problems8 for city council to squander time, money and political will on graffiti. Councillors, when the latest by-law comes before you at a meeting, don't debate it, don't approve it. Just defer it to a back burner and forget it. The graffiti battle is turning into a Vietnam, an Iraq, a Waterworld. Pull out now, before council's credibility becomes an empty promise, too.

Send graffiti sightings to: editor@thecoast.ca


The by-law is part of a graffiti report being prepared by city staff. The report and its recommendations may be finished, but the public can’t see any draft reports until council does, and council has to make room on its crowded agenda to let the report come forward. This is one of many types of bureaucratic limbo.

I wasn’t there; details of Bennett’s presentation come from an April 17, 2007 story by Steve Bruce in the Herald. The article, “Proposed graffiti bylaw would leave mark,” is no longer freely available on the Herald’s site.

There are 59 steps, or policies, in total. The entire plan is available for downloading here.

I talked about the plan in this column. The main page of the city’s graffiti site is here.

The city’s standards are laid out here on the graffiti site.

Join us snitches here. Under the “Service request type” pull-down menu, choose graffiti.

A local example of this sort of thing happening before comes to mind from the early ‘90s, when Bedford was its own municipalityy run by its own mayor—none other than current Metro mayor Peter Kelly. The tidy town denizens wanted a grass mowing by-law that made it illegal to let your lawn grown beyond neighbourhood standards. For those people I have nothing but pity. And this guide to a better lawn. Notice that trying to bring in ham-fisted laws is not on the list.

This is a big iceberg. At its tip are traffic (including the war against the unlucky group of people living on Chebucto Road, covered here by The Coast), the harbour that is still going to be a sewer despite Harbour Solutions (great primer here) and the chronic fear of getting punched in the face while walking down the street (more here).

About The Author

Kyle Shaw

Kyle is the editor of The Coast. He was a founding member of the newspaper in 1993 and was the paper’s first publisher. Kyle occasionally teaches creative nonfiction writing (think magazine-style #longreads) and copy editing at the University of King’s College School of Journalism.

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