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Editorial by Kyle Shaw

Dartmouth’s former heritage museum is a monument to urban decay. The squat municipal building has served in several proud civic roles—it’s been a library and a police office, besides the museum—but now stands boarded up at the eastern end of Wyse Road. Compounding the city’s neglect is the graffiti. A couple elaborate throw-ups and countless scrawled tags decorate the outside walls, along with even less-inspired examples of spray-painting. Irwin Akerley, the Dartmouth mayor who laid the property’s cornerstone in 1957, would doubtless roll in his grave if he knew about the red “suck your mom” written near the side door.

Of all the building’s problems, the one city hall cares about most is probably the graffiti. In May 2000, Walter Fitzgerald, then mayor of Halifax Regional Municipality, started a “war on graffiti writing.” The city has been fighting since then, although it’s not going well. Every so often a new strategy is announced, with the insinuation that this time the mission will be accomplished. Current mayor Peter Kelly unveiled the Community Response Initiative in July 2002. “The initiative will not be a one-time effort or a brief clean-up campaign launched once a year,” he promised. The Graffiti Eradication Program was launched the next year.

Graffiti, meanwhile, is thriving. From pieces of art to ugly slogans, spray paint is covering increasingly large swaths of Metro. The standard locations like mailboxes, lampposts and railway cuts are still targets, and businesses have been getting hit for years. But lately, more and more private homes are being tagged. This crosses the line even for graf writers—houses are off-limits according to the traditional graffiti code that separates artists from vandals—so it’s a convenient time for the city’s latest eradication effort.

The Graffiti Management Plan was passed by council in August, and it went public with a website November 2. The plan’s 40 pages are easily summarized: The city wants graffiti to go away by dumping the dirty work on you.

Other cities have dealt with graffiti problems before, the plan says, and “the prompt removal of graffiti is widely seen as an effective deterrent to further hits.” Get rid of it quickly and it won’t come back. This is an important point that the plan makes several times, and which has profound implications. Halifax could hire an emergency clean-up crew, a sort of graffiti fire department, and make its troubles go away.

Except, as the plan says, “an infusion of new resources is unlikely.” Thus it calls for a “whole community approach.” With this approach the city looks for help, from anywhere in the whole community, to shoulder its responsibilities.

What this means in practise becomes instantly clear at the site. If there’s graffiti on your own property, do everything you can to remove it, including covering tags with “at least two coats of paint.” And do it fast. “While this may be difficult,” reads the site, “studies show that removal within 24 to 48 hours results in a nearly zero rate of reoccurrence.”

But if the graffiti is on city property, your job is to report it through the proper channels, then sit back and wait. The city’s “clean-up crew will be dispatched within 3 days for priority areas, 5 days beyond priority areas and within 24 hours for racist, obscene or offensive graffiti.” Not exactly responding like the fire department, are they?

The graffiti plan itself explains why three days is too long to wait if eradication is the goal. (Let’s not trouble with the idea that all graffiti is supposedly offensive to the city’s sensibilities.) Spending money to scrub walls several days later is worse than useless, because most of the graf will just come back. And laying a guilt trip on citizens while doing it is reprehensible. This plan is crass, offensive and wasteful. Just like the worst kind of graffiti.

Share your thoughts on graffiti with me by email: response times not guaranteed.

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