Dalhousie plans to paint over the real problem

Why the graffiti on campus isn’t the right target

Dalhousie University is planning a brute squad crackdown on the work of bathroom artists and desk scribblers. That’s because a reporter from Dalhousie’s student paper, The Gazette, recently illustrated an apparent graffiti epidemic.

Jesse Ward cased the upper levels of the university’s Killam Library and amassed a nine-page document filled with images. Most was harmless but some of it was vile and hateful, from racist slurs about U.S. President Obama to making light of rape. The library’s staff agreed students shouldn’t have to see such filth. They responded by urgently replacing tables etched with age-old graffiti and dropping $1,000 to whitewash slur-ridden walls. They also asked janitorial staff to do a better job reporting any and all graffiti.

Not only that, campus security services says it plans to initiate a public education campaign to appeal to students and teachers to start reporting graffiti so it can be painted over.

And there will be consequences for anyone caught in the act. “No more finger wagging,” says Jacob MacIsaac of Dalhousie’s security services adding they will press charges.

It’s a thorough response to an epidemic with just one big problem—graffiti is not an epidemic that needs to be cleaned up. The problem is bigoted bullies who feel the need to write hateful words.

MacIsaac says he spent hours in the library reading the layers upon layers of penwork on bathroom walls, desks and staircases. He told The Gazette that 95 per cent of the graffiti he saw was  “bubblegum graffiti”—how he describes innocent messages caused by boredom and/or a lack of impulse control. A much smaller but still disturbing amount of the graffiti targeted ethnic groups, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or even specific individuals. And so MacIsaac says subject matter doesn’t drive the conversation. “We’re more concerned with property damage.”

This suggests to me he doesn’t see the real problem, so it’s not surprising that Dalhousie is taking such a draconian approach. The problem with a graffiti eradication strategy is that it distracts from the real issues and it also has some drawbacks of it own.

First of all, eradication won’t succeed if the law is still ignored, just like the anti-smoking ban.

But that’s not all. Deborah Landry is a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa and board member of the House of PainT, a legal graffiti space. She says that, not only are graffiti eradication strategies futile, they are also in danger of targeting the groups often associated with urban art, whether they’re minorities like African Canadians, Aboriginals, low-income youth or just groups of people in hoodies lingering in corridors. What’s wrong with a little graffiti—hateful stuff excluded—if it allows marginalized people, or any people for that matter, to express themselves?

And let’s not underestimate the cost of eradicating all graffiti and hiring staff to patrol corridors and paint over new scribbles. It’s not going to be cheap. Dalhousie as a whole already spends somewhere between $50,000 to $60,000 a year on removing graffiti from the outsides of buildings.

By focusing on painting over it, Dalhousie is missing the point. The school doesn’t have a graffiti problem. It has a problem with a few hateful bullies who think they can hide behind the anonymity of a bathroom stall or in the shadows of a dark hallway. A few heavy-handed crackdowns are unlikely to solve the real problem. The money would better spent on anti-bullying education.