Rob “Eraserman” Ford, hold your fire! All graffiti is not evil!

Street art has earned its place in the urban wilderness

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford attacks graffiti with a power washer. Photo: Tara Walton/Toronto Star

If I can step off the film beat for a moment, I like to take a look at a local blockbuster superhero: Eraserman. I’m talking about Rob Ford and his recent foray into performance art. Last week, the Toronto mayor hit the street with a high-pressure spray gun to deface graffiti for the cameras. With this stunt, worthy of a Gotham comic book, Ford is painting himself as a boots-on-the-ground crusader out to purge our  abused walls of graphic crime. All that’s missing is the cape.

For a politician, graffiti is as easy target. A lot of it is ugly, offensive or simply banal. But hey, that’s also true of a lot of art, even the pricey stuff that hangs in corporate boardrooms. To tar all graffiti with one brush, or nozzle, is bone-headed. There are all kinds of graffiti, ranging from puerile vandalism to high art. Taking spray cans to the street is one of most dynamic movements to hit modern art in years, producing stars from Basquiat to Banksy. It’s also public art of the most democratic kind. Free, chaotic and ever-changing, it’s urban cave painting, a zoo of individual gestures that form a fluid collage of  collective expression.  Whether or not graffiti should be erased by public officials is not a black-and-white issue. Whether it should survive depends what it’s like, where it is and the spirit in which it’s created.

It’s one thing to recklessly deface a tidy piece of public or private property.  Any artist who’s into that kind of mischief has to know he’s an outlaw working in a highly impermanent medium. But it’s something else to lavish some spray paint on a derelict alley wall, a strip of industrial wasteland—or a bridge abutment in a ravine.

I’ve been photographing graffiti in Toronto’s ravines for years. Bisected by highways, rail lines, bridges and industrial blight, these are wild urban spaces. The lyrical tags adorning slabs of concrete and rusting steel connect these  structures to the tangle of nature that surrounds them. It roots them in the landscape. Like the forests and wetlands in the ravines, this art is in constant metamorphosis. It’s a jungle of molting paint. Some of it is ugly; some is beautiful. But it definitely seems to belong. To wipe it all clean would be an act of industrial vandalism. It would also be pointless. The war on graffiti, like the war on drugs, is unwinnable.

Eraserman, no matter how long and hard you clean, in the end all you’re doing is preparing a fresh canvas.

Click on any of the below thumbnails to view a gallery of my graffiti photos:

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