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Interview: Between The Lines and Rob Ford’s War on Graffiti

Hot Docs Docignite Program - Between the Lines Crew

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has made many confusing policy choices during the first two years of his tenure. But for local filmmaker and producer James Meers, it was his ‘war of graffiti’ that made the least sense. In a city with so many other problems, why was the most powerful mayor in Canada declaring war on ‘kids with paint and anger’?

Ford’s anti-graffiti squad covered several prized pieces of art including some that the city itself had commissioned. This blind adherence to the by-law motivated James to help document the inanity. Brian Crosby spoke with the producer before he premiered the trailer of Between The Lines (part of the Hot Docs’ Docignite Project) at the city’s Open Roof Festival.

Dork Shelf: What prompted your team to make this movie?

James Meers: Last year when Rob Ford declared war on Graffiti, I was very intrigued. I don’t have a background in street art but as a Torontonian, I already felt the encroachment by corporate advertisers. I felt compelled to explore a little bit deeper.

It was supposed to be a five minute piece, something informational, go into the narratives of a few of the characters, but it’s really gained momentum. There’s been such a hunger out there from the general public but also from the artists themselves.

DS: In the film, we see a number of masked artists. They’re not interested in being easily identified. How did you find these people?

JM: It happened completely organically. A few characters heard about our film through different contacts and they reached out to us. Others, we reached out to them.

DS: How important is it to these guys stay anonymous?

JM: For them it’s everything. It’s part of that appeal, that anonymity, part of street culture. They don’t even know each other outside of those tags. It’s really part of the mystique that they uphold. There’s also a lot of illegal art that’s happening. They don’t want to identify themselves as doing illegal art that they could be criminalized for.

DS: Does the film come down on one side of the question of ‘what is art’? One artist you interviewed named Deadboy says that he’s making properties more interesting but he doesn’t deny it’s vandalizing.

JM: It’s a really interesting question that you’ve raised. [Deadboy] is a great example of a street political activist. He sees the TTC streetcars and says ‘No one asked me if I wanted to look at all these ads.’  Or when he goes to Yonge/Dundas Square, you’re surrounded by corporate advertising, he says ‘No one asked my permission. So I’m going to take some of the public space back and colour it and give it some artists’ expression.’ It’s tit for tat.

There are a lot of illegal billboards out there. It’s kind of a contradictory scenario, if you pay for ad space in the public domain, it’s okay, and even if you don’t pay for it and you break the law, it’s still okay. But if you want to have artistic expression, it’s suddenly illegal.

DS: Deadboy says those grey mail boxes are boring and they deserve to be tagged. But if you hit some private property on Queen Street, a business that’s having trouble paying its bills, he thinks that’s shitty. Even he doesn’t think graffiti should be everywhere.

JM: Yeah, he has a moral conscience. Morally, he won’t tag something that would hurt an individual. But he’ll do it on city property because, as a taxpayer, he feels that’s his blank canvas.

DS: What exactly does the bylaw say in regard to graffiti?

JM: The bylaw has always existed, even under the Miller regime. Ford decided to ensure it would be enforced with full throttle. The bylaw gets quite technical. If you have a piece of art on your wall, there can be a complaint from a citizen. They can go to the Municipal Licensing Standards and say there’s this thing I don’t like. The city can come with a removal notice and you have five or ten days to remove it. If you don’t, the city will do it for you and you get a big bill. The owner has to pay to have it removed.

DS: What if the owner likes having it on their walls?

JM: That’s where the big stink came up. Ford issued an enormous amount of removal notices without any distinction for art. A lot of it was lost. The uproar was not from the graffiti artists. They loved it. It’s a blank canvas, they can start all over. It was actually the property owners who said ‘Look, I don’t have the money to call the removal guys every time I get tagged and you give me a notice. It costs me $5000.’ They become a double victim. They got hit, they didn’t want to get hit, and now they have to pay to remove it.

In some instances, the city commissioned murals but because they didn’t have records of these things they buffed it out themselves. Then they paid another three thousand dollars to get it done again.  It’s a great example of Ford blindly enforcing this bylaw without any discretion for art or the property owners who may have commissioned the art.

There’s a bit more sensitivity now. There’s a graffiti art panel made of city bureaucrats who decide if it’s art or not.

DS: Do you know what their metric is for evaluating art?

JM: They have a so-called art background and they distinguish between art and vandalism. It’s a subjective process. To the city’s credit, there are some property owners who did contact the city – Brickworks is a great example. The city attacked them, told them to remove their graffiti, which would have cost $100,000. They put in a dispute after they were fined and the city left them alone.

DS: That reminds me of a scene in the movie where Deadboy puts a piece on a long construction wall. Later, the wall was entirely painted except for his piece. I assume that’s the company validating the art.

JM: Exactly right. He was so happy when he saw these other artists get wiped out but they left his up.

On film these characters have a certain persona but behind the camera these guys are just gentle artists.  They just want to put out their stuff. They’re not even asking for money. They’re putting their money into buying the resources and putting their time into do these incredible pieces of art for the public. They just want to get their art out there.

DS: What’s the best-case scenario for this film?

JM: For myself and the other filmmakers involved, we see ourselves as film activists. We don’t want it to just be a film that touches you, we want people to think about the larger issues, the urbanism that’s happening across the planet, public space, to consider urban art forms like graffiti. You don’t see it in galleries except for Banksy. We want to shatter the misconceptions that they’re vandals and gang members.

We don’t have a political objective to overthrow Ford or anything of that nature. We want to engage the public, support the different types of art.

DS: Have you tried inviting Ford to a screening?

JM: We have tweeted at him.

DS: I don’t think he reads those.

JM: I don’t think he does either. We’d love to interview him. We’ve spoken to his anti-graffiti ‘Chief of Staff’, so to speak, Cesar Palacio. We’d really like to engage Ford if we can.

DS: Maybe we could help a little bit…

JM: We’d love that. Anything to broker that conversation. Ford is a character in the film who doesn’t even know it. He stimulates so much emotion. There would be nothing better to engage him on film.

Suggest to Rob Ford that he become part of the film.

Email him: mayor_ford@toronto.ca

Tweet him: @TOMayorFord/

Phone: 416-397-FORD (3673)

Between the lines is currently raising money to complete production. With less than 24 hours left they are two thirds of the way to their goal of $15,000. If interested in donating go here and visit the film online at betweenthelinesdoc.com.

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