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York University class looks at Toronto graffiti in midst of crackdown

A new class at York University is taking a closer look at the precarious position of “legal graffiti” in Toronto while studying the city through hip-hop culture.

“Given that hip hop is an urban culture, now a global urban culture, I thought it would be interesting for students to explore Canadian cities and international cities through the lens of hip hop,” professor Simon Black said in an interview.

Hip hop has four elements: Rap, graffiti, breakdancing and DJ-ing. The pillar of hip hop that comes into conflict with the law is graffiti.

“In class, we use graffiti as a lens to explore other issues of public space, property rights and what constitutes art in the city and what constitutes vandalism,” said Black.

About a month after Mayor Rob Ford launched a crackdown on graffiti this spring, Black and his urban studies students walked through the back alleys of Queen West, listening to a guest lecture by a well-known local graffiti artist.

Javid, also known as JAH, who doesn’t use a last name, led the tour last May and will take a second group of students on the graffiti tour sometime this month.

Since last spring, the city rewrote its graffiti policy and now makes property owners remove graffiti on their buildings or petition a committee to allow it to stay because it’s art. It’s a two-faced relationship with graffiti, on one side a crackdown on vandalism, the other — sometimes reluctant — an embrace of the art form.

To understand why graffiti and hip hop — graffiti in particular — come into conflict with the law, Black explains the culture has always been about young people who feel marginalized reclaiming the city.

“One of the things I tell my students is when people are criminalized, you have to look at the power relationships in the city,” he said.

Youth graffiti program leader has lowdown on crackdown

When city council changed its policy in the spring and began cracking down on graffiti, some writers had a “heated response,” said Javid, also known as JAH, a writer with a gallery in Kensington Market, and a leader of legitimate youth graffiti programs.

“Even writers who’d stopped bombing — doing illegal work — started going out again because there was a lot of hype about this so-called war, or this crackdown on graffiti,” he said in an interview.

“Tagging and bombing is part of the culture,” he added. “So anyone who has painted in the city has gone through a period of vandalism. There’s very few that haven’t, because it’s just part of it.”

The youth graffiti programs he leads — in which he helps kids create a mural on a wall volunteered by its owner — let kids transition from their illegal vandalism stage into their legal graffiti careers, he said.

Legitimate graffiti is not only sought after by some business owners to beautify their building, or at least prevent illegal tagging, it’s also on the walls of galleries and featured in commercials, said Javid.

But not everyone wants to ever go legit, and others walk a line.

On Dec. 7, responding to complaints about graffiti and tagging in the Annex, Kensington Market and Bloordale areas, officers actively searched laneways in the Harbord and Spadina area and allegedly spotted 21-year-old Eric Kristmanson — known as Poser — spray-painting private property.

“That’s crazy,” said Javid, when he learned of the charges. “To hear that he’s arrested is a real shame.”

Poser — known primarily for his cartoon white rabbits — has done a fair amount of legal work and some property owners have petitioned the city to allow his illegal work to remain, said Javid.

“He’s in a funny position,” he said. “Or not so funny.”

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