The city is proposing a new solution to Toronto's graffiti problem -- one that appeases both street artists and property owners.'s Paul Johnston takes a closer look at the issue.

Be ready to run.

That's what I'm told with the utmost sincerity as we head into a back alleyway off Dundas Street in Little Portugal.

Backpacks and bags are dropped as a spot is picked out.

There seems to have been little pre-thought given to the location we've picked, and conversation has been limited as we've walked up the street.

Two people stand post on the entranceways to the adjacent alley.

Can in hand, the outline goes up quickly. It's started to rain lightly and I wondered if it would affect the process at all.

Ready to run, I put my dictaphone away.

Just twenty minutes earlier, I was sitting with this graffiti artist at a neighbourhood bar.

‘Smug' is his street name, though he gave it to himself more because of a mistake than because of his attitude.

"I was trying to write smog, because I thought that was really cool," he said between sips of beer. "But since I didn't know what the f--- I was doing, the 'o' ended up looking like a 'u.'"

Now in his early 20s, Smug has being honing his art - writing as it's known in graffiti circles - over the last six years since seeing a piece of graffiti on the wall of his Toronto high school in Grade 10.

Since then, he estimates he has put up more than 100 pieces across the city. Over those six years he has been caught several times - arrested and charged. He has spent nights in a holding cell and has been to court.

The City of Toronto's Graffiti Bylaw, adopted in February 2006, prohibits graffiti, which is defined as "one or more letters, symbols, figures, etchings, scratches, inscriptions, stains or other markings that disfigure or deface a structure or thing, howsoever made or otherwise affixed on the structure of a thing, but, for greater certainty, does not include an art mural."

The term ‘art mural' is key in the bylaw, because it is exempted.

Art murals are defined as "a mural for a designated surface and location that has been deliberately implemented for the purpose of beautifying the specific location." This distinction has created a myriad of problems as city hall officials, business owners, artists and others try and determine under the framework what constitutes art and what constitutes vandalism, and to find a long-term solution that all sides can support.

New solution

On June 29 the city proposed a new solution.

The Graffiti Management Plan 2011 hopes to appease both sides by helping eliminate vandalism while supporting street art.

"The success of the plan depends on commitment from youth and the graffiti arts community to abstain from tagging and other illegal graffiti-making, safe in the knowledge that there will be programs and locations established to create legal graffiti art, where their artistry can be developed and respected," the report says.

The city said they'll seek a public-private partnership to showcase the art.

The four-point plan is based on rigorous enforcement of illegal graffiti, coupled with an improved system for reporting vandalism, support for permitted graffiti and other street art and the creation of a single coordinating body for all related issues across the city.

The city also wants to create a digital inventory cataloguing permitted art work and undergo a detailed review of art mural exemptions.

"Enforcement is not the problem, I can tell you today," explained Jim Hart, executive director of the Municipal Licensing and Standards Division, the arm of the city charged with bylaw enforcement in Toronto.

Hart was part of a panel at a city-orchestrated Graffiti Summit Town Hall which took place in the basement of the Drake Hotel on May 31.

Since the city began proactive enforcement earlier this year, 4,338 notices of graffiti have been issued, Hart said at the town hall.

"That's two and a half times what we do in a normal year," he said. In comparison, the city received 2,215 complaints in 2010 pertaining to graffiti.

The meeting was a precursor to the June 29 Municipal Licensing and Standards Committee meeting where the city's new strategy on graffiti was officially unveiled.

The town hall was meant to be a chance for those with different ideas and views on graffiti's place in the city to come together and express their opinions. The meeting gave artists as well as business owners a chance to vent their frustration with the bylaw's inconsistencies.

"Keeping Toronto graffiti-free is a city priority and certainly a priority of our mayor," Hart assured the 100-plus-strong crowd.

But for a mayor who once said he wanted to change Toronto's slogan to "Open for Business," many local entrepreneurs say the city's graffiti policy is actually putting them out of business.

Victim pays for the crime

The West Queen West BIA represents more than 300 business owners in the area stretching between Bathurst Street and Gladstone Avenue.

Since coming on as the executive director of the West Queen West BIA a year ago, Rob Sysak said graffiti has become a daily issue for members of his group.

And if the graffiti community is frustrated with the bylaw's definition of what constitutes art, Sysak's group is at least equally frustrated with where the bylaw places cleanup responsibilities.

Under the bylaw, property owners are responsible for the removal or any markings deemed graffiti by the city's Municipal Licensing and Standards office within 72 hours.

Property cleanup costs fall on the property owner. Or, put another way, the victim is expected to pay for the crime.

The city's new plan offers no financial reprieve for businesses. In fact, it instead includes a new program to encourage BIAs to "fund and commit to long-term private graffiti removal contracts."

"You can't keep victimizing the victim," Sysak said over morning coffee on his patio overlooking a Queen Street West alleyway.

"It's almost a quarter of our budget," Sysak said of the $36,000 a year contract his group has with Goodbye Graffiti, a privately-operated removal company. "Maybe even a little more than that."

The current contract, Sysak quickly pointed out, only covers the front of buildings, and only up to a height of ten feet. Anything outside these parameters once again falls to the property owner to cover. An assessment done on the cost of cleaning the alleyways that run parallel to Queen Street - high traffic areas for some of the city's best graffiti - yielded an initial cleanup cost of $50,000, Sysak said.

Making sure the alleyways remained graffiti free for the rest of they year would run an additional $50,000.

Collaborative effort

"It's completely unfair," agrees graffiti artist and business owner, Shawn 'Zion' Jones.

A respected and well-known voice for Toronto's graffiti community, Zion is also the owner of the Bomb Shelter on Queen Street and Spadina Avenue. The specialty shop sells an array of graffiti-related products to local artists and enthusiasts.

Zion, along with other members of the business community, city hall representatives and local artists, have been actively engaged with the city in their attempt to find new solution to the graffiti issue.

The group examined a number of collaborative strategies for addressing the problem - from the creation of designated "free zones" across the city where graffiti would be permitted, to large-scale projections of work onto landmark Toronto properties to the promotion of Toronto as tourist destination for street art.

"It gave a chance for me and the graffiti community to express ourselves legitimately." he said. "Without any question, we're willing to take the time to create something magnificent rather than just bombing back alleys."

Smug said he's also open to whatever solution the city will come up with.

"If they have different locations, and different walls that are open for people to paint, I think that's great," he said. "It's a good idea, and that's heading in the right direction for sure."

But would such a measure prevent him from using private property as his personal canvas?

"No," Smug replied without hesitation. "Not even in the slightest. It may even make me want to do more. It's like giving a crackhead more crack. You think he's going to smoke less crack?"