Having done a lot of travelling in my day, I’ve seen my share of graffiti. And if I could find one word to describe it all, it’d be “stunning”. From Halifax to Victoria, and Denmark to Italy, I’ve seen work with spray paint that most people would never believe. The fact that most of it was put up illegally, for free, and under cover of night doesn’t seem to bother any of the artists, who decorate public spaces for free, and for the love of art.
This isn’t to say that all graffiti is art, or beautiful art, but much is. And it isn’t as rare as you think. Leave any train station in Europe and you’ll see the better part of a mile of it. Under bridges, on squats, and all over any kind of drab public surface available.
The thing about Europe which is immediately visible, though, is that it’s tolerated. Not always, of course, but if you spend eight hours composing a beautiful mural, you’re a lot less likely to go to jail or have it painted over. And as anyone who studies these issues knows, the best way to stop petty, ugly graffiti is to paint something more attractive on the surface. Whether it’s by kids, artists, or vandals, there’s an unwritten code that usually (but doesn’t always)* prohibits painting over others’ work. Until, of course, that beautiful mural the kids painted becomes neglected and starts chipping the vultures will circle and paint it over.
In the context of Hamilton this is all painfully relevant. Through multiple police initiatives like “Operation Paint Can” they’ve arrested artists wholesale. I’ve known people who were hassled by the police or downtown BIA for having privately commissioned legal graffiti in their building or even inside their art gallery as part of an exibit (this gallery in particular likes to work with street youth…I wonder why they’d like spray paint art?). I even know people who have been hassled by cops for “graffiti-style” sketches in their notebooks. Has this stopped graffiti? Of course not. Has it stopped good graffiti? Almost entirely.
Nature, though, abhors a vacuum and many artists have come forth to fill the void. From kids tagging with sharpies to artists like Chillen or Keenur who hit everything, everywhere, as fast as they could, in a blatant “fuck you” to the city’s policies. Good art isn’t possible in 30 seconds or less, but tags are. And as the war intensified, so did the tags – using fire extinguishers full of paint to blast their nicknames onto walls in spattered, 20-foot letters.
There is an easy solution. It doesn’t mean a few legal graffiti walls (especially when even skate parks are being painted over) or Police-State campaigns of repression. It means designating a certain class of urban public property “ok to paint”. Drab concrete underpasses, sidewalk tiles, lamp-posts, postboxes etc – make it legal for someone to sit there in broad daylight and take the time necessary to do it right.
Imagine an artist who lives nearby dedicating a weekend to painting up an ugly shed in the park. Or taking your kids out to paint the sidewalk in front of your house. Imagine the cultural diversity of neighbourhoods taking on a whole new dimension as immigrants put up traditional Italian, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Native or Somalian art (or any of the other fifty nationalities well represented here). Imagine the kid who tagged your garage being required to pretty up the roundabout as penance.
Alleyways, underpasses and train yards are all things we in Hamilton have many of. We can afford to let a few get painted up. Hamilton will never achieve a high-class, Oakville-style culture. It’s not who we are. We’re a working class city, and it’s time to embrace working class culture.

Some Great Graff. Galleries:
Vandalog – Mind Blowing (mostly) European Graffiti
Wallspankers Graffiti and sticker art – lots of trains
Art Crimes – Graffiti.org, great worldwide galleries