Vandalism or public art?

(Jody Waardenburg -- Lead Photographer)
(Jody Waardenburg — Lead Photographer)

If you go for a walk around Waterloo, there’s a chance that you will see one or more pieces of public art. They can take many different forms and have more meaning than their appearance would lead you to believe.

Contemporarily, the line between what is vandalism and what is art in public spaces is a particularly interesting area of exploration. It seems that what is central to this debate, is the matter of aesthetic preference.

Whether graffiti is art in public spaces or vandalism depends on who you ask.

“Public art is something that is sanctioned by the city,” said Shamir Mehta, the manager for by-law with the City of Waterloo.

Mehta has strong opinions about the status of graffiti here in the city. He made it quite clear that there is a difference between public art and vandalism.
He said there was a sound retention wall off Lexington Rd. and Cadbury Ct. that had been painted by “local mural artists.”

“The definition of a mural or public art… [is] that there is community support behind it.” he continued.

Of the mural, Shamir said, “it was a huge community event and there was community support behind it.”

However, it wasn’t clear if anyone who wanted to could use the walls for their own expression or whether it was monitored by the city. As well, it was not made clear if there were any other city-approved spaces for people to safely and legally graffiti on.

KRYA, a Kitchener-Waterloo-based graffiti artist most active between 2008-09, offered a different opinion.

“You’ve got to keep morals behind it too, right… you’ve got to have meaning behind what you do, especially with art,” said KRYA on the difference between vandalism and graffiti.

Though it is an illicit activity, KRYA thought that there was a moral cause behind the pieces. KRYA went on to explain that “it gives a person a voice… especially young people who don’t really have voices to speak on things… As artists, we’ll hit the streets, get our name out there, get recognized as people in the community and now we have a voice.”

KRYA is of the firm belief that graffiti is to give a voice to the voiceless as he, typically, only graffiti is on spaces where the message will be the strongest.

“[I typically keep to] government property… if you do private property, you’re then imposing something onto another person. If you’re doing it for a statement, then you don’t want to impose it onto another person, you want to impose it on people who are imposing things on you,” KRYA said.

It was evident that KRYA’s graffiti was a response to a particular social and political environment and was a stand in for social commentary.

What is certain is that graffiti won’t go away as long as people feel the need to share their message through this medium. There will always be a conflict between those who graffiti and those who wish to wipe it out. With graffiti sitting precariously between art and vandalism, where the line is drawn between the two is a matter of perspective.

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