Graffiti in Toronto: Master’s Thesis Excerpt Writing Sample

This excerpt is taken from my Master’s Thesis/Major Research Paper, completing my Master’s of Cultural Analysis and Social Theory at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2011. This is an example of my academic writing and community engagement interest. 

2011 Graffiti Map of Toronto

Graffiti in Toronto: Master’s Research Paper

The ephemeral nature of graffiti requires attention and value be paid to the temporary, to the fleeting, to the experiential. Having grown up in Toronto, where the diversity of inhabitants is written upon the surfaces of the city, I have become sensitive to the politics of space. My interest in Toronto graffiti comes from a desire to find spaces of resistance to the oppressions of our current global capitalist order, and to find spaces for dialogue to promote the civic engagement that would challenge everyday instances of complacency, and therefore validation. While working through this project, I began to think that my desire to find that graffiti writers were engaging in politically significant ways was too ambitious; yet, I think even this assumption underestimated the political action of graffiti writers. There has certainly been political action taken over the issue of graffiti in Toronto, though not in the ways I had romantically hoped. This will be an exploration of how city politics are done through graffiti (and discussions of graffiti).

In my exploration of Toronto graffiti I have found that attempts to remove graffiti, ironically, tend to encourage it. The graffiti removal strategy of creating murals on targeted buildings is arguably the most effective graffiti deterrent (though no strategy has been completely effective). But this raises important considerations about what forms of expression the city and its dwellers engaging in city politics consider desirable or legitimate. It is also important to consider who gets to make such normalizing assessments. Currently in Toronto, occupants have been engaging with the Mayor and the City to have the Graffiti Bylaw adjusted to address issues of (a lack of) clarity in the language of the bylaw, as well as to provide support resources for building owners contending with graffiti, as they are legally responsible for the removal of graffiti. Interestingly, graffiti writers (who do not engage in legal graffiti art) are not considered participants in these discussions. The distinction between different levels of legitimacy for certain kinds of graffiti has the effect of silencing certain voices.

Rob Ford Graffiti

I will argue that graffiti transcends the traditional borders of a city and raises important questions about public versus private spaces; that it provokes often divergent reactions from the population; and is regulated through government. This makes graffiti a unique entry point for considering issues of spaces, borders, and autonomy in questions of political engagement.

Graffiti writers both threaten and violate the boundedness of space by marking public and private spaces at the same time as they reproduce these boundaries through their provocation for the policing of spaces. Feminist theorists have taken up these ideological distinctions of spaces to argue that the differentiation of public and private spaces neglects consideration of how these spaces influence each other and are not truly bound and separate. Considering graffiti and its regulation as an historical engagement and negotiation of the meanings of spaces offers a challenge to the binary opposition of private versus public space, or rather, a challenge to the ways we think about space. I will explore the political significance of both boundaries and the conception of autonomous selves through the lens of the proliferation and public reaction to graffiti.

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