Last week’s announcement, from the Sault Ste. Marie Police, that a nine month investigative effort by the Criminal Investigations Division led to the arrest of an 18 year old graffiti artist elicited a mixed response from the community. The ‘BORED’ youth was charged with 41 counts of mischief under $5,000 and 2 counts of Break and Enter. On two occasions the youth entered the former Sir James Dunn site slated for tear down to apply his graffiti.
The police beat update about the arrest on sootoday drew comments from folks that cheered this kid’s arrest:
“Keep him in a cell for a while and let the little ‘pos’ spray paint in there.”
“Very simple, make the loser clean it up, and remember his address is [deleted].”
“The hard working people of Sault Ste. Marie do not want to see graffiti, they want it stopped and those criminals and parents accountable for their actions. Inclusively property owners should be reimbursed for the damages incurred. If we do the simple math of this one alleged (accused) of 41 counts, it costs roughly $800-1500 to remove one instance of his vandalism.”
Other commenters admired the talent that went into the graffiti work:
“Man, I have seen that word “bored” spray painted in so many spots throughout the city. It looks beautiful though.”
“This guy was awesome… there are a few spots in this city that just seemed impossible… but our “bored” friend got to them…”
“I think the obvious is being ignored here. Our city officials would rather give a young boy a criminal record and only recognize his faults. What about the fact that he’s an amazing artist. I have seen many of these accounts around town and I think he has extreme potential. One of those graffitied businesses should hire him to finish the mural he started, give him a job. Can’t be bored then.”
And of course there were pop shots against the Sault Ste. Marie Police:
“That is a lot of Officers to send for a suspected graffiti artist.”
“Yeah this is sure keeping the public safe!”
“The streets of the Sault are safe once again. Graffiti artist taken down…everyone can sleep better tonight with this dangerous spray painter in custody…Thanks to the k9 unit, justice was swift and direct. All is well in our sleepy little town once again.”
The arrest of the BORED graffiti artist comes nearly on the heels of NORDIK Institute’s anticipated release of their final report Graffiti Reframed. The project was a collaborative effort between NORDIK and the Arts Council of Sault Ste. Marie and District. The project engaged 200 people and partnered with community organizations such as the Downtown Association and the Sault Ste. Marie Police.
Liz Cooke, a youth and an Action Research intern on the project, has lived in Sault Ste. Marie for seven years or so. “I genuinely love Sault Ste. Marie. Sometimes I don’t know why and other times I know there is no other place that I would like to be.”
In a conversation with the Northern Hoot, Cooke drew on research and personal thought when speaking about graffiti’s ‘place’ in Sault Ste. Marie and the community’s response to graffiti. “Graffiti is only graffiti when it’s not allowed. The second you are given permission to do it, it is no longer graffiti, it is public art -which I think is fantastic. I’m for public art. I’m disappointed that Sault Ste. Marie does not have a public art policy to this day. It’s a pathetic aspect of our city and the fact that our youth are literally ‘bored’.
Authors of the Graffiti Reframed report identified that “several scholars have postulated various underlying motivations for why people engage in acts of graffiti, including belonging to a sub-culture, the cultivation of a sense of identity, the desire for respect, peer imitation, the thrill associated with risk or provocation, and acting out of boredom.”
Dr. Gayle Broad, Director of Research with NORDIK Institute, provided that there is an ongoing responsibility for the Sault Ste. Marie community to be inclusive of the youth voice. Of the BORED graffiti artist Broad remarked, “He sent us a very strong message that we need to understand. This community does not feel like his community. He does not feel like there is anything interesting or exciting or anything that he wants to be a part of. And that’s not his individual problem. That’s our problem as a community. If he’s saying that –‘bored’, forty-one times how many other youth are feeling that too?”
Ben Date is a 17 year old student at Superior Heights High School. “This guy is BORED! I sympathize with him.”
Having only discovered the work of the BORED artist because of the recent media attention around it, Date remarked, “I like it. It’s pretty cool that there were 41 of them –that takes a long time and it’s in some interesting places. It’s a statement too because it is kind of boring in this city. There’s not a lot to do. It was a platform for him to get his message across. He definitely had his own reasons for doing what he did. He was going out of his way to make sure his stuff was noticeable –by the bridge, all the way up on tall buildings. He was clearly dedicated to get ‘that word’ around the City.”
While ‘art appreciation’ is always subjective Date, though not an artist himself, appreciates the expression and would like to see more graffiti around Sault Ste. Marie. “It’s an art form. Sometimes tasteful graffiti is a lot more pleasant to the eye than a decaying, unpainted building. There might be this gray building, peeling paint – really depressing, and then you see this vibrant graffiti and it’s nice. I’m not talking about vulgar graffiti, I’m talking about something that takes some skill and time to make and is a pleasure to look at. I do like it.”
So what is the appeal of graffiti to the younger generation?
Dr. Broad offered some thoughts. “I think there’s a lot of reasons it appeals to young people. It’s very inexpensive. I think the fact that you do it after dark has a certain appeal for young people and because it’s seen as a bit of a rebellious activity. The research shows that young people don’t feel engaged and they are trying to send that message to the powers that be -the powers that they perceive are in control of the agenda of the community. And it also has that arts component. It allows them a freedom of expression.”
Would a public space that provided young artists the opportunity to paint the walls solve what many community members view as vandalism? Not likely. As Cooke eluded to earlier, once permission is granted the appeal to spray paint vanishes. Why?
“Because otherwise graffiti artists are just reinforcing the authority that they don’t like. If you do it in a way that has been told is ‘ok’, then you’re telling them back that what they are doing is ‘ok’. By participating in a system that is forced upon you, you are giving consent for that system to continue,” remarked Cooke.
Cooke’s comment harkens back to the common motivations of graffiti artists. “It comes down to the value of subsidiary. When people walk in with authority and an action plan to solve the problems as ascribed to that group, they are not going to solve the problems of that group without having a genuine connection and conversation with that group to identify what the problem really is and how they see it being solved.”
As Ben Date put it, “In order to know what people want, you have to actually ask people. And if you’re interested in youth, you have to let all the youth talk.”
Date has plenty of thoughts about what would make Sault Ste. Marie more inclusive for young people and elaborating he added, “I think there needs to be more youth speaking at City Council meetings –and I’ve heard this around my school. If you let people –kids, get involved and didn’t make it a snoozefest, I think you could get a lot of youth contributing their thoughts to the City and talking about what could be done to make this community more relevant to us.”
The Graffiti Reframed report indicates that municipalities across Canada adopt various strategies to manage acts of graffiti in their communities. Approaches range from removal on public property, to fines, to educational programs/restorative justice and to plain ole’ acceptance of graffiti as a reality. Communities that employ an acceptance approach to graffiti host murals, develop temporary art opportunities, designate sanctioned areas for graffiti and involve community through graffiti education, as well as creating a social economy by establishing recurring events, festivals and celebrations around graffiti art.
Regarding the economic costs of graffiti upon society, Dr. Broad offers a fresh perspective. “What about the money spent on a police investigation to find this young person? And add to that the cost of his charges, court time, access to legal aid, any incarceration time. Plus, what about his lost options when it comes to having had criminal charges against him? There is a real economic cost to excluding youth from feeling that they are a part of the community. And that’s what this is all about.”
So what’s to be done with a graffiti artist that has been criminalized?
Cooke is not unsympathetic to property owners who don’t want to host graffiti works on their walls. “I think the consequence for displays of graffiti should be restitution, repairing the damage –especially for youth. And there needs to be community support to alleviate what made that person do that damage in the first place. That’s the only way that the graffiti problem is going to be solved. Until we actually talk to youth in the City and have grassroots movements to get them engaged in the community we will constantly have BORED youth.”
Date would like to see an opportunity for the graffiti artist to continue his work in the community. “It’s not like it was a vulgar word, and it was a very well done word with all the artistic depth he put into it. He didn’t seem to choose any spots that would harm people. He didn’t spray paint the front of a business. He would spray paint big, boring walls and walls in run down areas. It didn’t seem like he was out hurting people or out to create misery for business owners. He didn’t spray paint across the front of a business or a store, taking away its’ merit. You could almost- depending who you are, keep it up there and get other people to do the same thing and make a really artistic wall with other graffiti artists. It would be pretty cool.”
Dr. Broad hopes that should the BORED artist see the inside of a courtroom that alternative outcomes as opposed to corrective consequences are reached. “There is an opportunity here for our Courts to be creative and to find solutions that will actually benefit the community as opposed to punitive measures that aren’t likely to benefit the community. And what I understand that the research shows is that punitive measures rarely benefit the individual.”
(feature image: rooftop corner of Queen Street East and Elgin)