Red Tape vs. Red Paint – A Series Part III

by Liz Faure

From boardrooms to back alleys, a massive conflict between city politicians and the local graffiti community is heating up the Montreal summer.

“Operation Graffiti,” a new policy coming out of Côte-des-Neiges/NDG borough, wants the province of Quebec to enact tough new anti-graffiti laws.  Proposed measures include banning the sale of spray paint to minors, and creating a province-wide registry for buying aerosol paint.  Susan Clarke, the councillor in charge of the dossier, admits the new measures won’t be the ultimate solution to getting rid of graffiti, but says, “We must try everything possible.”  Clarke’s borough spends $750,000 a year on graffiti cleanup, and she says she did her research before coming up with the plan.

“Why didn’t she ever come to speak to us?” asks Roskoe Idiosti, a manager at NDG’s SUB-V store, on Sherbrooke St.  The store specializes in selling toys, art books, clothes – and spray paint.  Clarke says she receives a lot of complaints about the store from her constituents.

“She is welcome here anytime,” says Idiosti, who would be happy to talk “Operation Graffiti” with Clarke, and explain why he thinks a ban won’t work.  “I’ve been hearing about these types of measures for 10, 15 years,” Idiosti says.  “I’m never impressed.”  He recalls a 1996 anti-graffiti plan under Mayor Bourque, budgeted at $200,000 a year, and questions NDG’s current cleanup numbers, even with inflation.  “And in those 15 years, graffiti has only increased,” he notes.

Idiosti says taggers who use cheap spray paint just steal it from hardware stores.  The specialized, low-pressure paint SUB-V sells is imported from Germany, and is used by artists who are serious about doing quality work.  Noting lots of kids start out as taggers and become legitimate artists, Idiosti says, “All a ban is doing is making the transition from vandal to artist harder.”

While a ban wouldn’t mean a huge hit to business at SUB-V (Idiosti estimates only 15 per cent of his clients are under 18), a registry would be different.  “That could really hurt us,” Idiosti says.  He doesn’t think graffiti writers, who are used to stealth, would sign a registry, and predicts it could drive most of his business online.

Clarke will be meeting up with Quebec Justice Minister Kathleen Weil at some point in June to discuss her plan – until then, it’s unclear exactly what will happen next.

Idiosti thinks Clarke doesn’t fully understand the graffiti culture, and predicts failure for Operation Graffiti.  “If they put a ban in place, it will have no effect on graffiti,” he says.  “I wish they understood that our shop is here to promote the arts,” Idiosti says.  He thinks Operation Graffiti is “repressive” adding, “if you want to really get rid of graffiti, you’ve got to be really pro-repression, Stephen-Harper-style.”

Idiosti wishes more politicians would look at the positive side of graffiti, saying it’s a valuable avenue of expression for many.  “I know a lot of cats who’ll tell you this (graffiti) saved their life.”