Culture  Art and punishment

Panel discusses the legal issues surrounding street art

What started as Peter Gibson’s midnight rebellion against Montreal’s restrictive traffic infrastructure soon became an underground art form, recognizable (literally) on the city’s streets. Downtown, you can find Gibson’s easily identifiable art – under his alias Roadsworth – in the form of pedestrian crosswalks decorated with bullet shells, or floral vines lacing around the stop line at a street corner. Roadsworth’s simple stencilled ornaments create a completely novel look for the concrete monotony that often characterizes city life. Though he favours the Mile-End and Plateau areas, you can likely find some of Roadsworth’s art near your home.

The artist’s original intent – to raise awareness for the lack of bike paths in Montreal – compelled him to start using city streets as a canvas in 2001. Since then, his work has become a phenomenon that has earned the admiration of local citizens as well as the careful scrutiny of city officials. We can’t forget, after all, that his art is entirely illegal.

On November 9, Faculty of Law student club Rethinking Intellectual Property Policy held a talk discussing the legal aspects of street art. The panellists included prominent Montreal-based graffiti artist Sterling Downey, Roadsworth, city councillor Raymond Carrier, and Karen Crawley, a doctoral student specializing in the regulation of graffiti in Melbourne, Australia.            
Downey, the panel’s self-proclaimed “shit-disturber,” was by far the most vocal and assertive of the presenters. Publisher of Under Pressure magazine, and founder of the annual International Graffiti Convention, he began by raising the pertinent question, “Who would be dumb enough to claim ownership of something they did illegally?”           
The issue at hand is neither straightforward nor clear-cut. “What gives us the right to paint something on someone’s wall?” asked Downey, illustrating the perplexing dimension of unchartered intellectual property laws for graffiti. “It’s funny, what I just created on the wall is now my property on your property, and if you paint over the wall then you’ve infringed on my intellectual property but I infringed on your personal property.”         
The bad guys here appear to be the money-grabbing corporations that take graffiti images, unccredited, and sell them without any compensation for their creators. “Whether graffiti is legal or illegal, you still have a responsibility to find out who did it when you’re using it,” said Downey. “Many companies are doing this without permission, assuming that people are ignorant and won’t find out about it.” While the artists and unwitting corporations can duke it out in court battles, there seems to be some code of respect among street and graffiti artists when it comes to intellectual property laws and their violation. “I didn’t contact anyone to publish these photographs [in Under Pressure magazine],” declared Downey with an air of pride, showing off one of the perks that comes with being part of that community.           
He claimed that the City is generally cooperative with graffiti artists, creating opportunities for legal work by commissioning murals, for example. Carrier, who works alongside Downey in certain negotiations, explained that while the City understands these types of expression, there needs to be a link made between street art and municipal regulations. The idea is to have a dialogue with youth, respecting their possibility to express themselves while maintaining that there are consequences to the notion of expression.         
Crawley offered an approach that would “foster general appreciation for…[the] innovation and creativity of street art and at the same time try to target and educate graffiti artists…[and] move artists away from tagging, toward more acceptable forms of street art.” As a less invasive alternative, Crawley suggested placement art, which “is very well situated and deal[s] with already existing features of the natural cityscape,” bringing to mind Roadsworth’s local embellishments.

Sure, we can call this type of art graffiti, but there’s something constricting about the term that may not do Roadsworth’s artwork justice. In a phone interview, he said, “I think labels are always problematic in any genre or any art form because, you know, it’s sort of a necessary evil…when you have to categorize something.”

Within a legal context, he says, the issue is the canvas. “A lot of graffiti writers hit private property, so there’s that difference right there…. Technically, I’m entitled to using… public space. I pay taxes; I’m a public citizen, so in some way the space that I paint belongs to me as much as anybody else.”

Street artists who don’t necessarily want to engage in the art form illegally have a loophole to consider – selling their work or having it commissioned. But that opens up a new can of worms entirely, one that affects the artist on a personal or community-based level. Roadsworth explained that after he began to sell photos of his work, “a lot of the attitude was often, ‘Oh you call yourself a street artist…I thought you were real, man…you give your work out for free and now you’re charging for your photos.’”       
The panellists were united in their opinion that selling street art doesn’t defeat its purpose. Justifying the practice is the fact that it gives the artist greater control over what their work is used for. Downey explains that “selling out is doing something you don’t want to do that you don’t have control of…. I’m not just selling [my art] to somebody to do what they want with it; I’m selling it to them under very specific conditions.” Selling work does also legitimize the artist. Roadsworth, somewhat more gently than his artistic counterpart and panel-mate Downey, argued that he sells his work “also as a way to screen people…once you get people to pay for something, you get taken more seriously.” Crawley also points out that “it’s not as though graffiti artists don’t use resources and capital and money and leverage…in order to do what they do.”

Clearly there are many issues surrounding the legalities of street art, but until the art form can be appreciated as valid and self-sufficient, there may be difficulties in reaching consensus about policy. “It’s interesting,” noted Crawley, “that all of these…artistic practices…[are] never actually looked at through the laws of freedom of expression; they’re only ever looked at through a criminal lens. And it’s very much a detriment in trying to rethink intellectual property policy.” This art form isn’t very different, argued Roadsworth, from other forms of post-industrial sediment people routinely deposit – and certainly a more visually appealing one. “Graffiti is a by-product of human activity. It’s almost like moss growing on a wall. There are a lot of tire treads and…traces that are created by human activity…that we can’t legislate because it’s considered accidental, but in the end …for me, it’s sort of a reflection of society.”