News  Montreal cracks down on graffiti

Boroughs impose fines and spark debate over intellectual property rights

In light of the City of Montreal’s recent efforts to crack down on vandalism, at least two of Montreal’s boroughs, those of Côte Des Neiges-Notre Dame de Grâce (CDG-NDG) and Saint-Léonard, have begun charging fines of up to  $4,000 to business owners who do not remove, or “buff” graffiti in a timely fashion. Individual home owners may be charged as much as $2,000, and, if caught, the artists themselves may be fined up to $100.

This system has some members of the community upset, claiming that to fine the property owner is a misdirection of punishment away from the lawbreaker.

“People don’t like the fact that they didn’t ask to have graffiti on their building and now they’re going to get a fine because they have graffiti on their house or their garage,” said Sebastien Pitre, owner of a graffiti removal company called Solutions Graffiti in an interview with The Daily.

Pitre, who receives about 70 percent of his business from the City of Montreal and its boroughs, said that to prevent graffiti, the issue needs to be taken seriously.  “Right now some people think [graffiti] is very, very bad, but some people think it’s just a little painting on the wall,” he said.

Pitre spoke about how to unify the perception of graffiti and make changes. “First of all they need to make a real law, make people respect that law and be very strict… Put more police officers on the graffiti problem and really take care of it. Everybody’s talking about graffiti, but nobody’s taking real action about it.”

The fines are the latest effort in a city-wide battle which has been raging since the 1990s. In 2007, Montreal spent $1.3 million removing graffiti.

In other boroughs, such as Verdun, police have begun to send bills covering clean-up costs to adult offenders and to the parents of youth offenders. While this solution has been met with less opposition than the fines introduced in CDN-NDG and Saint-Léonard, it has met with some opposition. According to a Montreal graffiti artist who goes by the name Sohoe, “They’ll charge a few hundred dollars to buff a wall that would take about thirty dollars to do with latex paint.”

Some also remain sceptical that the threat of serious fines will be effective in reducing graffiti.

“A crackdown is just a way for the authorities to give the impression that they’re addressing the problem, but I sincerely doubt that it would do anything,” an anonymous graffiti artist told The Daily. “For me, it doesn’t change anything. It’s an urban legend, a news headline to reassure the public that everything’s under control, but graffiti is impossible to control.”

While the City’s crackdown on graffiti has prompted property owners and graffiti artists to enter into debate over which party owns the graffiti and should therefore be held responsible for fines, a second long-standing debate around graffiti has been reopened concerning the intellectual property rights of graffiti artists. A panel addressing this issue was hosted by McGill’s Faculty of Law in 2009.

“They assume [the artists] are ignorant people with no means to legal representation,” Sterling Downey, a street artist and publisher of Under Pressure magazine, told the McGill Reporter in 2009.

“The problem is they don’t have any authorization to put graffiti on the building,” said Pitre. “How can they come after me saying that I’m not allowed to remove their graffiti if they were not allowed to put the graffiti there in the first place? If that ever happens to me, I’m going to call my lawyer and have fun with that.”

“Sometimes it may look like art,” said Francine Morin, a spokesperson for Verdun borough mayor Claude Trudel, in an interview with The Daily, “but they don’t have permission to put it there, so it’s not art.”

Some artists, such as Sohoe, remain unconvinced that anything can be done to preserve their intellectual property rights.

“I probably should say that I feel like my art’s being stolen or something…” Sohoe told The Daily, “but I think in all reality, unless you have permission to do that, then you’ve sort of given up your right to take ownership of that work… How’s someone supposed to come and ask you? Even if they had to get permission, there’d be no way of getting it without proving that you did this illegal thing.”

Attempts to reconcile the city’s wish to reduce vandalism and the rights of the artists to self-expression have been made in the past; Montreal is home to five legal graffiti walls. However, as one artist who preferred to remain anonymous pointed out, “[Graffiti]’s in the streets and that’s where it has to be. Legal walls don’t work. They ruin the point of it.”

Sohoe is optimistic about the future of graffiti in Montreal.

“There’s always going to be graffiti,” he said. He noted the exclusivity of graffiti but said that he thinks there will always be people willing to do it.

“The graffiti writer, his thing is that he’s putting graffiti out there and yeah, the public may see it, but it’s also more for the graffiti community and the notoriety that he’s going to receive from the community for putting tags out there,” Sohoe added.