Room for Policy: Controlling Counter-Culture

The ‘Public Policy and Governance Review Abroad’, or PPGR Abroad, is a new initiative for 2014. Undertaken in collaborative with exchange students from the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto, it will featured policy insights and analyses direct from Berlin and Paris.

Anjela Deyanska

A short walk through any of Berlin’s distinct neighbourhoods reaffirms the German capital city’s reputation as the mecca for street art. In some parts of the city, nearly every meter of accessible building façade, doors, and even light posts has taken on a dual function as a canvas for graffiti. And Berlin is not alone – street art is present in nearly every major city, and an ongoing debate over its aesthetic appeal, legal status, and its cultural and historic significance has made it a significant challenge for policy-makers.

The origins of street art in each city depict different experiences through a common expression; namely, demonstrating a rejection of political, social, and/or economic developments in the form of sprayed on words, symbols, and images. The majority of street artists consider the counter-culture roots of graffiti to be its core characteristic, although the messages depicted have broadened significantly since the onset of graffiti in the late 1970s.

Another key element of the graffiti counter-culture is the use of public and private property as canvases. This is arguably its most contested characteristic, and the chief reason behind government regulation of the activity. Yet while this aspect is common across countries and jurisdictions, the policies adopted in response have varied significantly.

On one end of the spectrum, Scandinavian states have implemented ‘zero tolerance’ policies and strict penalties for graffiti, including imprisonment of up to two years – harsh penalties which have resulted in significantly less street art. In 2010, the Government of Western Australia announced a Tough on Graffiti Strategy which strives to “decrease the number of graffiti vandalism, keep neighbourhoods free from graffiti vandalism, [and] ensure all graffiti vandalism is reported.” Driven by similar motivations, the City of Toronto passed an amendment to the “City Municipal Code Chapter 485, Graffiti” in 2011. The by-law highlights the authority of the Graffiti Panel, Executive Director and Council in granting exemptions and/or regularizing certain street art, while explicitly prohibiting graffiti vandalism.

In contrast, under German law, graffiti is penalized only if it can be proven that the act of spray painting or the removal of the graffiti caused damage to the surface beneath it. Although the Anti-Graffiti Task Force in Berlin employs a mere thirty six officers, the rate of public reporting of graffiti is significantly lower than that found in comparable jurisdictions – leading to a combined effect of fewer arrests and overall more relaxed attitude towards street art. In recent years, this has allowed graffiti artists greater transparency, culminating in the launch of various free and for-a-fee Graffiti Art Tours. The popularity of Berlin street art, and its contribution to the city’s art scene, has increasingly been recognized as a tourist attraction, helping to bring much needed revenue to counteract high level of public debt.

While the different policy responses to street art have been influenced by unique political and economic shifts, some do share a common trend. Notably, Western Australia, Toronto, and Berlin’s approaches all aim to distinguish street art from graffiti vandalism, and each jurisdiction has adopted programs to increase the proportion of legal or regulated street art (such as murals and commissioned works), as well as to provide ‘legal’ spaces for street artists to practice. Yet, despite these attempts, forms of graffiti categorized as vandalism, such as ‘tagging’, persist. Many street artists continue to prefer to maintain anonymity and limit their interactions with city authorities.

At the crux of the issue is the following question: can governments successfully regulate an art form that is ultimately defined by its counter-culture, civil disobedient roots? That is, does street art retain its original intent of defying social, political, and/or economic developments if it is executed with the permission granted by the very authorities it often opposes? At current, it would appear that no government has successfully answered this question – or perhaps even posed it in the first place.

Anjela Deyanska is a second year MPP student at the School of Public Policy and Governance, and is thrilled to be doing a semester abroad at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. While she hoped the first year at the SPPG would concentrate her policy interests, truth is she’s still working on that. Some of the areas Anjela is most drawn to include migration policy, education policy, civic engagement, and gender equity. Her notes are always covered in doodles, so be advised if you ever decide to borrow them. She’s excited to soak up as much of Berlin as possible and come up with some great blog content while she’s at it.

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One response to “Room for Policy: Controlling Counter-Culture

  1. Great article Anjela. Your question about whether legalizing street art actually negates its counter-cultural aesthetic makes me appreciate how effective the German policy really is. They have managed to dodge a lot of potentially thorny issues of when to limit artistic expression while also seeming to minimize the cost of doing so as well.

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