Illustrated City Part 8

Culture clash . . . war of words.

This one is generally about the psychology of graffiti, and specifically about the war on tagging in Hamilton, ON.

It’s not public art; but for every square kilometer of urban and suburban space, the city of Hamilton has no shortage of graffiti. I have done wall murals but I haven’t yet been commissioned to do one with an urban graffiti style. Not many want it in their homes or remotely near anywhere that they have to be. Wherever you go in Hamilton, however, it’s there.

I think that street graffiti can be impressive. Graffiti, in general, is actually a controversial, unconventional and often misunderstood form of art and literature. Many Hamiltonians, though, regard all graffiti as a nuisance—nothing good about any of it. I, on the other hand, see much graffiti in this town that I really like, and much that I really don’t. That which I like, I readily call art. That which I don’t like, I call taggers’ trash. As one would probably expect, the trash are those spray painted squiggles of some nearly undecipherable image, message or outright vulgarity or epithet. The type of trash that typically cause people to conclude that there is something utterly wrong with the mind of an individual who would leave behind such an unsightly and asinine trace of themselves in a place that should have been left alone. Graffiti has an equally controversial, and perhaps more threatening, sibling called ‘stealth art’ but there doesn’t seem to be any genuine ‘stealth artists’ in Hamilton yet. As for graffiti being threatening due to its contemporary and inextricable link to street gang warfare, Hamilton also doesn’t yet have the homicidal tagger conflicts that other North American cities do, like the TKO/MTA clash in Los Angeles.

So what about the minds of the obviously inept taggers? Psychologists say that their graffiti is vented anger. They say that artists, in general, who create graffiti—usually juveniles, have a deep “displacement”. Displacement is a desire to commit a scandalous and/or dangerous act to an actual or merely perceived more threatening object, person or faction (e.g. verbally abuse, sexual assault, infringe on or strip away someone’s fundamental human rights). Doing so, however, would seriously breech highly guarded social mores, probably to the “artist’s” detriment, so they vent on something safer and inanimate like a wall, fence or window. Psychologists have noted two basic groups of motives for graffiti producers. The psychologists seem to accurately further break down both groups into eight more specific motives. The first group is “mass communication and reflexive communication”, and in it there are motives of:

  • Proving one’s existence (fame or infamy);
  • The need to express oneself;
  • Documentation of group membership (typically associated with gang behaviour);
  • Taking pleasure in esthetics;
  • Creative and physical acts; and
  • Boredom.

In the second group of “categorical and individual communication”, the specific motives are:

  • The expression of criticism, protest, rejection or agreement;
  • The marking out of territories (again, highly associated with gang mentality), and
  • The search for like-minded contacts.

    The Demon Within

When I think about this analysis, all of these, except boredom, epitomize the art-for-art’s-sake motives of conventional art and literature in the western world, as well as graffiti. So I’m left asking myself what I think is the difference between, at least, an ethical graffiti artists and an unethical tagger, whether either creator’s outputs of expression are likeable or unlikable (which is simply a matter of individual taste)? It seems to boil down to the simple fact that the ethical graffiti artist does not vandalize property that doesn’t belong to him or her for artistic purposes. I don’t think it gets any clearer than that. Am I right or wrong?

I once spoke to a Hamilton tagger who boasted of doing both ethical and unethical graffiti. I’ve seen his . . . “work” . . . so I know he’s the real thing and not someone just trying to make himself out to be something he’s not. I asked him to level with me and tell me if he had a preference between ethical and unethical graffiti. He told me while grinning that he preferred vandalizing people’s property. When I asked him why, he said he “just likes to break the law and bug people. It’s fun.” Now, this is only one tagger I ever had the opportunity to talk to like this, and it is hardly enough to make any realistic generalization about graffiti artists but it’s also really interesting that this is the sort of tagger I encountered without even trying.

Careful colour selection for the outer wall of a store where permission was granted for "ethical graffiti".

Do Hamilton’s police catch taggers? Since at least 2004, they’ve had a network of at least 5 video cameras operating throughout the downtown core (despite some complaints and disapprovals since 2002 from people like George Radwanski – former Privacy Commissioner of Canada, whose disapproval was published in a 2003 McMaster university Communications Studies Programme) that were actually installed in 2000. Since the start of what people used to call “The New Millennium”, I saw a number of new tags go up in places downtown where signs are posted to warn that the area is being watched by the authorities. At one time it seemed reasonable to think that these somewhat controversial public surveillance cameras, of what the authorities call the City-Cam Project, must have been capturing at least some taggers in the act. The cameras have reportedly helped in ensuring dozens of arrests in serious crimes, and the relocation of several missing persons but there doesn’t seem to be any word on their effectiveness on nailing taggers.

An unusually attention-getting King Street shoplifting occurrence in December 2011 caused the HPS (Hamilton Police Service) to publicly announce that although recordings of crimes committed on the streets can be reviewed at a later time after they’ve taken place, the cameras don’t have live operators as they do in the UK and they rotate periodically; therefore, they may not be pointing in the direction of a crime being committed.


The tagger I ran into, who at the time said was in his late teens when I spoke to him, said he got caught once. He also alluded to the fact that the experience taught him how to be more illusive in the future.

The local papers have quoted members of the HPS as saying that they rarely catch taggers in the act, and of those that they do catch prosecution often can’t even be considered with the laws such as they are because the vandals are usually under age. Periodically, you do hear in the news of taggers getting caught in the act. In May 2008, shopping mall surveillance video recorded a guitar-toting 27-year-old man scrawling sexist and racist graffiti on the wall of a fast-food restaurant. This footage helped catch him after he had tagged numerous trash cans, bus shelters and businesses in red and black marker throughout a four-block radius of the downtown core that same Sunday morning.

A work of graffiti becomes art when considerations of design and composition are taken seriously, first and foremost, by its creator.

Keenur, one of the city’s most prolific graffiti vandals was busted twice in 2008; once in late September, and again in late November (I saw that someone defaced one of his tags once and wrote “Weiner” in its place). He must have been so thrilled that his street alias and crimes made local print and television news. He was 18-years-old those times but the law stated that his true identity couldn’t be revealed due to his standing juvenile criminal record. You could still find out his real name of Jackson Hayes; however, by going on some of the pro-tagger Web sites that blatantly identified him back then. That’s the Internet for you folks! What goes on it stays on it! Nothing is sacred in the e-world. Not even its exploiters. It turns out this guy lived pretty close to me in those days.

On his first 2008 arrest, the press showed photos of all his art supplies in his little apartment in the neighbourhood of Ainslie Wood. He had way more paint and markers than I do. Sadly, with paint cans and writing implements piled overtop of each other it looked to me like the home of someone with a sufficiently serious case of OCD. That’s not to say that he has OCD. Maybe he’s just a slob. I got thinking though, all that stuff, and all he did was scrawl some stupid little nonsensical name in basic stick-letters all over the city. Real genius! On his second bust of the year, he was caught actively tagging with two others, and was charged with eight counts of mischief under $5,000 plus one count of robbery because he had apparently held someone up at knife-point.

If U Live Here

So far, my favourite report is about when a citizen observed a young man and woman engaging in a downtown tagging spree and called the police. When the authorities caught up to the vandals, they learned that the man brought the girl downtown just to teach her how to tag. Class dismissed!

There are some public and private places in Hamilton where graffiti artists have been allowed to let loose, so to speak, but the overburdening of unethical tags prompted the city to initiate GPS (Graffiti Prevention Strategy) in 2006. GPS, was a 3-year program from the partnership between HSCC (Hamilton Safe Communities Coalition) and the HPS. It relied on a $125, 588 grant from the federal government’s National Crime Prevention Centre and Crime Prevention Action Fund, plus $109, 700 in services from City Hall. The mission was to power wash the most visible tags on city property with gallons of Goof Off paint remover. Of course, the tagging problem is so big that there just isn’t a big enough budget to remove all tags and keep them gone well beyond 3 years. As for the multitude of private properties that are vandalized, they’re on their own. The Adopt-a-Box program, nevertheless, is a similar grass roots neighbourhood graffiti removal effort born out of the city’s Westdale area that the Police took interest in expanding to other areas of the city.

A common and crass acid tag found on the inside of a rear city bus window.

Making matters worse, however, was that by September 6, 2007 the HSR (Hamilton Street Railway) public transit service and the Hamilton Police Service began requesting the help of citizens in the apprehension of vandals who were committing a new wave of unethical graffiti known as acid tagging (possibly originated in Seattle, WA during demonstrations against the World Trade Organization meetings in 1999). Between April and September of 2007, acid taggers etched large street names and gang symbols onto the interiors of city bus and bus stop shelter windows with diluted hydrofluoric acid, causing $33, 000 damage (entire, otherwise satisfactory, windows had to be replaced; not all were). The taggers had escalated their tactics from using spray paint to high-art glass etching cream. Beyond the damage costs incurred, acid tagging posses a considerable danger to the public too. Etching cream is highly corrosive and eats through flesh just as easy as it eats through glass.

A scenario; imagine getting onto public transit with your 5-year old, as rambunctious as they can be. Your fidgety child puts his or her hands or face up against a window before realizing that some reprobate just left wet cream on the pane to dissolve a street alias into it. Hydrofluoric acid fumes are also toxic to the taggers, and other passengers long after the taggers have left the scene. Can you see where this is going? Fortunately, acid tagging seems to have abated in recent years.


There are complainers, and then there are doers. As difficult as it is to eliminate or control tagging, this is one of a number of a local problems that people are actively trying to create solutions for. In addition to GPS, some citizens suggest that local corporations should be made to take some responsibility for the city that finances them. I don’t know if making them responsible is possible or even effective but that’s one idea.

There have been some voluntary efforts from area businesses. In the summer of 2007, GPS worked with the RE-Create Open Art Studio to hold the Spray-Off Graffiti Challenge in Gore Park for spray paint graffiti artists who want to be legit. Also, some corporations have requested GPS’ help in locating ethical graffiti artists to commission them to do mural work.

The PAMP (Public Art Master Plan) is not likely to give the allotment of more public spaces to graffiti artists much consideration as its agenda is restricted by the city policy of only permitting art projects to be commissioned by the city. Establishing public places for painting and re-painting continually is not part of the PAMP’s agenda. That would have to be the mandate of a separate art committee with more liberal resources.


Others believe that the way to end the unethical tagging problem is to make those taggers who are caught clean their tags and a full city block of all other tags and litter, plus drive the message of intolerance home with a stiff fine (it probably won’t be realistic to fine them if they are found to be poor and unemployed twenty-somethings or homeless).

I suggest that if any city wants to effectively fight tagging, the allied forces—which mean all of us citizens, should figure out how to eliminate the displacement in the minds of the vandals. A very tall order indeed but what isn’t? It certainly would be attacking the problem at its source.

In fact, Hamilton did take a similar approach. The city didn’t aim at eliminating the displacement but did act in consideration of the most dominant motive of local graffiti vandals. The scratching of names and epithets into the back windows of buses continued until the HSR began covering the outsides of windows with adhesive vinyl ads that obscured tags and successfully foiled local taggers like Keenur and Belio whose motive was clearly about proving their existence.

16 thoughts on “Illustrated City Part 8

    • It’s a strange dichotomy isn’t it? Taggers want so badly to be recognized and respected, yet their deliberate output only causes them severe disrespect from the people they hate but want respect from, and forces them to remain hidden. You’d think they would know that they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

      Insanity is about not knowing the difference between right and wrong but such mental illness doesn’t appear to be present. Taggers know the difference. It seems that they simply choose to draw others into a world of self-degradation that they think can’t be corrected.

      It’s kind of sociopathic.

  1. I would think a positive solution to the graffiti problem, since it will no doubt ever go away, is for the city to hold graffiti contests. They could offer prizes for the most imaginative and ‘beautiful’ works by artists looking for an outlet. I would suspect the paintings would be in good taste, and it might give some of the younger, and even the homeless people, a chance for recognition, and an opportunity to earn some money. Just a thought.

    • Yeah, I’ve heard that some cities and private enterprises have held or sponsored such competitions. I want to look into that, and see what effect, if any, these have had on graffiti vandalism.

  2. I agree with you that eliminating displacement is the only true answer. I’d rather put up with the most obnoxious graffiti (except maybe the acid stuff) than put cameras up everywhere.
    There is a red barn down the street from me that someone scrawled (and I do mean scrawled, there was no “art” in it) in yellow these words: “I wish there was something else” I find it so beautifully moving.
    I guess I don’t mind a little anarchy. It’s real at least.

  3. I do not believe cameras will help the situation. Now they’ll get to tag and their 15 minutes of fame while still vandalizing property. Tagging is fustrated youth vrying out for attention hence why I believe tagging is so contraversal. I do agree grafitti is art; the expression of thought and emotion through spraypaint or whatever material is used to create the artist’s vision. Great post!

  4. A fantastic and insightful post into the mind of taggers. While I was hitchhiking across new Zealand one car, that gave me a lift, stopped and the guys got out and proceeded to tag up a country fence!!! I was thinking, “oh dear, what have I got myself into…”

    Tagging a country fence, way out in the back roads seems so pointless. I think they almost do it almost to impress each other, more than anything. Or for bragging rites.

    • Absolutely. The Metro Transit Assassins (MTA) is one of the most organized, invasive, destructive and even violent tagging crews in Los Angeles. They allegedly consist of only ten gang members lead by Shawn Alexander who goes by the moniker “Upset”. Their motto is “Go big or go home”, and they mean it.

      According to the LAPD, the MTA chartered a helicopter to figure out where to place their largest tag according to the best flight routes out of LAX that will enable pilots and their passengers to see it. This tag is said to be 183m (600ft) tall and 402m (.25mi) wide on the side of a drainage canal.

      They do it all for notoriety.

    • Me too. It’s because of its location under an overpass why I actually feel badly that most people will not see it. When you first come across it you realize instantly that it isn’t the pretty, colourful and ornate type. It’s impact; nevertheless, is powerful because of the message delivered in that setting. It’s a visual axiom.

      To me, that one isn’t a rubbish tag, it’s true street art. As a street and urban photographer I had to shoot it and present it this way, without the distraction of colour, to hopefully convey that impact to more people.

      For the Illustrated City Project, I’m hoping to find more like that in every city I go to.

    • I just had to leave the top one in colour, and make those colours pop like the first time I saw it. Even though the colours normally clash, they complement each other here most strangely. The way they play off each other is enough to really draw one’s attention. This uncommon colour relationship is exemplary of the arrant futility of racism and racial conflict, as exemplified in the composition.

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