Graffiti vs Tagging: Is Either Acceptable?

graffiti, Kingston, OntarioDoes Kingston have a graffiti problem?  Does tagging fall under the same umbrella as stickering, stencilling, or evolving canvasses such as those behind the Grand Theatre?  What types of surfaces should be considered out of bounds?  These are the questions that have been floating around my head ever since a “gifted artist” decided to vomit their initials onto my fence.  The thought of this very minor instance of vandalism still enrages me, to such a degree that I have been fantasizing about catching the culprit mid-Sharpie, only to chase and violently tackle them on the pavement, making a memorable citizen’s arrest and earning an oversized novelty key to the city.  Do they really give those out, or is that only in the movies?

Back to the matter at hand: graffiti in Kingston.  In the past I have actually been a mild advocate for urban art in our city.  While the alley behind the Grand Theatre, wall along lower Wellington and various underpasses in Kingston seem to have collected quite a few illegally sprayed Piccasos over the years, I turned a blind eye because I didn’t think they were hurting anyone.  In a way, I still have a hard time hating the graffiti at these locations as they are out of the public eye, and on publicly owned property.  Further, none of these places happens to be my fence.

Tagging is a totally different beast in comparison to what I would categorize as graffiti.  Scribbling one’s initials or gang sign onto a fence, parking meter, or the sign at St. James Chapel is truly the work of the devil.  Further, in comparison to actual spray can graffiti, these works take next to no time to create, and tend to have a higher concentration on everything that could be considered a canvass.  While I am sure the people behind such works take pride in their efforts, surely their talents could be applied in a more productive, and acceptable manner.

When researching how to react when tagging and unwanted graffiti comes to your neighbourhood, I found a great prevention pamphlet on Downtown Kingston’s website.  It offers the following tips:

  1. Rapid Removal: Prompt removal is most effective method of deterring vandals. If the graffiti is removed within 24 hours after initial instances as well as re-occurrences, offenders will cease to waste their time and supplies as it undermines their efforts for peer recognition. New graffiti is also considerably easier to remove, as the paint will not have had adequate time to set.
  2. Exterior Upkeep: Keep the exterior of your building and surrounding area clean and tidy. An unkempt surrounding gives the impression that the owner is not attentive to the property and thus it becomes a target, in the hope that the tag will remain longer. Also, proper lighting lifts the cloaking that the night provides and thus deters potential vandals.
  3. Control Access: Limit access to rooftops by moving dumpsters away from walls. Plant shrubs, thorny plants or vines to restrict access, as well as cover exposed, blank walls.
  4. Chronically Hit Walls: Due to location and accessibility some walls are plagued with a much higher incidence of graffiti. For these cases other options include the application of an anti-graffiti protective coating or the commissioning of a mural. It is rare that a wall adorned by a mural will be tagged.
  5. Keep Your Eyes Opened: Report any suspicious activity directly to the police at 549-4660. Ask for the zone officer or foot patrol officer.

If you’re like me and have become a victim of tagging or graffiti, please be sure to check out the guide to removing graffiti from various surfaces, as well as what tools you may need.  So does Kingston have a graffiti or tagging problem?  Do you differentiate the two? Where are the city’s worst spots for unwanted art?  Should the city establish a legal wall where graffiti artists can practice their craft?  Please drop off a comment or two.

Harvey Kirkpatrick

Harvey Kirkpatrick is Kingstonist's Co-Founder. His features curiously explore urban planning, what if scenarios, the local food scene and notable Kingstonians. Loves playing tourist and listening to rap music. Learn more about Harvey...

16 thoughts on “Graffiti vs Tagging: Is Either Acceptable?

  • Graffiti is not inherently wrong but should be subject to ethics.Many graffiti artists observe certain ground rules, and they vary from place to place but have a lot of overlap. These subcultures have their own accountability structures and protocols… for example generally don't tag people's homes, or ma and pa shops, but corporate property is OK and especially alleyways/abandoned industrial property…

    I prefer graffiti that is either artistically beautiful like some of the stuff that's behind the Grand Theatre (there used to be a lot more) or politically on point… For example in Athens, Greece the streets are spattered with messages about antifacism, freedom and equality. Of course there is "political" graffiti put up by racists and other right-wing extreme groups; i do not believe in being "objective" about such things and those groups should have their graffiti removed, and in fact people should be finding said racists and holding them accountable! But for the mostpart graffiti can beautify space or call attention to injustice, and I support both.

  • A tough question… I am a big fan of Graffiti art… Jean-Michel Basquiat started out as a graffiti artist and Banksy is a graffiti artist from England who has established a huge following with his art … Melbourne has turned its graffiti art into an large tourist attraction with many businesses commissioning works to adorn their buildings … and it seems that Toronto may be doing the same thing with the art adorning the alleys around Queen ST. west… Graffiti and tagging … not quite the same thing but the tags in the men's washroom at Indigo are very artful… for more info and

  • I have been thinking abuot this issue quite a bit this week since seeing a bunch of new tags in the neighbourhood around Skeleton Park. I can't tell if it's because I'm getting older or because I'm feeling the fiestiness of spring fever, but the tags really pissed me off. I usually pass graffiti off as a type of art I sometimes enjoy but one that someone other than myself appreciates more and it doens't really bother me. But tagging is crap. Like the one on Harvey's fence, the tags I've seen were on private residences, in one instance on the side of a families home. Imagine waking up to that?! Tagging is a tough thing to prevent and it's likely not going away, so the tips on how to deal with it are helpful.

  • There's an unfortunate overlap in the area of graffiti artists and taggers. The vast majority of graffiti artists at some time or another tag. I know some graffiti artists and have made the case against tagging to them at almost every opportunity; with mixed results.

    I would like to think that a legal graffiti wall would be a solution to the tagging problem but I doubt it would be. Nonetheless I still believe the public spaces in which graffiti and other forms of urban art can be exhibited are essential. Street painting and chalk art being members of the same "urban art" family that could, in concert, serve to elevate graffiti from its deep connection to vandalism.

    Speedy removal of tags is an easy enough thing to achieve on private property but what of areas such as abandoned property or, as in my own neighbourhood, the boxes for power distribution and cable television? Can we expect Cogeco to come along and remove those tags daily? Or HydroOne? And who wants to pay for the rate increases that would accompany such diligence?

    The most likely source of a solution to tagging will come from within the graffiti and urban art community itself. It's anyone's guess when and if such a solution would happen. I do know that some graffiti artists do try to convince the taggers to stop although their effectiveness is probably about the same as my attempts have been: not very.

  • Has anyone ever thought about this point. It is private property, mail box , cable box, fence, business, home etc.
    If you want to do this crap do it one you own wall or house.
    Show some responsibility people. If you think it is ok then lets send the taggers to your property.

  • I agree that the sentiment of a legal graffiti wall is a good one (perhaps combine it with the proposed skateboard park, since let's face it, they go hand in hand) but it would not ultimately fix the problem.

    I think the best method to deter taggers is to put them into community service as city cleaners when caught. Kingston is dirty with filth and litter after the spring melt, and these kids probably have the brains to manage a broom and dustpan. After all, who wants to show off their "art" in a dirty gallery?

    • Catching them is the hard part, though. I agree that when they are caught there needs to be stiff penalties and they need to be held to account, but catching them is very hard.

  • I probably would have agreed with you about the graffiti wall before I read the CBC article linked in my post. Not so much love for the legal wall after the fact though. The article details what happened in Ottawa when they created a similar space for artistes, while it increased graffiti elsewhere in the city rather than curb it. While I'm not a graffiti master, my interpretation of the activity is that it's meant to be widespread and uncontrolled, not concentrated on pretty little walls offered up by the city. I think a lot of folks do it for the thrill of breaking the rules, and peer recognition of a job well done on a choice piece of real estate.

  • I have serious dislike of anyone drawing graffiti on any property that is not assigned for such a purpose. What is being done when someone sprays graffiti on someone else's property is not art, it is vandalism. This vandalism costs the property owner time and money to have it removed. This is especially a problem downtown, where businesses are struggling enough, without such an added expense and hassle, not to mention that the city has a graffiti removal bylaw which means fines when graffiti is not removed in a timely manner.

    People showing such a reckless disregard for the property of others is nothing to be supported in any manner. Art has its place, but it is not through vandalism.

    (I came home to the storefront and staircase entrance to my apartment covered in graf last week, which really riled me up. Thankfully it was very fresh, so I managed to get 90% of it off with a bottle of alcohol and an old t-shirt. It's not very welcoming to come home to that.)

  • Here is my personal list of eyesores in downtown Kingston, ordered from most offensive to least:

    1. Billboard ads
    2. Real estate signs
    3. Corporate signage (eg McDonald's, etc.)
    4. K-Rock centre and Ontario Street condos on the skyline
    5. Tags

    There is awful art in my line of sight at all times; it's just all legally mandated except for graffiti and tags.

    It sucks having to clean spray paint off your fence. But sometimes I think about how nice the sunset might look at Sydenham and Queen when I'm noticing two billboard ads, Blockbuster sign, a Shoppers Drug Mart sign, and a bunch of Keystone Properties placards.

    • Might I suggest moving to downtown Gananoque? Judging by what you find offensive, you may prefer it there to downtown Kingston.

      1. Advertising helps generate business for many downtown stores/restaurants.
      2. Real Estate signs help encourage people to lease/buy empty locations, which means less empty storefronts.
      3. Corporate business signage is in most cases no different than independently owned business signage. There is no reality in which our downtown would still be even half as successful as it is without a corporate presence, sorry.
      4. K-rock drives people to the downtown area and supports restaurants and stores through this traffic. Condos….yes, but at least they provide housing in the downtown core for many.
      5. no comment.

  • I've talked to many a writer about this sort of thing, It goes way beyond what the public sees. There is unspoken rules, as someone mentioned above, and they have two very certain mindsets. "we pay taxes, we pay the cops salary, we should be able to do what we want with what we helped pay for" or "We didnt want you to block our sunrise with your buildings, so we're going to paint them". There is a beautiful quote I heard on a video, and it goes something like "We're not out there to hurt anybody, but I'm down to make some rich fools very uncomfortable" That sums up their reasoning and that's that. The handstyles people see everywhere will never go away. They are part of the game of graffiti, and the real writers(not gang graffiti) put as much artistic style into their tags, as they would a piece.

  • Graffiti, as the name suggests, is illegal. People will always write their names, so and so was here, its just the way it is… when I was growing up here i barely ever noticed the tags, but what I did notice was that all the places for kids to go and hangout got rundown or deserted; the arcades, the parks, all got rundown with drug addicts or got closed down. If you take away the places that kids hangout, theyre bound to move on to different things so just think about how that affected them, im not saying that its alright for writers to write, but alot of these people have a bone to pick with this city; inbetween the queens populace taking over downtown, and drugged out welfare cases that dominate the rideau heights area, theirs not alotta places to go for people that live smack dab in the middle of it all. Its a stress relief, and its not hurting anybody.

  • i believe that more areas are needed to allow for graffiti paintings.
    i personally as a artist enjoy looking at all the art around downtown Kingston and a lot of it is quite good.
    But i believe that if areas are set where artist can freely go and do graffiti paintings that a lot of unwanted graffiti would not be there.
    but there's a definite difference between what your seen on bus stops, signs, and mailboxes (tagging) vs. what you see behind the grand theatre (graffiti)

    if there were legal spots for graffiti i believe that tagging would be less common

  • Graffiti should be legal in places in Kingston the city is to worried about removing it. Make some legal spots Kingston I’m an artist and need somewhere to paint with out the cops arresting me for the shit! PLEASE LEGAL SPOT?

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