Calgary at a Crossroads

In a city regularly debating the merits of outdoor civic engagement — think bike lanes, public art, and off-leash dog parks — graffiti is always a hot topic.

But beyond the obvious cries of vandalism, crime or teenage delinquency, is there something more here? Perhaps a nugget of societal value, or a cultural inscription yet to be decoded?

These questions are not to divert from valid concerns of damage to private property, or tax expenditure on cleanup of public spaces. Rather, the purpose is to think about graffiti in the context of demographics and history.

As old as the hills

If the walls of yesteryear could speak, what might we learn?

A classic example is right here in Southern Alberta at the Áísínai'pi National Historic Site — Writing-on-Stone as it's better known.

Writing On Stone provincial park

Ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings) at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park / Áísínai'pi National Historic Site. (CBC)

It's a place where First Nations petroglyphs and pictographs comprise one of the most important cultural locations on the Great Plains.

It also directs us toward two key facts.

Ancient pictures and symbols etched on nature's walls, in public, have a creative history as rock art. And, graffiti is nothing new.

Áísínai'pi, actually means "it is pictured, it is written." This has a similar connotation to graffiti as something "scribbled or scratched."

In thinking about how such instances suggest conduits of collective public expression, the Greek notion of the agora comes to mind. A marketplace of goods, and more importantly, of ideas. A place where dialogue was shaped in public.

Collectively there is value behind public expression – even to the extent of graffiti.

What's old is new

Currently, Calgary's demography is shaping us as a city, and our forms of expression.

We are a community with many youthful migrants striving to settle in new neighbourhoods and established communities: something Canada's First Nations already know too much about. The rock art at Áísínai'pi includes motifs created after European contact: "expressions of Aboriginal-Euro Canadian contact and cultural change."

Such contact can lead to friction, and so when analyzing cultural transitions within our communities today, it is perhaps not surprising that dissenting voices appear.

It would be easy to dwell on negative examples, such as recent graffiti at Wilma Hansen School: "real Canadians Hate Syrians"… "Syrians Go home and take trudeau"… and "Syrians are animals."

Wilma Hansen graffiti

The anti-Syrian graffiti at Wilma Hansen school was been covered up shortly after it was discovered. (Andrew Brown/CBC)

Such expressions should not be confused with rock art, but there's clearly a parallel of public discourse that indicates change is afoot.

Yet, not all mark making in the public domain is offensive or illegal. There are positive examples of graffiti in Calgary. Scribbles and imagery which can be interpreted.

Graffiti as communication

First, there's out and out vandalism, drunken escapades, and mindless acts of scribbling. What most of us think about when it comes to graffiti.

But much graffiti and mark making reveals more deeply rooted expression.

Staking out turf.

Graffiti tags calgary

Tags spray-painted on a telephone pole and shipping container in Calgary (CBC)

Our city "tags" itself formally. We were the "Heart of The New West," and now we are a place to "Be Part of the Energy." An evolving transformation of self-identification we write down on entrances to our community.

When it comes to gang graffiti, it is often about demarcating a territory, and/or communicating with other gangs.  "We own this neighbourhood" is the message, and interestingly it's communicated with care — the letters are often more legible than you'd find in other forms of 'tagging'.

Then, there's the grey zone, where budding artists or anarchists have a misguided sense of property rights.

It's a belief that anyone's wall, garage door or business frontage is respectively a blank canvas, or chalkboard for anti-capitalist expression. I actually taught a student that had this perspective and found myself addressing a whole undergrad class about how this is not really appropriate.

Graffiti tag wall

Blank wall or blank canvas? Graffiti artists may have a different perception of who "owns" a particular space, says Dick Averns. (CBC)

Nevertheless, I still tend to agree with art critic Ossian Ward that "graffiti offers an alternative unofficial voice, one that can be overtly political, or quiet, and difficult to read, but always anti-establishment."

In the context of Calgary, it's quotes like this that both grate yet resonate.

On one hand, there's a sense of pride about ancient rock art like Áísínai'pi. But on the other, there's often a lack of willingness to allow the dispossessed of today to have a voice. Yet without dissent, we are consigned to the status quo. Alternative views can have value.

The question thence becomes how do we value graffiti as part of our city's public culture?

Validating graffiti

The owners of the now demolished Art Central building had invested in a large graffiti mural by artist David Brunning, a.k.a. The Kid Belo.

One blogger commented that this sort of work is not common in Calgary, which is partially true. Brunning has done a number of commissions in this format, including the Alex Health Centre's Youth Health bus. Clearly the work has value as a means of connecting with youth in need.

Yes. In Calgary there's graffiti we like, and graffiti we hate.

Our city is a pioneer in graffiti abatement, having created a Joint Graffiti Task Force (JGFT). They classify graffiti in two camps: the type created without permission, and the artistic type that meets approval from property owners and sign bylaws.

When it comes to the 'art' of graffiti, think about our electrical and street corner utility boxes.  Community partnerships have sprung up to adorn these forms with painting and vinyl prints.

Box #2

This First Nation-themed utility box at the intersection of 25th Avenue and Spiller Road S.E. honours Aboriginal contributions to the Calgary Stampede.

This both helps prevent unauthorized graffiti whilst also creating a backdrop for contemporary public imagery. Images we believe say something about who we are collectively as a city, or how we wish to see our world.

Just recently the City of Calgary announced that local artist Eveline Kolijn, in collaboration with the Alberta Printmakers Society, will mentor 10 artists to create art on utility boxes along Fifth and Sixth Avenues S.W.

And this is where our relationship with graffiti is complex and ever changing. In our city, locations like electrical boxes morph from places of unwanted scrawls, to sites of creative representation.

What was once unapproved graffiti can become art. Think of street artist Banksy. His subversive and often political graffiti are now legendary and iconic.

Calgary is also evolving and acquiring a name for itself in this arena.

In 2014 the city created engaging inscriptions along the banks of the Bow River in collaboration with artists in residence Broken City Lab.

Ask The River Calgary

Official-looking signs affixed to the stormwater outfall signs along the Elbow and Bow rivers in Calgary explore questions about the waterways that have come to define the city. (asktheriver.info)

Aptly titled Varying Proximities, official-looking signs appeared to speak to passing audiences on behalf of the river with phrases like "Is the river understated?" and "Is the river curious?"

In essence, anonymous voices helping re-shape societal perceptions.

Inscribing Calgary

These examples offer an opportunity to learn about the fabric of our city — the continuum of creative public representation from rock art, to graffiti, and creative signs of our times.

We may not yet have Banksy at work here (people have been known to carve out sections of wall with his graffiti and sell them at auction) but Calgary has inscriptions that people value and appreciate.

Like it or not, the public domain, replete with writing on stone and more modern surfaces, will continue to play a part in performing our culture, inscribing awareness, and shaping democratic expression.


Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.