British Columbia

Spike in graffiti leaves Vancouver businesses counting another cost of the pandemic

Around 2,300 businesses had to remove external graffiti between March and August, the city says. That's a 67 per cent increase from the same time period the year before.

City rules say property owners must remove graffiti in 10 days or the city will do it and forward the bill

Graffiti is pictured in the Chinatown neighbourhood of Vancouver on Thursday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The City of Vancouver says it has seen a major increase in graffiti since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

That's leaving business owners to take yet another financial blow in what has been a tumultuous year so far.

Some of the hardest hit neighbourhoods are Chinatown, the Downtown Eastside and Strathcona, but city administrators say the problem is citywide and it has been hard to keep up with the amount of tagging taking place. 

Around 2,300 businesses had to remove external graffiti between March and August, the city says. That's a 67 per cent increase from the same time period the year before — and it's costing businesses dearly. 

Under City of Vancouver rules, property owners have 10 days to remove graffiti or else the city will do it for them — and forward them the bill. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Businesses in Chinatown are paying up to $3,000 per month to keep their buildings clean, says Jordan Eng, president of the area's business improvement association. That's compared to around $2,000 per month before the pandemic began. 

And businesses have to act quickly when they find they've been tagged. Under City of Vancouver rules, property owners have 10 days to remove graffiti or else the city will do it for them — and forward them the bill. 

Eng says while the city doesn't hesitate to hold property owners accountable, businesses in his neighbourhood feel the issue is a "low priority" for city leaders. 

"It's a problem and there is just no accountability. If people get caught, what do they do? They get a slap on the wrist and told not to do it again," Eng said.

Sanctioned graffiti areas

It's a problem Coun. Pete Fry thinks might be hard to fix. Fry lives in the Strathcona neighbourhood and has witnessed the uptick in graffiti during the past seven months. 

He says the city can't afford to increase the police budget for prevention, so it might have to think of more creative solutions. 

"I think perhaps the best option is maybe the city considering sanctioned areas for graffiti," Fry said.

Theodora Lamb, executive director of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association, says business owners are 'being tested like they've never been tested before.' (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In the meantime, businesses in Fry's neighbourhood are growing frustrated. 

Theodora Lamb, executive director of the Strathcona Business Improvement Association — which covers both Strathcona and the Downtown Eastside — says business owners have had their fill of tags appearing on walls in both areas. 

"I think the business owners of Strathcona are being tested like they've never been tested before," she said. "And that's saying a lot."

The battle between private business owners looking to protect their properties and graffiti artists looking for a chance to spread their work is nothing new. 

For reformed tag writers such as Drew Young that will continue to be the case as long as plywood is used at construction sites, or walls remain empty canvases for artists to get their start. 

Artist Drew Young is pictured in his Vancouver studio. He says the pandemic has likely played a role in the visible increase in graffiti in the city. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Young says there isn't one reason for the sharp increase in graffiti, but the pandemic plays a large part in it. 

"I'm sure a lot of these kids are out of work, super broke and pissed off. They just want to take a piece of their city back," he said.

Fry, a graphic designer by trade, says there will always be debate over whether graffiti is art or just plain vandalism. But he says there are many more layers to what people see on the street than just a wanton disregard for other people's possessions. 

"I would argue to a certain extent the public is bombarded by messages of a corporate nature non-stop. And I think that for many folks, graffiti represents the democratization of putting out their messages as well," he said.

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