Festival hopes burst of colour opens eyes to graffiti's potential

Graffiti artists and local urban arts festival House of PainT believe current bylaws are dated and discriminatory, which prevents them from painting murals around Ottawa.

City of Ottawa to review graffiti bylaw in 'coming months'

Veronica Roy from House of PainT calls the City of Ottawa's official language around graffiti "stigmatizing and racist." (Kate Tenenhouse/CBC)

Ottawa urban arts festival House of PainT has a big, bold plan to brighten Ottawa neighbourhoods this summer, and organizers hope it sends a colourful message to city officials.

While the annual summer festival has gone virtual this year for safety reasons, it still plans to pair local graffiti artists with homeowners and businesses who want a vibrant mural on their premises.

House of PainT executive director Veronica Roy hopes the project creates eye-catching work that will help reduce the stigma around graffiti art — and possibly change the local graffiti bylaw.

"If we can display this demand from the business community and from homeowners in the city," said Roy, who uses the pronoun they/them, "We can impact change to have more accessible regulations around public art."

This graffiti was layered over the industrial grey paint that has been used to conceal an earlier work of graffiti. (Sandra Abma/CBC )

Roy says current city bylaws paint graffiti in a negative light by linking an urban art form with criminal activity and gangs.

On the City of Ottawa's website, graffiti is described with words such as "hate", "offensive", "gang-related" and "vandalism."

"The city needs to change the way they talk about graffiti, " said Roy.

"Graffiti is an established style of visual art that is deeply rooted in Black and Latinx culture. The city's official language around graffiti is stigmatizing and racist. It conflates graffiti with gang activity and with vandalism, which contributes to discrimination against this art form and the artists who paint graffiti." 

This four-storey mural unveiled four years ago at the corner of Montreal Road and Bégin Street was supported by the community and given a bylaw exemption. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

City to review graffiti bylaw, wording

Kevin Wylie from the city's public works department said the city will review the graffiti bylaw "in the coming months," as well as the wording on its website. 

"The City recognizes that public art plays an important role in our community and provides spaces for graffiti, where it is permitted and encouraged. This includes designated legal walls, community art programs and mural opportunities," said Wylie.

Coun. Mathieu Fleury says his ward of Rideau-Vanier features many striking examples of public art, which came from collaboration between artists and the community. 

"We do have a public mandate to engage and to make sure that the community is properly consulted on on what goes up," said Fleury.

"I just think it's about engagement, consultation, openness and reaching out [to] the various groups that would be affected."

Fleury said he wants to help graffiti artists cut through bureaucratic red tape if they do have an idea for his ward.

This mural painted by Ottawa graffiti artist Railspike sits outside the Arlington Five café. (Supplied by Railspike)

Ottawa needs to look to other cities, artist says

Local graffiti artist Liam Young, whose artist name is Railspike, says he loves creating public art, but decried the lack of available walls where he can legally paint in Ottawa.

"Take a trip to Montreal, Toronto, even like smaller cities. It's filled with murals and public art, and that's because there they don't have nearly as many bylaws about it," said Railspike.

Currently there are three legal graffiti sites in Ottawa:

  • Albert Street Education Centre Retaining Wall at Bronson and Slater.
  • Under the Dunbar Bridge at Brewer Park.
  • Bob MacQuarrie Recreation Complex in Orléans.

Railspike, who referenced Gatineau where entire tunnels can be painted legally, also says rather than viewing graffiti as vandalism, we should see it as artistic expression.

 "Graffiti is long past its roots of random scratches on walls and just damaging property. Graffiti is an art form in itself now," he said.

"We have the artists, we need more walls"

Applications for the House of PainT mural projects will be open until the end of June with the festival paying the artist fees, while the property owners pay for the paint.


Sandra Abma


Sandra Abma is a veteran CBC arts journalist. If you have an event or idea you want to share, please do at


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