Opinion Editorial

The line between vandalism and art

 The Packet & Times

When is graffiti art? When is art vandalism? It seems as though answers to those questions depend, to a large extent, on the person providing the response — as is deeply evident in the wake of a series of mysterious ‘paintings’ that have popped up in the downtown core in recent weeks.

It started in mid-June, when a stunning portrait of the late Arthur Shilling appeared in a downtown alleyway. The four-panel portrait of the well-known Rama artist bears the colours of the traditional medicine wheel and what many believe is a quote from Shilling’s book. It was signed “Windigo,” which is the name of a mythical First Nations beast.

Soon after, a beautifully adorned spray can bearing the Windigo tag was left as a gift. Then, the art spree took a political turn when, on the wall at 5 Peter St. S., the following message was addressed to “Mr. Trudeau”: “Why are my people still thirsty?” Not long after, an image of an elderly Native appeared on an alley wall accompanied by the Ojibwe statement, “nbi aawan bimaadziwewin,” which can be loosely translated to “water is life.”

This week, the ‘artist’ struck again with the image of a young Indigenous girl accompanied by Windigo’s signature on the wall of the building at 133 Mississaga St. E. One of the owners of the building, Judy Fontyn Sugg, was not impressed. “I’m angry about it,” said Fontyn Sugg. “... We just spent $60,000 this summer renovating the outside with a new stucco job.” That stucco is now marred by Windigo’s work.

The painter’s work has sparked a debate over the fine line between art and graffiti. “I think a lot of people make the mistake of assuming anything that comes out of a can is graffiti,” said Marg Gurr, president of the Orillia and District Arts Council. “There are some absolutely gorgeous murals and walls that are done in a graffiti style, and I would venture to say a lot of that stuff is worthwhile. What’s not is when people come with their spray cans and do what’s called tagging by spraying over something else and smear the work of someone else. And then there’s straight-out vandalism or racial slurs or leaving obscenity.”

Many feel the images amount to “guerrilla art” — a much-needed tool to help push Canadians to better understand the plight of Indigenous people in this country, many of whom live in substandard conditions without drinkable water. And while that may be a valuable message, the reality is the work amounts to vandalism and the ‘artist’ has no right to deface private property.

Fontyn Sugg empathizes with the person behind the work. “This land was their land and we’re all on it. I know it’s a sore spot, and the way we’ve treated Natives is horrendous, but do something good with it instead of vandalizing people’s buildings.” She has summed up the issue succinctly.

Imagine, for example, if someone took a similar approach but opted to attack Christianity or rail against homosexuality. Regardless, in all cases, it’s wrong. It amounts to vandalism and should not be tolerated. No matter how artful or poignant the message, it is never acceptable to deface someone’s private property.

— The Packet & Times

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