Pressure-wash graffiti gets a free pass

Fans of street art in Edmonton are accusing the city of hypocrisy over a decision to allow Octane Motorsports to promote the Indy with graffiti-style stencils on city sidewalks.

The stencils aren’t made with paint. Rather, they were done with a pressure washer which blasts hot water over the stencils, effectively cleaning the message into the sidewalk. They’re temporary because dirt eventually returns and covers them up.

Nevertheless, they rankle street art fans, who believe the city would prosecute them if they tried something similar.

“I doubt the city would look too favourably if I spray-painted a message and promised, cross-my-heart, to repaint it in 30 days,” said Mikkel Paulson, a graffiti fan who wrote a letter to the mayor calling for more street art zones. “The effect is fundamentally the same.”

The graffiti-style promotion also seems inconsistent with a 2009 news release issued by Capital City Cleanup, the city’s agency that deals with litter and graffiti, which announced a special graffiti cleanup in preparation for that year’s Indy race.

Tamara Fahlman, a spokesperson for the Indy, said the stencils were imprinted on sidewalks at the start of July and she said she was surprised that many were still visible.

No detergent was used, she said, just hot water. Most businesses were receptive to the stencils, although she said there may have been a few that weren’t.

“It’s a different way of attracting people,” Fahlman said of the stencil campaign. “It’s something that’s new that can attract a lot of attention.”

Pressure-wash stencils are a new phenomenon in most cities. In some cities, they’ve been used on public sidewalks by promotions companies to advertise Domino’s and Starbucks.

Proponents claim it’s green, but an article in the New York Times about pressure-wash stencils claim that a single 140 centimetre message requires 15 to 20 litres of water. The pressure-washers are also gasoline powered.

Sharon Chapman, the graffiti project manager for the Capital City Cleanup, said the Indy stencils were permitted because they were temporary in nature and were for a one-time event.

Decisions on whether to allow street art are determined using criteria in the city’s Community Standards bylaw, she said, noting exceptions are made for certain things like community murals where the owner’s permission is given.

“It’s up to Community Standards to look at those situations on a case-by-case basis and determine whether they contravene the bylaw,” Chapman said.

“There are many times that stencil graffiti is vandalism and needs to be removed.”

The Community Standards bylaw doesn’t define graffiti, but it stipulates it must be removed if it constitutes a nuisance that affects other property owners. Criteria include whether the offending wall is visible to the public or other property owners, or if the building is in a general state of disrepair.

An entry on the city website defines graffiti as being “a crime when placed on public or private property without the owner’s consent.”

Paulson, who many in Edmonton know as a candidate for the Pirate Party in the last federal election, said it seems to him like the city is OK with graffiti only if it’s on its own terms.

“Private property is private property, but everybody has to look at it. And that’s true for public property, too,” said Paulson. “The passer-by doesn’t know or care if permission is granted or not.”

“Graffiti absolutely livens up the city. Painting everything back to grey or brown takes the life out of the city.”

Ryan Pleckaitis, the city’s acting director of complaints and investigations, said pressure-washed stencils might not be something his department would bother with investigating.

As with all graffiti, he said it would depend whether it constitutes a Community Standards nuisance.

“Something that’s pressure-washed and is temporary in nature, probably that wouldn’t be something we’d go after,” Pleckaitis said. “I don’t even know if it would be an offence.”

“It would be somewhat similar to a kid drawing with chalk for hopscotch on a sidewalk.”

At least one Edmonton artist said he finds the Indy’s pressure-wash stencils encouraging.

John DenOuden, a spray-paint artist who stresses he’s always kept his art legal even though he admires some illegal graffiti, said the Indy promotion might indicate a change of attitude by the city towards graffiti.

“It makes me feel like they’re a little bit more open to the idea and maybe allow street artists to do a little more,” says DenOuden. “It shows they know street art is popular.”