A rash of graffiti tagging on Marine and Joyce avenues this fall is fuelling a broader discussion in Powell River about the value and need for a public-art policy for the city.
Over the last several weeks, numerous businesses, public structures, lamp standards and sidewalks have been targeted.
Police are asking for the public’s help in finding those who are responsible, said Powell River RCMP constable Ron Palmquist.
“We're asking the public at this point to remain vigilant,” said Palmquist. “If they observe any of these acts of mischief, notify us so we can continue our investigation and try to come to a positive conclusion.”
Between the beginning of September and mid-October, police responded to 46 complaints of vandalism on Marine and Joyce avenues, about eight times more than police dealt with during the same period the previous year.
According to police, cleaning up the spray paint often falls on property owners and can be costly.
Powell River RCMP staff sergeant Rod Wiebe said vandals are often arrested because someone takes the initiative to report a suspicious incident.
“We encourage calling the police when you see something that just doesn't seem right,” said Wiebe. “We would rather investigate and determine it was nothing than find out later and after the crime was committed.”
Police arrested and charged a 25-year-old male on November 22 for mischief related to some of the recent vandalism, but are still looking for others involved.
Two of the Marine Avenue incidents occurred on the side of the former Breakwater Books building that faces Alberni Street. Graffiti artists painted over a portion of artist Nick Carder’s 1998 historical Powell River mural.
Former Marine Area Business Association coordinator Ann Nelson, who led a mural project in the late 1990s, said she was angered by the level of contempt shown to Carder’s original work.
She said she finds a certain hypocrisy of street artists demanding respect for the work they produce but not respecting the art of others.
“It was so disrespectful that they would superimpose their art over the top of someone else's,” said Nelson.
Nelson said she does not know any artists, conventional or otherwise, who would do that.
“Essentially, they were saying that [Carder’s work] wasn't as valuable as theirs,” she added.
Nelson said some communities have held annual mural festivals, which gives street artists a venue and permission to paint the sides of buildings. The art would be transitory, but it would be done with respect, she added.
“We just haven’t evolved that far,” said Nelson.
Lack of public art in Powell River is something on City of Powell River’s radar.
City director of parks, recreation and culture Ray Boogaards said the city has been working on developing a public-art policy this fall.
“Pubic art is defined in different ways in different communities,” said Boogaards.
Boogaards said he has formed a working group comprised of members from Powell River Council for Arts and Culture to help develop a policy for the city to consider. The working group has been looking at polices of other cities for inspiration.
City councillor, arts portfolio holder and working group member CaroleAnn Leishman said more work needs to be done in order to draw a line between public art and vandalism.
"We want to have a better definition of public art and what that includes," said Leishman.
Tagging buildings is graffiti and the destruction of property, but there is a difference between that and actual mural art, she said.
According to Boogaards, last year’s expanded regional recreation initiative study identified and recommended that council look at forming a policy to help define what the community thinks public art is and addresses how to fund its acquisition.
Boogaards said he hopes to bring the policy back out to the community for its thoughts once it is developed and before it is presented to council. It is not up to the city to decide what constitutes public art for the community, he added.
Working group member and street artist Stefan Fogarty, also known as Catnip, is a muralist who was arrested by police and charged for vandalism last summer while painting with two of his friends under the sea walk bridge near the south harbour. Fogarty was handed a conditional discharge with a $500 fine on October 31.
“I did overstep my bounds and painted illegally under the bridge,” he said. “Graffiti is illegal, so it’s easy for the overall thing to be disliked, but it's a necessary facet of human culture.”
Public art spans the spectrum of expression and includes graffiti, said Fogarty.
Forgarty said the increase of graffiti is an indication that the community has street artists who do not have an avenue to express themselves legally.
He said he thinks the city can play a positive role in creating some venues that can direct the energy that is already there into legal, productive art for the town.
Leishman said members of the working group have been discussing suitable locations with the city infrastructure department. She said she invited Fogarty to join the working group after hearing his story.
Fogarty said he is hopeful a public-art policy will allow the city to follow the lead of other communities in Canada, such as Victoria, and integrate more public art, including murals, into public space.
Leishman said a number of city properties, including the water reservoir on Haslam Street, could be included in a mural project.
"As artists, they are struggling with not having a location to express themselves," she added.
Fogarty said he was honoured to be asked to contribute to the working group and provide his thoughts on how street-mural art can be included into the broader public-art discussion.
“Public art,” he said, “hasn't really been discussed yet in this town.”