May 8, 2022
Many of the historic places we visit have been the victim of graffiti, most often in the form of spray painted tags and images. The cover photo shows the Hyde Mill in Streetsville which was built in 1840. When we visited there in September of 2014 there was very little graffiti on the building. The photo shows what the mill looks like less than 8 years later. Similar activity is happening everywhere including active buildings in the city of Toronto. In the past 50 years the amount of graffiti has increased greatly in most of the western world, much to the delight of spray paint manufacturers everywhere.
Graffiti isn’t a new invention, it’s been around since at least ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. In early days it was often carved into the stonework of buildings. It was popular in the Roman Empire and many examples of it have been found in Pompei, which was buried in 79 AD after the volcano in Mount Vesuvius erupted. Examples of Latin curses and declarations of love have been uncovered on the walls of the buildings during recent excavations. There were also magic spells and insults, many of which had to do with defecation, written on the walls.
A lot of early graffiti was erotic in nature and this continues to be a theme in modern times. In Pompei there were advertisements for various prostitutes describing their talents in great detail as well as descriptions of activities that could be had a the local brothels.
During World War Two, graffiti appeared wherever the allied soldiers were stationed in the form of a bald head with a big nose peering over the top of a wall. The inscription “Kilroy Was Here” was included and became famous. There were even reports that it had been found already on the beaches where the allies landed. It is generally accepted that modern graffiti got started in the subways of New York City with a particular person who identified himself as Taki 183. Around the same time in Philadelphia it began with a young juvenile offender who went my the moniker of Cornbread. Graffiti quickly spread and has gone through several stylistic changes over recent years.
In Ontario it has shown up on all sorts of buildings including a lot of our historically designated structures. The Merritton Tunnel is an abandoned railway tunnel underneath the third Welland Canal. It has been the subject of graffiti on the boards that close the north end of the tunnel as well as inside on the limestone blocks.
Graffiti is considered vandalism in Canada and can lead to a charge of mischief over or under $5,000 depending on the location and size of the markings. Toronto and several other large cities have laws to control this type of vandalism but they place the responsibility for cleaning it up on the property owner. So, it’s not bad enough that your property has been defaced but you have to pay for the removal. In some locations the property owners have had to clean their buildings multiple times, resulting in financial hardships. If they don’t clean it up they can be fined, so there’s no winning either way.
In Milton, the former Robertson Screw factory sits abandoned and has been the subject of multiple tags. A tag is usually a quick, one colour graffiti that identifies a person or a gang. These are often put up in many different places to mark their territory.
Aside from gang activity and personal tags there’s a third type of graffiti which is used by people to declare their love for the sweetheart in their life. This can be a simple phrase painted on a building such as “Jack loves Jill”. Unfortunately, graffiti can also include vandalism against trees in which a heart is sometimes cut into the bark with the couple’s initials inscribed within it. This can’t be removed so easily, and if it is too extensive it can kill the tree.
The century old Long Branch Rifle Range in Mississauga has been the target of multiple, overlapping examples of graffiti.
Some graffiti can be hate motivated! This has included painting Nazi symbols and racist comments on buildings and national monuments. Oakville briefly had a park dedicated to Taras Shevchenko, who was a Ukrainian author from the early 1800s. It was vandalized several times including the painting of graffiti on the monuments and now has been removed and the property developed for a subdivision.
The former office for the Weston Plank Road Company was built in 1846 and is the last remnant of that former wooden road. This building is described in greater detail in our story Elm Bank.
Railway cars and bridges seem to be favourite targets for graffiti. In fact, when it was just getting started in New York City the primary target was subway cars and lines. The bridge below on the lower Don River has been painted over a few times since this picture was taken in April 2015. It is from our feature story on The Don Narrows.
Toronto has an alley where graffiti is encouraged as a local tourist attraction. Some of the artwork in Graffiti Alley is really quite well done and there’s murals that take up the entire sides of buildings. We have a feature story on this location that can be found by following the link to Graffiti Alley.
In our humble opinion, there may be a place for graffiti but it isn’t on the remnants of our historic buildings.
Related stories: Graffiti Alley, Hyde Mill Streetsvile, Merritton Tunnel, Long Branch Rifle Range, Taras Shevchenko, Elm Bank, The Don Narrows
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