In many large cities, graffiti vandalism and tagging are a big problem. Gatineau, Que., is no exception, where close to 100 new tags crop up every year. Yet as the fourth largest city in Quebec and with close to 300,000 residents, things could be a lot worse.
Fifteen years ago, the former municipalities that now make up the City of Gatineau received more than 200 graffiti and tagging complaints each year. But the introduction of an innovative program mobilizing local youth has cut that number in half, as it has in other cities facing the same challenge.
At the heart of the Graffiti and Tagging Prevention and Support Program, created in 2001, is the Gatineau Youth Commission. Through the commission, local teens are able to make youth-specific recommendations to city council. A multidisciplinary team made up of representatives from the Gatineau Police Service; Public Works; Recreation, Sports and Community Development Services and L'Alternative Outaouais, a local youth organization, recommended that the city recognize graffiti as a form of urban art instead of punishing graffiti artists.
Over the next 10 years, the Gatineau Youth Commission made improvements to and spearheaded the program. Now administered by Recreation, Sports and Community Development Services, the program has three components: prevention, cleanup and by-laws. Specific objectives are set and achieved through the implementation of concrete measures.
The goal of the prevention component is to help people better understand tags and graffiti and foster the respectful use of graffiti on public and private property. The focus is on informing, raising awareness and promoting graffiti as urban art.
City officials understand that kids yearn to express themselves, through graffiti or otherwise. They decided to entrust the city's youth with more than 40 walls located in various parks and three tunnels, where they can paint graffiti legally and safely as they learn the importance of respecting private and public property.
In partnership with local agencies, the city organizes youth awareness workshops, where young graffiti artists are able to showcase their talent and at the same time teach their peers how to practise their art lawfully in designated areas.
The city also sponsors an annual graffiti competition, which authorizes the creation of frescoes. Frescoes are in line with other objectives, such as embellishing neighbourhoods, reinforcing the sense of belonging and feeling of safety of citizens and reducing the number of illegal tags and graffiti based on respect for one's surroundings.
Local agencies, including the Gatineau Police Service and Recreation, Sports and Community Development Services, are firm believers in prevention. They meet with young offenders to tell them about the program, explain cleanup-related costs and consequences, and give them the chance to make a positive contribution.
In terms of cleanup and by-laws, it's a shared responsibility and collective effort aimed at limiting the proliferation of illegal tags and graffiti, and deterring offenders.
The City of Gatineau has also developed counter-vandalism strategies and encourages its partners to quickly remove illegal markings. The focus is on supporting property owners by providing them with tips and advice and setting up an illegal graffiti cleanup project in partnership with a youth organization.
Engaging with young street artists and the public is the best way to demystify graffiti as a dark form of self-expression. City officials are confident that a proactive, collaborative approach involving youth, graffiti artists and residents will ensure the ongoing success of the program.