Graffiti Reframed, spearheaded by NORDIK Institute in partnership with the Arts Council of Sault Ste. Marie and District, was intended to engage the community in developing a shared understanding of graffiti and its place in Sault Ste. Marie. Earlier research demonstrated a need for a better collective understanding of this form of creative expression. Graffiti Reframed consisted of both creation and research components. The project was funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, NOHFC’s internship program, and in-kind donations from numerous local businesses.
The creation activities ran from Summer 2014 – Summer 2015 and included:
– creation of three graffiti-style murals by young artists under the guidance of peer mentors, and seventeen 15”X20” art pieces commissioned by downtown businesses for the National Youth Arts Week Window Exhibition in May 2015.
– Skills development workshops on topics including graffiti writing, artistic techniques, concept development, and the processes associated with commissioned work.
– Community engagement was accomplished through an info booth at Mill Market, film screenings followed by panel discussions, interviews and focus groups, and the Graff Café, a series of community open houses for artistic activity and dialogue at the Neighbourhood Resource Centre on Gore Street.
The research component took place concurrently and explored the following:
– Impact of building artistic capacity on the place of youth within the city’s social fabric;
– Any changes in attitudes about graffiti and those who practice its various forms;
– Youth opportunities for engagement and employment in the creative economy; and
– Cultivation of community pride, place making, and long-term tourism opportunities.
Graffiti Reframed exceeded its engagement target of 200 people, with artists, business owners, community stakeholder and the public at large all being implicated throughout the initiative.
The project was especially successful in cultivating youth empowerment both through the peer mentoring process involved in the mural creation, as well as through activities that encouraged mentees to take on leadership roles.
Graffiti Reframed also had a high profile in the City Centre neighbourhood around Gore Street. The neighbourhood also hosted two of the murals, several workshops, the Graff Cafés and other activities, contributing to neighbourhood vitality.
Many of those engaged by the project expressed a need for more public art in order to foster a sense of local identity (i.e. place making), to showcase young artists more frequently, and to create more tourism opportunities and improve their experience. Many expressed a sense of ‘creative opportunity’ emerging in Sault Ste. Marie that needs to be nourished.
The project not only highlighted opportunities within the creative economy for future local development, it facilitated 7 artists earning a greater percentage of their income from their artistic skills through mentorship initiatives, while over 65 local artists took part in programming to either develop their skills or showcase their work. Additionally, 25 businesses commissioned a variety of forms of artwork and were connected with young local artists.
Interviews and community engagement initiatives revealed important shifts in the public dialogue about graffiti throughout the project. Significantly, stakeholders and the general public increasingly made distinctions between ‘nuisance tagging’ and other forms of street art. Indeed, many stakeholders expressed a growing appreciation for the artistic merit of street art and the graffiti-style more generally.
The Graffiti Reframed process underscored the importance of understanding the motivations of graffiti artists (ranging from taggers to those who do exclusively commissioned work) in order to develop effective and appropriate responses from the Police Services and other community stakeholders.
Graffiti artists ought not be considered a monolithic group, and similarly their motivations are diverse. The research demonstrated that creating greater opportunities for creative expression and using art and design to discourage tagging and vandalism are effective deterrents for unwanted graffiti. For others, their involvement in illicit graffiti practices stems from a sense of isolation that can only be addressed through social development to foster a greater sense of inclusion.
The impact of a project like Graffiti Reframed on promoting the creative economy, strengthening arts community capacity, and implicating the arts more in concerted place-making efforts were apparent, but still in their nascent stages. Additional community engagement and investment will be necessary to maintain the momentum achieved through Graffiti Reframed and to attain maximal future economic impact.