Creative Leaders in Toronto, Canada: Kristina Hausmanis with StART

Toward the end of my stay in Toronto, Kristina Hausmanis, the Project Lead of StreetARToronto, and I chatted over coffee about  how the local government is supporting street art — and the limitations that bureaucracies have when it comes to allowing creative autonomy for street artists.

StreetARToronto or StART is a new, pro-active program that aims to develop, support, promote and increase awareness of street art and its indispensable role in adding beauty and character to neighbourhoods across Toronto, while counteracting graffiti vandalism and its harmful effect on communities.

For the purposes of the StART program, “Street Art” can include traditional graffiti artwork, murals and stencil graffiti. Graffiti art is a legal and acceptable form of street art and is differentiated from “tagging” which is generally characterized by writing and an act of vandalism.

Mural on Queen Street West by Mark Titchner

Simply hiring youth to clean up graffiti was not effective at deterring graffiti vandalism.  On the street, there is a hierarchy of respect that street artists must earn.  Even though kids were painting pretty murals over the graffiti, they were not demanding the necessary respect.

In 2011, the Toronto City Council unanimously approved a new graffiti management plan based on the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.  The program involves both a carrot and a stick: we have to embrace street art and see the talent that the city’s artists have to offer in the hopes that if the city is supporting graffiti art as a legitimate art form then the amount of tagging in the city will be reduced.

One of the action areas is the celebration and permanence of street art.  This includes the legalization of graffiti art.  It’s a controversial move that raises the question of how do bureaucrats decide what is “art” and what is “vandalism”?  That is still an ongoing issue.

Mural with the Riverdale Immigrant Women’s Centre by artists Adrian Hayles & JAH

We did a lot of consultation with the community and with organizations who had worked with the previous program to develop the new program.  The community gave us the feedback that it was important that they still be involved and that youth should still have ownership in the creation of the art.  So all our projects and murals include some sort of youth mentorship.

The biggest selection criteria for artists [who must collaborate with a non-profit organization in order to apply] is the history and legitimacy of the artist.

We also have a Diversion and Education program for kids who have been convicted by the courts or have been charged with mischief or graffiti vandalism.  Angel Carrillo has been doing amazing work with those kids.  He has showed them how to use their creative interests and encouraged them to hone their skills so they can create legal artwork that is supported.

Mural at 71 Kensington by artist Mike Parsons

There is a lot to be said about just putting up murals, and we are trying to investigate how to get more funding to commission pieces that include more control for the artist and less control from the city.  The application process of the program is where we keep getting resistance from the graffiti writers in the community; they (understandably) don’t want anyone else to control their artwork.

To help all the artists, though, we have created a directory for street artists to display their portfolios so that anyone who is looking for a mural or street art project can connect with the artists directly.

The StART program is still so new, but Kristina and the Torontonian street artists have been working tirelessly to create a sustainable model for street art that meets the needs of the communities where the art lies and of the artists themselves.  When I asked what would be her biggest bit of advice for others who are interested in starting a street art program, her response alluded precisely to that relationship:

I wish that we could have spent more time on research and connecting with local street artists right from the beginning.  Because these artists have been forced to work underground for fear of being arrested, many only joined the program much later simply because we didn’t know they existed and/or they were very difficult to track down.  Even though there are pressures with financial and bureaucratic deadlines, before launching any program, take the time to build trusting and respectful relationships with your local artists.

Featured Image by EGR (Evolution Graff Revolt)

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