WINNIPEG (CityNews) – The paint melts off the wall of a Pembina Highway business like a scoop of ice-cream in the summer heat.
After being covered in chemicals and graffiti remover, the paint — twisted into a harmful symbol — becomes less and less visible with every pass of a high-pressure stream of water. It happens again and again until it’s totally erased to the masses who pass by the wall, with the crew working to remove several instances of hateful vandalism along the highway.
The markings removed are just a few of the thousands of illegal markings removed by Take Pride Winnipeg’s graffiti crews annually and its executive director Tom Ethans, says the work helps keep city streets feel welcoming.
“It’s important to make our city clean and beautiful,” he said against the backdrop of a removal crew earlier in the summer. “And it really helps make our streets safer when we get rid of this graffiti.”
Gesturing to the group of people wearing high-vis overalls, some covered in paint, he details how crews hit the streets in the early morning and are constantly on the prowl for unwanted vandalism. They then approach the business where the graffiti or vandalism has occurred, getting their permission before starting with the removal.
CityNews has spoken to members of the community who say there’s more to the art than writing on the wall, noting the empty streets of the city due to the pandemic has created fewer instances where someone can blend in.
Those who participate in the illegal craft say their culture, and their art form, is an important part of the urban landscape separate from ordinary mischief, but Ethans says there’s no place for illegal vandalism, even if artistic, in the city.
“It should be in places where they’re allowed to do it,” he said. “Not on buildings. Not on churches. Not on places where they should not be doing it in the first place.”
Take Pride Winnipeg offers free graffiti removal services, but Ethans says vandalism still puts pressure on communities and businesses, as a clean-up can cost thousands in expenses for some. He said one of the best ways to combat graffiti or vandalism is to have it removed quickly and consistently, ideally within 24 hours.
“The quicker you get it off, the less chance of it repeating,” he said. “And if it does repeat, if you take it off within 24 hours, eventually they will go somewhere else.”
The City of Winnipeg’s Graffiti Control Unit will be weighing on the subject of graffiti in the city next week, at which time we hope to learn more about reporting trends and the cost of addressing the issue.
Const. Dani McKinnon with the Winnipeg Police Service said graffiti and vandalism can have a negative effect on a community.
“Neighbourhoods, schools and businesses within our community, they can certainly all be negatively affected by graffiti, not only is graffiti a blatant act of vandalism which requires time and cost to repair, but it can also instill a sense of unease within a neighbourhood.”
Const. McKinnon says while some pieces of graffiti and vandalism are meaningless, some of the markings can carry with them a deeper, more sinister meaning, as sometimes gangs do use the illegal act to send a message.
“These particular acts of gang communication can leave community members feeling unsafe and threatened by gang rivalry,” she said.
She explained whenever the Winnipeg Police Service investigates instances of vandalism, one of the things they work to determine is if the act was random, or if it carries with it a specific message purpose.
Wearing a colourful bucket hat, one of the people working to remove unwanted markings on Winnipeg walls is Emma Unrau. In her first year on the graffiti removal crew, she says the job has been an important one.
“It definitely feels good, especially in the more sketchy areas of the city, just to be able to beautify it,” she said, saying she hears nothing but “thank you, thank you, thank you,” from people who they help.
She noted the job has caused her to take note of graffiti and vandalism whenever she’s working or travelling through the city, as it becomes almost impossible to ignore after spending so much time blasting it off the streets.
For her, she says the message she has for those putting up the graffiti she may eventually remove, is a simple one.
“There’s better ways to express your art,” she said. “You can make an Instagram or something like that, and it definitely won’t be removed. It will be there permanently.”
Officials with the Winnipeg Police Service say it’s difficult to determine if the COVID-19 pandemic has created an increase or decrease in reported instances of graffiti, as reports are received both by the service as well as the city.
However, police officials noted in the past that one artist can have an effect on the scene as a whole, saying numerous factors like the arrest, retirement or move of a main player in the scene can determine who is most present on city streets.
For those on the street working to put their names on Winnipeg walls, some say they have no issue with those removing the graffiti, known to them better as “the Buff,” saying if a piece of graffiti was meant to be covered, it’s something they feel was meant to be.