Andrea Peterson wasn’t sure what to think when her 13-year-old son first got interested in graffiti art. “My husband and I were watchful,” says Peterson. (To protect her son’s identity, Halifax Magazine has agreed not to use her real name.)
“It was an unfamiliar world to us, so we made sure we were with him,” she says. “If he went to the paint store, we took him. We went on a family trip to Toronto, and he was dying to see Graffiti Alley so we took him there as a family.”
Peterson’s son bought a sketch book, came up with a graffiti name, and started drawing. He also took pictures of art that he liked and painted in the Petersons’ backyard, on property belonging to an out-of-town friend, and on the one public free wall available to artists in Halifax.
He posted photos to Instagram and met local graffiti artists who encouraged him.
The experience was “really good, actually for our son,” Peterson says. “He really enjoyed it. He got a lot of confidence from the graffiti that he was doing. He was talented.”
But those Instagram photos caught the attention of Constable Gerry Murney. He’s a member of the Halifax Regional Police’s community response team, and described himself in an interview as “the graffiti guy.”
In early 2016, Murney requested a meeting with Peterson and her husband at their Halifax home. The way Peterson remembers it, Murney had binders with information on all of the people he said made up the city’s “hip-hop graffiti” scene, and a folder on her son, including printouts of his Instagram photos.
“He showed them to us as if they were evidence,” Peterson recall. “We have access to the Instagram account, so I’d seen all these images before. I tried to explain that we were aware of this, we were mindful, and to the best of our understanding, we thought everything that he had done to that point was above-board.”
Peterson says Murney told her that the graffiti scene “was mainly criminals, if not entirely criminals.” She adds, “He was pretty clearly of the opinion that it was not behaviour that we wanted to encourage… I just thought, What are you saying? Is this a visit where you’re giving him a head’s up? A friendly warning? Or is this more serious than that?”
Take a look at Halifax’s Graffiti Management Plan and you’ll notice something missing: a definition of graffiti.
What the plan, adopted in 2012, does say is that “HRM in its entirety has been designated a ‘no-tolerance’ graffiti zone.” It also calls on businesses and residents to be involved in “controlling graffiti to the greatest degree possible” and says that Halifax Regional Police will “maintain a database of occurrences and suspects.”
In the April issue of Halifax Magazine, a story on street art in the city quoted Murney as saying that “legal graffiti is as intrusive and bad as illegal graffiti” because both are representative of a “destructive” hip-hop culture. The story quoted the chair of a non-profit who was visited by Murney after hiring the Black Book Collective to paint a mural on their building. Artists also discussed being harassed by the police, even when they were painting legally.
After the story published, Halifax Regional Police issued a statement saying that the city’s graffiti plan is aimed at illegal graffiti (although the plan doesn’t explicitly say that). The statement also added that “from time to time, our enforcement efforts related to illegal graffiti may require us to examine commissioned artwork.”
Inspector Reid McCoombs, a member of the police management team, says he “had to dig a little deep” online himself before he could find the plan.
Asked why the police might visit a property owner with a legal mural, McCoombs says, “I guess my response to that would be when we’re investigating an illegal graffiti complaint that was called in, and we saw similarities somewhere else on a commissioned work of art.” In other words, trying to identify the artists behind murals, if police suspect they’re responsible for illegal painting too.
McCoombs wouldn’t talk directly about Murney’s educational and investigative techniques. But Murney’s views are well-known. He speaks regularly about graffiti to conferences, business owners and managers, and to police from other forces. He wrote a story on the subject for the October 2016 issue of the policing magazine Blue Line, spoke at the 2015 CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) Ontario conference, and presented at the 2016 TAGS anti-graffiti conference in Coquitlam, B.C.
One of the main themes that runs through these talks is the importance of educating people about the dangers of “hip-hop graffiti.” The Blue Line story notes that “it’s the same routine to get into hip-hop graffiti whether it’s Brisbane, Bangladesh, or Ecum Secum” and that it makes up “95 per cent of graffiti worldwide.”
That number is echoed in the slides from the presentation he and colleague Jane Nauss gave at the Ontario CPTED conference. All graffiti, whether legal or illegal, says one slide, “desensitizes, promotes, glorifies, and most importantly uneducates the public to what is really going on with Hip Hop Graffiti.”
Another slide says that between 2009 and 2015, 241 people in Halifax “were identified as being involved in Hip Hop Graffiti in HRM” and that “those involved in graffiti have been involved with the Police in other types of incidents.” He also told me that “Hip-hop graffiti culture does not have the same values as the general public.”
Peterson says Murney told her that her son was associating with criminals, but couldn’t tell her who they were, because that could compromise investigations.
“This idea of being out in the community and trying to stop crimes before they happen, in theory seems like the right one,” Peterson says. “But I didn’t get the feeling that the police department, or at least Constable Murney, was trying to build trust within that community. I would think that if you are charged with policing a certain group you would want to get to know them and kind of build rapport.”
McCoombs says that “with his level of expertise,” Murney “plays a big role” in enforcing the city’s graffiti abatement plan, “but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one doing the investigations.” The Halifax Magazine story, he says, has “brought things to light that maybe we need to reassess” and that “I think we want to, as an organization, step back and have a closer look at where we are.”
He adds: “We are part of the group that would have been responsible for [the graffiti abatement] plan… But obviously when you look at the enforcement end of it, that tends to be usually police-oriented. So I think it would be fair to say we are going to look at our role with respect to all of that. Which may in turn cause us to look at the whole plan in general. But certainly we are going to look at our role.”
Any change will come too late for Peterson’s son, who is now 14. Asked if he continues to be interested in graffiti, she says, “No, he quit. He quit right after that. He was very scared. Even though he wasn’t at the meeting, he didn’t like learning that the police had a file about him. And that’s what makes me sad about what happened: He quit creating art, he quit even sketching in his black book. That felt like an unfortunate consequence, for me. I would like that he lived in a city where his talent was celebrated and encouraged, as long as he was using it responsibly and legally.”