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Sidewalk art pressure washed away after being deemed graffiti by the City

Drawing the line between artistic expression and graffiti.

More than a year ago, Madison Moser began painting outside on the steps leading to her family home in southeast Calgary, eventually pouring out onto the sidewalk for more space. Last week, her art was washed away by the City of Calgary following a complaint.

The 18-year-old accidental street artist was admittedly unaware the paint would stay in-tact for such a long period of time.

One of Moser’s favourite pieces was washed away after being considered graffiti. CONTRIBUTED

“It just kind of became my daily meditation, to just go outside and paint. It really was not meant to be purposeful, it wasn’t some sort of protest or trying to be controversial,” Moser said.

Although she never signed any of her artwork, neighbours would frequently knock on the door to thank her.

She became motivated by the sheer amount of compliments and conversations her paintings created, ultimately changing the purpose over time.

“This was for me, but if somebody else when they’re walking by can grab something from it, that’s even better,” Moser said.

The family has lived in the same neighbourhood for majority of Moser’s life, but she had never spoken to any of her neighbours before she put paint on the sidewalk.

Zaiba Karim and her 11-year-old son were so inspired by Moser’s art that they did the same, and received the same kind of positive response from the community.

“We had a lot of kids that came by taking pictures with that and commenting,” Karim said.

Zaiba Karim and her son painted the steps leading to their front door after seeing Moser’s artwork. KIRSTEN PHILLIPS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Removing the paint

The City crew knocked on Moser’s door last Wednesday, after already starting to wash away the paint on the sidewalk, informing Moser’s father that a complaint was received and it is now considered graffiti.

“This isn’t some sort of controversial message that doesn’t need to be here. It’s not offensive in any sense of the word, so I don’t agree with the classification of graffiti,” Moser said.

“I know graffiti … that was not my intention, I wish it was, but it wasn’t.”

Although the crew was “empathetic”, both Moser and her father, Jonathan, feel the City should have communicated to them first before sending people to remove it.

“There’s all this debate in the City of Calgary around public art. Well, here’s an opportunity for us to take what’s otherwise, drab, grey concrete and turn it into a work of art,” Moser’s father said.

“There’s some delicious irony with the city because they’re out there painting our boxes by traffic lights … I mean, some of it is commission but why limit yourself? I think that’s a missing opportunity, why not allow colours and images, positive images.”

Although the art was deemed to be graffiti, there have been some differing opinions

Moser’s paintings were made to reflect what she was feeling during COVID-19, which she considered time capsules of a time she hopes we never return to. CONTRIBUTED

“I don’t think it’s graffiti. It was a message,” Karim said.

“But that’s why we kind of kept [our paintings] on our property. So then we wouldn’t get in trouble for anything if it was on the sidewalk.”

Right decision, says Councillor

Ward 12 Coun. Shane Keating responded on the tweet about the issue, thinking it was made with chalk, calling it “a total shame” and said he would raise the issue at City Council. 

However, after finding out that it was acrylic paint instead of chalk, he agrees that the city made the right decision.

“If they [were] going to actually paint on a city sidewalk or city property, then I totally understand that was being removed as graffiti, no matter who put it on there,” Keating said.

“The difference between graffiti and and art isn’t so much what they look like. It’s where it’s put and how it works and what permissions you have for it.”

Keating plans to still bring the issue up at council, just with the focus being changed to ways the City can accommodate the need for public art and self expression without long-lasting mediums being used on public property.

“[This] has lent the opportunity to have discussions around what should we be doing for people to express their artwork in a public place without getting into trouble,” he said. 

“So I’ll address it from that point of view.”

The City of Calgary has acknowledged our request for a comment on the situation and we have been in contact for the past five days, however, they have not responded.

In question period at Monday’s strategic meeting of council, Community Services GM Katie Black acknowledged Keating’s request.

“We will be very pleased to investigate what open space programming could look like in Calgary, where space could be workable so that it’s longer-lasting and potentially managed by community groups or community associations who have the capacity and resources to manage such a program,” she said.