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A sign at Shaw Millenium Park, site of the graffiti project.
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How vandals ruined Calgary graffiti art for the rest of us

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To be a graffiti artist, one has to be somewhat of a misunderstood wild west outlaw, breaking rules and by-laws to follow your passion. Yet, leaving a personal mark on a concrete wall involves the same mentality, in many ways, as big oil and gas companies purchasing the latest high-rises in downtown Calgary -- the desire to make an imprint on the world and show the grandeur that you can produce.

Despite these similarities to Calgary's background culture, the city has not been so open to the urban artistic community. This was demonstrated clearly last week as the city's graffiti project at Shaw Millennium Park was shut down, the lasting impression being a disastrous outburst of vandalism instead of fantastic pieces of art.

"The actual graffiti artists didn't have anything to do with it. It was random kids . . . they just went off," describes David Brunning, a.k.a. TheKidBelo.

Alderman John Mar agrees. He emphasizes that the people who were actually allowed to do the art within the confines of the project are not to blame and in fact tried to help stop the vandalizers.

"The net effect was a small group of, I don't know what you want to call them, bad apples spoiling it for everyone else," explains Mar. "The actual commissioned ones, the ones that in fact looked like art, were tagged with 'f-you' and so on and so forth."

Brunning is a well-known and talented local graffiti artist and became one of the project leaders.

"The city took steps to better learn about this community, but they panicked after two days," he adds.

Starting on August 22, a designated area of Calgary's world-renowned skate park opened up to artists to create their masterpieces legally, without fear of by-law officers shutting down their efforts. When the venture was terminated, individuals retaliated by writing racist and homophobic rants all over the park. Everything that could go wrong did.

"The city doesn't really desire to understand," Brunning continues, a note of defeat in his voice. "It's a lot of politics. The project never really had time to be tested and actually responded to."

Mar, who has led the charge and was the most visible in the criticism of the project says the reason why it was cancelled is simple. It's city-owned and meant for youth, and the vile language being sprayed was obviously inappropriate for a park meant for young people of all ages.

"My perspective is that, first of all, it's owned by the people of Calgary. It was designed specifically for youth, but youth of all ages. That's including the pre-teen audience. We cannot have the homophobic slogans, swastikas, "f-this" and "f-that" on there for all Calgarians to see."

He added that since Calgarians are in fact owners, the city has a responsibility to protect property from something that is actually a crime.

"Calgarians have an expectation that we're going to maintain and perserve our infrastructure and this is one of those occasions," he says.

Negative feeling towards the event was heightened by local press, describing all involved as "hoodlums" and "young punks causing mayhem" and placing the blame on organizers such as Brunning for not providing enough supervision.

Despite the disparaging press, no one has talked to Brunning about the damage to the city park.

One must keep in mind, however, that although the vandalism that occurred after the project got shut down was undeniably heinous and inappropriate, the two days of creativity before the mayhem were extremely powerful landmarks for the building of Calgary's art community.

"We saw that people were willing to step out and say, 'Teach me how to do this legally.' Although we saw negativity in the position of the Alderman, there was way more positivity," says Brunning. "Word was getting out to other artists around the city . . . Artists were really communicating with other artists and you saw a community being built."

This point is clear when talking to skaters who observed the first few days of the endeavour. All remarks from the spectators focused on the amazing art that was created by local urban artists from around the city.

"Some of the stuff I saw the first day was crazy," says Chris, a skater who declined to give his last name. "I was really impressed. It is too bad that something like this was ruined by a few idiots."

The incident has not left Brunning without hope, as he relates a message of future artistic activities such as this and looks back on all of the events as positive rather than negative.

"The support over the last few days has been unreal. People know that I am honest and genuine about what I do and that's why they support this," says Brunning. "I am not going to stop the fight because this is an ongoing process . . . every little step counts. As long as the lines of communication are open with the city we can move forward and do something."

Mar, however, seemed far less optimistic.

"I can tell you that there's nothing like this that's going to happen in the very near future, that's for sure," he says.

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