“People say graffiti is ugly, irresponsible and childish. But that’s only if it’s done properly.” — Banksy, graffiti artist.

Michael (Iz the Wiz) Martin, the famed New York graffiti artist, died earlier this month at 50. He went from tagging subway cars with his colourful and criminal creations in the 1970s and ’80s to respectful obituaries in the New York Times. Iz, there can be no doubt, was here.

Meanwhile, the City of Ottawa spent $2.3 million last year fighting graffiti, declaring zero-tolerance zones and controversially billing property owners for mandatory removal.

The website of the Ottawa Police Service graffiti management program offers a quick primer on graffiti: “Tagging is the quick and repetitive writing, painting or ‘bombing’ of a word, name, symbol or acronym that may or may not contain letters, numbers, or symbols. Other types of graffiti include: Gang, hate-based, personalized, political and profane.”

It’s perhaps telling that political expression gets lumped in with dirty words, hate crimes and gang tags, and that there’s no mention of other possible types, the satirical, the thought-provoking, the just plain cool. It’s all crime to them.

Cops, in general, make lousy art critics, and ours are not in the mood to discuss the merits of any of the stuff on our walls. Instead, they speak of “broken window syndrome,” in which unsightly graffiti spreads, wrecks neighbourhoods, hampers economic development and leads to more serious crime.

It’s an old argument, but I wonder if perhaps there’s a little confusion of cause and effect here. Maybe graffiti is not the cause of urban malaise but a symptom.

Meanwhile, the futile campaign to erase all graffiti continues, but as the old bathroom wall taunt goes, “Janitor, janitor, give up hope. We got more ink than you got soap.”

The police ask concerned citizens to report graffiti wherever they see it, an amusing suggestion, which, if taken even slightly seriously, could jam police switchboards day in and day out.

Here’s a tip, though, officers: The wall of the building next door to the Community Police Centre on Somerset displays several tags, three surreal cartoon creations, and that enigmatic local slogan: “No Air.”

The meaning of this last one, ubiquitous in Ottawa, is unknown. Is it just an artist’s signature? Is it an environmental message? An ironic pun on “nowhere?”

There is no clear answer. Maybe it’s art.

– Steve Collins lives, writes and walks in Ottawa; ottawaletters@metronews.ca.