On almost every corner in Vancouver’s Chinatown, graffiti vandalism appears to get a green light.
“We cannot stop that,” said Art Lam, as he pointed to the newly-defaced wall of his Lim Sai Hor Kow Mock Benevolent Association headquarters.
Originally constructed in 1903 for the Chinese Empire Reform Party, including the Chinese Empire Ladies Reform Association, the building is the oldest of Chinatown’s 13 non-profit society heritage buildings.
The south exterior wall repeatedly targetted by taggers faces Suzhou Alley between Shanghai Alley and Carrall St., and the non-profit said it cannot afford to keep covering up the graffiti.
“We got to paint it over and over again,” said an exasperated Lam. “I think our association is going to go broke.”
A few blocks east, eevee’s installed video surveillance after its front window on East Pender St. was smashed. It didn’t take long for the cameras to catch a vandal scrawling tags on the temporary plywood covering the broken glass.
“C’est la vie. Oh well, the cost of doing business,” eevee’s co-founder Lukas Tanasiuk told Global News.
“It’s just like shoveling water right — there’s no stop to it,” added Chinatown Safety Program co-ordinator Aman Jawanda.
Jawanda led a six-month nightwatch pilot co-ordinated by the Chinese Cultural Centre last year — aimed at catching some of Chinatown’s most prolific taggers in the act.
The team of volunteers staked out areas where freshly covered graffiti left a blank canvas for criminals and was able to create timelines of how long it takes for vandals to defile a clean wall.
“The graffiti would be painted over in the morning and by the end of the business day, before 5 p.m., there would already be graffiti on that same wall again,” said Jawanda.
Frustrating their efforts Jawanda said, is the fact many merchants do not have CCTV installed and if they do, it is often not working.
“It has become an eyesore and an embarrassment,” said retired Crown prosecutor Winston Sayson.
The higher up the graffiti is on a building, the harder it is to get rid of, but Sayson said tags must be removed quickly and consistently in order to deter vandals from coming back to deface the same surfaces again.
Sayson believes serial taggers should be pursued by police, with charges laid if there’s enough evidence to prove criminal mischief.
“It is truly in the public interest to prosecute this epidemic of vandalism and graffiti damage,” Sayson told Global News.
Vancouver police said simply setting up stings is not the answer, especially when the department has up to 75 calls waiting at any given time.
“In almost every case, there are going to be incidences that are going to be more serious than graffiti on the wall,” said Deputy Chief Const. Howard Chow.
Chow encourages businesses and witnesses who see graffiti taking place to call the police and report the crimes.
“We know that there’s lots of underreporting taking place because of the sense of hopelessness and helplessness,” Chow told Global News.
The VPD received 88 mischief reports for graffiti in Chinatown in both 2020 and 2021. Police recommended charges in one case from 2021 but to date, they have not been approved.
Six files were forwarded to Crown counsel in 2020 and charges were laid in four cases. Charges were dropped against two of the accused, while two others were convicted.
Yves Castonguay, 47, pleaded guilty to mischief relating to religious property for defacing four windows at the Chinese Cultural Centre with anti-Asian graffiti on April 2, 2020.
He was sentenced to 240 days in jail with credit for time already served in custody, and three years probation.
Darcy Bruce Forrest, 32, was convicted of mischief and received nine months probation for leaving graffiti on a wall in the Jack Chow Insurance parking lot on Aug. 13, 2020.
Charges against 25-year-old Jacob Joseph Riggs, who was accused of mischief and willfully resisting or obstructing a peace officer on Dec. 6, 2020, were stayed on June 18, 2021.
The BC Prosecution Service said Riggs successfully completed an Alternative Measures program under which he accepted responsibility for the alleged criminal conduct and agreed to a course of action as an alternative to criminal prosecution.
Melissa Ann Olson, 39, was charged with mischief for alleged graffiti on May 12, 2020.
On March 3, 2021, the Crown directed a stay of proceedings on Olson’s charge.
According to the BC Prosecution Service, Crown counsel must independently, objectively and fairly measure all the evidence against a two-part test: whether there is a substantial likelihood of conviction and if so, whether the public interest requires a prosecution.
The test applies at all stages of the prosecution and in Olson’s case, the prosecutor concluded the charge assessment standard was no longer met.
Chow said an “everything” approach is needed to combat the graffiti plaguing Chinatown – with focused attention from police, the community, and city staff.
“It has to be the tolerance of our justice system on what we’re going to allow or not allow, the willingness to prosecute, the willingness to sentence,” Chow told Global News.
“It has to be elevated to a level of importance that we’re not going to put up with this.”
Right now, Chow said, that message is not being sent.
“We are in the same position as we were years ago, in fact, worse,” added Sayson.
On a positive note, Sayson said businesses are starting to reclaim the alley between East Georgia and Union streets, where graffiti is being replaced with art.
“You put it on, we will take it down,” said Sayson.
Under the street code, the hope is taggers won’t write off the murals.
A community-driven commemorative mural and storytelling project celebrating the contributions and legacies of the women who helped shape Vancouver’s Chinatown is also planned for the wall of the Lim Sai Hor Kow Mock Benevolent Association.
The Suzhou Alley Women’s Mural is expected to be completed this summer.
“It’s time to stop and make this city beautiful again,” said Lam. “Respect other people.”