A small army of dedicated citizens is making a big impact on graffiti vandalism in East Vancouver’s Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood.
Almost every weekend, volunteers with the Hastings Sunrise Community Policing Centre crack open the paint and work together to get rid of unwanted graffiti scrawled on walls and buildings.
For Sampson Hsieh, who grew up in the neighbourhood, it’s personal.
“To me, it’s really important that we all take care of our community,” the HSCPC lead volunteer told Global News.
Hsieh has been volunteering since 2012 and currently leads the Saturday litter and graffiti clean-ups that have removed some 9,000 tags in the two decades since the HSCPC was founded.
“It’s actually a good feeling to be able to cover it all up and then restore it.”
If the tags are on private property, the HSCPC will get permission from businesses or owners before painting over them.
“It’s super important because we’ve gotten rocked with graffiti especially over COVID,” said HSCPC program leader Carmen MacLeod.
“Especially with the businesses, and it costs a lot in property damage.”
MacLeod’s team members apply the ‘broken windows theory’ for crime and disorder as they try to take back the neighbourhood.
“If we let the trash and tags build up, it just invites more,” MacLeod said.
Murals can also deter tagging but in Chinatown last month, a vandalized piece of culturally sensitive artwork did not impress the city’s tight knit community of graffiti artists.
“It’s heartbreaking to see Chinese business owners having to deal with this,” said Vancouver Mural Festival director of engagement Adrian Sinclair.
“It’s not up to them to solve this.”
Sinclair said generally speaking, you don’t write over other people’s work and there’s a high degree of respect for murals, especially cultural ones.
“In general it works, but when it doesn’t yeah, it’s troubling.”
Usually, Sinclair said, the community responds to those rare situations by finding out what’s going on and who’s doing it, before “discussions” happen.
“There are some people who don’t follow the rules,” Sinclair told Global News.
“Graffiti really is much more in the art form, it has community codes and guidelines whereas vandalism is sort of just damaging other artwork.”
The conversation around Chinatown, he said, involves finding ways to handle all the neighbourhood’s issues including mental health, addictions, poverty, race and class, and then flipping that to move forward with positivity “while still acknowledging the very strong negative challenges.”
“It’s a balancing act,” Sinclair said, adding graffiti artists need a place where they can do their work.
Most Vancouver Mural Festival art in Chinatown remains untouched, and its first mural of the season will be a collaboration with the Vancouver Chinatown BIA and a local business, Ten Ren Tea.
“People need to step in, leaders need to step in to help support and listen to what Chinatown needs,” said Sinclair.
“We can all make a difference just by doing a little bit,” said Hsieh.
While constantly painting over graffiti may seem like a game of whack-a-mole, the HSCPC volunteers say their hard work is worth it, even if it gives taggers a fresh canvas every time.
“Even if they do spray over it again, it’s actively showing that there is someone who is looking to take care of all this,” said Hsieh.
“It always gets painted over, it always gets sprayed over again,” added MacLeod.
“But we’re always going to be here to keep painting over it again.”