media release

SFU graduand seeks to erase illegal graffiti

June 08, 2011
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Contact:
Pontus Agren, pontus_agren@sfu.ca, Surrey resident
Carol Thorbes, PAMR, 778.782.3035, cthorbes@sfu.ca

Pontus Agren
Photos on Flickr

When Simon Fraser University graduand Pontus Agren receives his Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in criminology next week, his mind will be on the fate of RestArt, the subject of his thesis.

Once arrested and charged for illegal graffiti writing, Agren hopes his thesis on the program, which he credits with changing many lives, will help ensure its survival. A similar restorative justice program steered Agren clear of pursuing a path to illegal graffiti convictions in 1998.

Now threatened by funding cuts in many Lower Mainland municipalities, RestArt was first conceived of by two Vancouver Police detectives and further developed by SFU criminology professors and graduate students in 2004.

The four-day workshop is based on restorative justice principles rooted in Canadian and Australian aboriginal communities’ handling of offenders more than 100 years ago.

RestArt (Restorative Art) seeks to rehabilitate illegal graffiti taggers in Metro Vancouver who’ve been charged with defacing buildings in whole neighbourhoods, rather than send them to jail.

Using a restorative justice circle process, it seeks to transform how offenders, victims, government representatives and the police understand each other, by bringing them together to talk.

The program nurtures the taggers’ empathy for their victims and the victims’ compassion for the taggers as troubled youth rather than seeing them as hardened criminals.

RestArt has been shown to save municipalities hundreds of thousands of dollars in immediate and future graffiti clean up costs. It does this by engaging the offenders in a voluntary process that helps them understand the harm their actions have caused and encourages them to take responsibility. The process also channels their wayward creativity into sanctioned mural projects.

In his thesis Vancouver’s Restorative Art (RestArt) Anti-Graffiti Project: An Exploration and Evaluation of the General and Specific Benefits and Challenges Agren concludes the now defunct Vancouver program should be reinstated.

Agren interviewed seven program coordinators who had been involved in the rehabilitation of 100 illegal taggers over a six-year period.

His study found that 70 per cent of the program’s participants hadn’t reoffended and the program had indeed transformed theirs and the program’s other participants’ and coordinators’ lives.

The Surrey resident and founder of that municipality’s first anti-graffiti program now hopes that his findings will convince Vancouver city councillors to revive a program that has saved its taxpayers’ more than $300,000. The city cancelled the program last year.

“When funding goes into graffiti abatement,” notes Agren, “graffiti decreases. However, when graffiti does disappear, funding tends to cease and the offending tags come back.

“Policy-makers should understand that anti-graffiti workers build relationships with graffiti writers. Where funding is removed those relationships are destroyed and then, if and when the program is resurrected, anti-graffiti workers are back at square one.”

Agren, who crosses convocation mall on June 16, is one of more than 4,200 students eligible to graduate this spring.

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