So-called ‘graffiti’ a hallmark of Queen’s Ghetto culture

Matthew Puddister, ArtSci ’08
Matthew Puddister, ArtSci ’08

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.”

It’s been over thirty years since the Five Man Electrical Band first penned these famous lyrics, but it seems that the times they are a-changin’.

So far this fall, at least six properties in the Ghetto have been served with orders to remove signs from their houses—with the expectation of more notices to come given the number of Ghetto houses with signs attached.

Signs like “The Lodge” at 262 Earl St. are graffiti according to Kingston’s property standards bylaws. For residents of this house, failure to remove the sign by Nov. 1 will result in a fine of $100. While there is an appeal process, the administration fee for an appeal is $75. Short of taking down the signs and losing a part of their identity, students are going to have to cough up the dough. And that means students—many of whom are struggling to get by as it is—lose, no matter which decision they make.

The city’s rapidly mobilizing war on house signs could mean that it’s only a matter of time before houses like the Batcave, the Beaver Dam, and the G-Spot are robbed of their distinctive titles.

Perversely enough, it has been suggested by some that the crackdown is a response to student requests to improve Ghetto conditions, following recent discussions over property standards at numerous municipal forums.

“I think the students need to be careful what they wish for. If they want the city to be vigilant about property standards ... then don’t complain,” Joan Jones, co-ordinator of Town-Gown Relations told the Journal.

Graffiti may be part of the exterior property standards bylaw, but what kind of standards are we talking about here? There’s a big difference between the physical conditions of a property—such as peeling paint or garbage cans on front porches—and decorations put there by the residents.

The former is based on common perceptions of external cleanliness and upkeep of the houses. Most people would agree that they’d rather have a house without peeling paint, and while they may or may not agree with it, would be willing to accept rules governing placement of things like garbage cans.

External decorations put up by residents are a different story. Part of owning a house is being able to decorate it, to personalize it. Although there is the occasional difference of opinion between landlord and tenant over the suitability of a certain decoration, almost always the tenant is allowed to decorate a house in his or her preferred fashion. While it’s true that external decorations demand a little more restraint, the practice of incorporating signage either in a window or on the front of the house can hardly be cause for such a crackdown.

And while we’re on that idea, just what constitutes graffiti? Is it any sign that adorns a house? Because if it is, then the city better be prepared to start handing out lots of violations in the coming holiday season. Are we really going to start telling people they can’t (gasp!) hang signs proclaiming “Happy Halloween,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” or other seasonal signage? Get real.

The nature of the signs themselves—the so-called “graffiti”—leaves little reason for such venom from the city. It’s not as if Ghetto residents are spray painting swastikas on their doors. These are generally harmless, inoffensive signs that merely give houses a certain identity. If the city charges students who hang a sign on their door designating their house as “The Casbah,” then under the external property bylaw, they are also obliged to charge a family home with a house sign proclaiming them as “The Johnsons.” The last time I checked, no one considered that graffiti. Some people even think it’s charming.

One has to wonder about the recent wave of student prosecution, especially regarding minor issues such as house signs. A perfect example would be Brian Kuchar’s Sept. 27 fine for jaywalking at the intersection of University and Union. Getting fined for jaywalking at University and Union is like getting fined for public intoxication at Oktoberfest. So why did Kuchar get busted that day? Perhaps the same reason why the city is now clamping down on house signs. These are both minor issues, but they represent an effective way to make students pay. If the city and the police are still bitter over Homecoming, this attack on student liberties is not going to help smooth things over anytime soon.

The debate over house signs may be only a small piece of a much larger puzzle. But the forbidding of the signs is a particularly rankling issue because it aims to eradicate a distinct part of the Ghetto way of life. In the absence of fraternities at this university, small groups of students require some other sort of collective identity. Sometimes it’s just about getting together with your housemates and proclaiming a name for your Ghetto palace. Relieving students of their house signs not only robs them of a marker of their identity, but it also robs Queen’s of part of its culture.

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