The spray can is mightier than the sword in Toronto’s west end.
It’s a riot of colours as you walk into the narrow lane inviting you to explore the many murals on its walls. A bold yellow bird, creative typography to iconic faces, Toronto’s graffiti alley speaks volume of a culture that is enveloping the city.
With tourists queuing up to experience the Royal Ontario Musuem or Art Gallery of Ontario, I wanted to push my way to experience art that is local and unique to Toronto. During my many strolls in the city, down each alleyway, behind buildings and exploding from the most unexpected places, I found snippets of art, created by professionals and amateurs graffiti artists.
Though a crack down was imposed on the graffiti artists in Toronto by Mayor Rob Ford between 2010–2014, the art continues to thrive in the city. Street Art Toronto (StART) is giving many artists a space to voice their opinions while reducing vandalism. Collaborations are helping artists showcase their work while keeping the neighbourhood beautiful.
When I arrived in the city, I had seen graffiti scattered on many walls but a walk with the Tour Guys (They organise free walking tours in Toronto) helped me uncover some interesting facts about the alley and the work that adorns its walls.
In a city, where tourists come to visit the iconic landmarks, Toronto is looking at its future with optimism and hope expressed through graffiti. “Residents, artists and businesses co-exist with graffiti art almost like in a symbiotic fashion” said Petar our tour guide as he introduces us to the first graffiti by artist Elicser called Hug Me Tree. To avoid vandalism murals are commissioned giving the artist an opportunity to showcase their work.
Since artists earlier had to paint quickly on the walls so that they do not get caught, it decreased the quality of their art. This war on graffiti, paved the way to a programme called Street Art Toronto (StART) in 2012. The collaborations between artists and communities have turned Toronto into an urban canvas.
A great example of this collaboration is the Capra Building in the graffiti alley. Commissioned by property owners Capra, they wanted to give their office building a unique look which led them to work with artist Uber5000. The building is one large mural called ‘Under The Sea’ with fish and sea creatures, both real and imaginary, swimming across the walls. His strong and vibrant use of colours make you feel like you are swimming alongside the fishes in the ocean. Surreal yet aesthetic.
Skam’s typography, Poser’s artistic bunnies and Elicser’s stylised portraits are some of the most respected works splashed all across the graffiti valley. Each having their own style. Towards the end of my walk in the graffiti alley, the other said of Capra Buidling captured my attention. “Here’s the the story of our city in memes” expressed Petar as I stood in front of a mural with eclectic mix of everything that is weird about Toronto. Cramped between Toronto’s Richmond and Queen Street, it took Uber5000; 5 years to complete the masterpiece. It’s hard to miss it with the bold use of colours and the quirky style. The mural has references to the Drake, YYZ airport, Darwin the Ikea Monkey and the late mayor Rob Ford on a moose.
“Most murals in Toronto have a shelf life as they get painted over time with new work” expressed Petar. However, works of artists like Scam, Elicser, Uber5000 do not see much vandalisation. “We have graffiti artists from different cultural backgrounds. Their work is filled with many stories and messages. Street art not only creates job opportunities for the artists but at the same time makes people cherish beautiful spaces” said Petar as we were reaching towards the end of my walk in the alley.
Toronto being the most diverse city in the world with over 230 nationalities, welcomes all kinds of art lovers. Organisations like StART are turning Toronto into a vibrant outdoor art gallery. With the city encouraging street art, it is now coming out from the shadows and slowly taking centre stage. The city maybe just 150 years old but the graffiti artists and their work is on its way to become the most diverse and interesting in the world.