Toronto’s Street Art
By Kate Pocock
When popular television personality Rick Mercer wants to get Canadians’ attention for his weekly political rants on his show (The Mercer Report), he purposefully strides along a downtown Toronto back alley that is exploding with graffiti and artwork. We laugh and nod at Rick’s humourous take on politics, but our vision is riveted to the colourful street art moving along behind him. “Where is that?” we ask. In fact, so many viewers have been taken by this street-size expanse of artwork that Mercer’s ‘Graffiti Alley’ has become a local tourist attraction. And even better, you’ll find other locations too (many within walking distance of downtown Toronto) that show the kind of energetic street art that has flourished over the last few years in this city.
Visitors can now see fantastic art murals sprayed onto buildings, attend gallery openings with local street artists in attendance, and get a feel for ethnic culture through murals in certain ’hoods like Kensington Market or Chinatown. Some say it’s one of the best street art cities on earth. Even Banksy, secret wall art painter and the subject of the documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, contributed a few pieces to Toronto’s buildings when he was in town a few years ago for the Toronto International Film Festival. And if you’re feeling lonely while you’re visiting, there’s always the “HUG ME” tree on Queen St. West.
“Graffiti art adds colour and is evidence of a vibrant, living creative class,” says Jason Kucherawy, the owner and operator of the Tour Guys, and a freelance tour guide who leads graffiti and other tours for several private companies. “A city without a creative class is a dead city,” he adds. “And some artists have something to say other than ‘I was here.’ ” Amen.
This abundance of epic street art is partly due to the caliber of the graffiti artists/writers (many of whom have visited from other countries to paint like the talkative Swedish tattoo artist we met in a back alley), and partly due to StreetARToronto or StART. This new, pro-active city program aims to develop, support, promote and increase awareness of street art and its indispensable role in adding beauty and character to our neighbourhoods. Although controversy still reigns over what is true art and what is vandalism, the city’s more enlightened policy has encouraged lots of ‘art’ around town. Their motto: “Inspiring neighbourhoods one wall at a time.”
In the end, while you’re discovering another terrific mural, what you see today may not be here tomorrow. But that’s what makes it exciting. “It’s not meant to last forever,” says Kucherawy as I bemoan the whitewash of an amusing animal figure on a Toronto hotel. “It’s something unexpected on a wall, it’s ephemeral and always fresh,” he adds. “And who knows when something else will suddenly pop up?”
Here’s where to see Toronto’s most impressive street art:
‘Graffiti Alley’ also known as Rush Lane or Rick Mercer’s Alley: This motherlode of graffiti art (about a kilometre of space) runs west from Spadina Ave. to Portland St. The back alley entrance can be found between Queen St. and Richmond St. Some artery offshoots also run north or south from this alleyway.
Kensington Market: This bohemian neighbourhood boasts colourful storefronts and murals that tell stories of its ethnic heritage. Even a computer dealer commissioned an Apple-like mural.
The Ossington Laneway: Take the Queen St. streetcar west from downtown to Ossington Ave., Toronto’s newest ‘hip strip.’ Hop off on the west side of Ossington to discover the back alley that runs between Queen and Humbert Streets. The art community has sprayed dozens of garage doors with different kinds of artwork, appreciated by the whole community.
Ocho Hotel (195 Spadina Ave., hotelocho.com): Banksy painted a mouse figure here on the outside brick of this new boutique hotel just steps from Graffiti Alley. Unfortunately, it’s been whitewashed, but go inside to see a picture of it and have a coffee or cocktail in the welcoming café/bar.
The Keele-Dundas Wall: Riding the subway from downtown westward on the Bloor West Line, the train suddenly emerges into daylight between the Dundas West Station and the Keele Station. Look south to see a cornucopia of graffiti and street art painted onto the backs of a block of shops. “It puts a smile on my face every day,” said one commuter.
Canada Post’s letter boxes: Check out the new corner mailboxes downtown that display graffiti-like postal codes (ironically covered to defeat graffiti).
StreetARToronto’s facebook page keeps both artists and visitors up to date as to what’s happening where and when.
Kate Pocock is a Toronto-based writer who specializes in Family Travel. For more than 20 years, she has travelled around the world with her three kids, and nine nieces and nephews. Her blog, TeenTwenty Travel, to be launched in 2013, will focus on travel adventures with older kids, teens and 20-somethings. The most recent family travel experience: the Cup and Saucer Adventure Trail on mystical Manitoulin Island. Kate is also the author of “Fodor’s Around Toronto with Kids” and contributed 14 chapters to “National Geographic Guide to Family Adventure Vacations.”