We asked three local artists to help us celebrate the magic of winter and create brighter nights that show Toronto in a whole new light through their murals. Meet the artists behind the bold creations and the first glow-in-the-dark street art in the city. As told to Meghan Yuri Young.
There’s a good chance you won’t know the name, Allan Ryan. That’s because Ryan, one of the more prolific street artists in Toronto, is better known by his alias, Uber5000. For over a decade, he’s been painting the town red — and all of the other colours of the rainbow. He laughs, “When someone new comes to Toronto, they’re like, ‘How did you do all of these murals!’ Well, I’ve been here for a decade, it’s been a lot of walls. It’s been a steady process actually, but they don’t know that.”
Originally from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, which he believes is “the most beautiful place in the world,” he was nevertheless drawn to city life in Toronto. Considering how hard winter can be in his hometown, Uber5000 particularly appreciates how much of a cakewalk it is here. And with a setup like his, it really is. Even though he had to deal with high windchill, icy walls and negative temperatures, Uber5000 determinedly finished his latest mural in the most Canadian way possible: tarps, portable heater and a selection of canned goods and teas he would prepare on his Bunsen burner. It was in this modern campout that we talked about his work and his love of the city.
How has the landscape in Toronto changed for you over the last decade?
When I got here, there were a lot of people doing murals and it was a lot more self-initiated. We’d just get a wall and paint it. Now it’s more accepted and people see the value of taking walls that have all this potential just sitting in the alleyway, but in the coolest parts of the city, and making them into things people can go check out and enjoy. Graffiti Alley, for instance, has hundreds of people come through. It’s such a neat experience and there’s no cost involved. You can just come, check it out, take all these cool photos and have fun. It’s cool to see the city encouraging that.
What does winter in Toronto represent to you?
For me, winter has always been a tough time of year. I work outside, so all my work is based (planned) around the winter. Since I’m not that busy around this time of year, I have to find things to keep me busy — things I like to do in the winter. I have a dog and we go to Toronto Island all the time. When I’m not painting a mural, I go once or twice a week. It’s so cool. You can go skating on the lagoons and you can get around that way. Everything is frozen so there’s nobody around. You have a whole park to yourself. I love it. It’s amazing to go from this major downtown core where it’s so loud. Sometimes we stay until after nightfall, I’ll pack a can of chilli, a hot pan and cook it on a fire. I’m a campy guy and find it neat to just cook your food on a fire. The last time I went to the Island, it was a really nice day but was still freezing. I could still walk across the lagoon but on the lakeside, it wasn’t icy so I went swimming. It was mid-January. I just dunked myself in and then I got out. I didn’t bring a towel so I was scraping myself off. My dog went in and I didn’t want to let her down.
We get a lot of winter and I want to embrace it! If you don’t enjoy it, you’ll be miserable for half of the year. It’s weird, but once you change your perspective, you start waiting for winter. All summer I was excited for winter.
Tell me more about your mural and the inspiration behind it.
I had bought a pair of skates recently because I wanted to go skating on the Island and when I was thinking about great lit-up places in the city, Nathan Philips Square came to mind. Specifically, the Toronto sign, which was actually designed and built by a good friend of mine. So I thought, I’m going to do this… and I get to do this cool skating rink in front of it that also reflects light. Anyhow, I went skating there and I also noticed that there are so many different people that come here. You don’t have to live downtown to skate here. Everyone comes for the experience, they come from all over. There’s something about skating in front of city hall. It’s people coming together, for something public. It’s a very Canadian, Toronto thing to do.
I just feel that there’s a genuine sense of happiness when everyone can come together from all walks of life. It’s very civic, it’s about the city doing something together. Nothing really matters, like money or status, when you’re on the ice.
And you incorporated your iconic chicks into it! Tell me about them.
They’re really happy little dudes that I could do quick. I started to enjoy putting them around the city a couple years ago. They’re not super deep or anything, but I’m just trying to make you smile for a minute while you walk by. If everyone smiles for a minute, that’s like hours of entertainment for the whole city.
Sometimes I get emails from people and they’re like, “I saw this and it turned my day around.” Everyone has some hard stuff going on…say you’re driving around the city all mad, trying to get from point A to B. If you could stop for a second, smile and enjoy that time, well that’s your life.
What’s your favourite neighbourhood?
Toronto Island. I do love my neighbourhood, Queen West, but I love being in nature. It’s nice to have the contrast. It’s really intense where I live, which is great. But I love the quiet of the island, especially in winter.
What separates Toronto from other major cities?
Toronto just seems like a major Canadian city for projects and business. I get to do a lot of work here. I like living in Canada, I love being surrounded by nature. If I lived in New York, I don’t know how I’d be able to access something similar to Toronto Island. Not to mention the cost of accessing nature. Here, I can still get out of the city core to another place that feels completely separate. And all it takes is a short walk and a shorter boat ride.
See his mural at 489 Queen Street West.
As soon as you speak to Ben Johnston, you might get a sneaking suspicion he’s not from around here. It could be his chill, beach-like attitude, or it could be his South African accent. But that doesn’t mean he’s not tapped into Toronto and everything it has to offer. He left the beautiful beach city of Cape Town for a reason, observing, “There’s more of a hustle here, but not too much. There’s this culture of people just having a good life and doing their thing.”
This positive outlook on the city’s hustle is embodied in his typographic style. “I find a lot of people might not understand graffiti and certain images, but they understand words. That’s where I find success sometimes because even if they don’t understand technically how complicated the artwork is, they can understand the wording — which is meant to be motivating. Of course, a lot of it is ambiguous so it can mean something different to each person.”
Over the few years he’s been living in the downtown core, Johnston has managed to leave a trail of inspiring quotes and messages around the city, bringing attention to parts that would have gone under the radar otherwise. Although he concentrates mostly on the west end right now, his immediate goal is to explore even more unexpected areas. He says, “I want to put my work in random places not because I’m painting to be cool or for it to be in a cool area, but because it’s making an impact on that area and for the people living there.”
Toronto has been known as the screwface capital, but now you can see it’s a community that uplifts each other and works together. How does collaborating with local and international artists tie into the city itself?
People that are coming in from different places love it here. It’s a pretty interesting community, it’s very supportive.
But, for me personally, the idea is to explore the east end more. I just live in such a little bubble on the west side. I want to get out of that real quick. I know some people there now and there’s just so much cool stuff happening there. I think the idea is to start injecting art and some life on the east end.
I’ve even started chatting with Allan and Jarus about collabs. We were briefly thinking of going up to a farm area and painting big silos. There’s just so much potential and untouched stuff in Canada because populations are smaller. It’s not as dense as your LAs or wherever. It’s definitely a place where a lot of people are realizing you don’t have to leave anymore to make it. You can make it here, just like you can in New York.
If it was 20 years ago, that’s different, but now you can do anything here you can do anywhere else. There’s so much more space to work with. And it’s very chill here, which makes it easier to come up with new things and be really creative. It allows for good thinking time. Toronto has a very relaxed nature, yet there’s still this hustle.
That’s also what my mural means to me. “Rise and shine,” everyone is helping everyone else rise up and shine.
I love discovering new restaurants or little live music venues — holes in the wall. Sometimes those are the best. You speak to enough people and you’ll find them.
One of the best music venues is in a basement. You wouldn’t know that unless someone were to tell you. It’s just different here. People are way nicer and I think it’s directly to do with the weather. Even work-wise, it’s a very strong, very small community of street art people. Here, you have other artists helping you get walls whereas elsewhere they’re like, “No, that’s mine.”
That’s the thing about Toronto, everyone’s helping each other here. Whether it’s art or just in general — and I think that’s the thing with the cold — everyone’s helping each other and becoming a stronger community because of it. You’re all in this thing together and then you’re trying to give suggestions to get through it.
What are your favourite nighttime spots in Toronto?
College Street for food at the moment. Anything from Bar Raval to Dailo and then Pinky’s. The guys who own Pinky’s also own Odd Seoul and Hanmoto. I love Asian food in general, which is great in Toronto. Then good fast spots, ramen spots, which there are no shortages here. For music venues, you have The Rex. And different places have live blues and whatever on different nights. There are always new ones popping up.
What’s your favourite Toronto neighbourhood?
I would say the west end for lack of exploring other areas. I’ve only ever lived this side. But more like Dundas West and College. The Junction is amazing as well. Then, there’s the Bloordale Village that is its own community as well. The thing about Toronto is that it’s very accessible at any time of the year. You can jump on a streetcar and you’re in a completely new area for three bucks.
What’s one must-do you would recommend to visitors in the winter?
I’d probably pick a walking route. Like a 5k circuit. Maybe start by going up Spadina, hit Chinatown and go through Kensington to grab some coffee and bites. Then walk your way west. There are some art galleries along Dundas or College. There are some cool Toronto-made boutique stores as well. Walk through the Trinity Bellwoods, hit up Sam James.
You can do a nice art walk and eat cool foods while dipping in and out when you’re cold. If you go a bit further, there can be comedy or music at The Drake. There are cool things every night of the week.
See his mural at 146 Ossington Avenue.
It’s not every day that you get to meet a modern nomad. Emmanuel Jarus, a.k.a. Young Jarus grew up in Saskatoon and calls Toronto his home base, but more often than not he can be found in other parts of the world leaving incredible murals in his wake. By staying on the road, he’s constantly finding new inspiration for his work.
Yet his incredible artistic journey kicked off with humble beginnings, “I got into painting pretty young because my grandma was a painter.” That soon escalated when he transitioned into painting freight trains, which were particularly accessible in Saskatchewan. “I started painting portraits and figures on these trains and I was kind of the first that did that, specifically on my scale. So my work went viral on sites like Flickr and Reddit.”
It didn’t take long for him to move to Toronto. “A bunch of people had already seen what I had done through the Internet and then invited me to do a little bit of work here.” It took even less time for the emails about travelling and painting to start rolling in. Nevertheless, he says “There are still so many places I’ve yet to go and want to get to, but I also go wherever work sort of takes me.” That said, he still considers Toronto home and it’s where most of his work is done.
What’s special about Toronto in the winter?
That question reminds me of when I first lived in Toronto because I actually stayed through the winter a lot. I find that it’s a time to really reevaluate what you’re doing for the next year. Unlike some places where there’s perfect weather all year, you have time to sit back and think. You’re like, “OK, I’m going to get into shape next year.” It really allows you to shift what your approach for the next season is.
And when it comes to painting, it works the same way. You have to paint inside, contrary to this wall I just finished. For the most part, you’re not painting outside in the winter so you reevaluate how you’re going to paint outside in the summer. It’s a really introspective period.
And it is for me even now when I’m travelling around the world during the winter because it’s still off-season.
How did your mural take shape? What does it mean to you?
I choose people that are appropriate for a space. This happens to be a portrait of a friend of mine that was born and raised in Toronto and has been painting in that area for a long time. He was one of the people who were into it when I first started meeting people in Toronto, and I thought he’d be an appropriate person to paint because he’s the type of person that would be coming around that area pretty often on a day-to-day basis. He’s in the city all the time and often downtown.
I also know that he really wanted me to paint him. I did a drawing of him a long time ago and he was super about it so I thought it’d be funny not to tell him. Normally I would… but he came by. In two days, he found out because a lot of his friends were going by there as well so it’s obvious that it’s him. He’s a very recognizable character. And to me, he represents that area.
Why do you gravitate towards portraits?
I like painting figures that I see in life and then putting them through my own filter. It’s realistic and represents what I’m seeing, but it’s also done using my own techniques. It gets geometric and prismatic. I really enjoy that process. I enjoyed painting from life before I started painting in public. So even though I’m not painting these portraits from life anymore, I’m still painting a subject I know well. That helps me not get bored when I’m working on a wall, it brings a constant inspiration. And I paint people because it is a source of entertainment the whole time, from the memories to their reactions once it’s done.
What are your favourite nighttime spots in the city?
I spend a lot of time in the west end. I like life-drawing at the Gladstone Hotel in the evenings. Last night I was at the Drake because there was some live music playing. It might sound a bit basic for locals, but I actually really like those spots especially after being away travelling. I also love the Opera House; it’s one of the best concert venues in the city.
You travel the world to find inspiration for your work. Where do you find inspiration in Toronto?
I find the whole Regent Park and Scarborough areas really interesting to me. I did a mural in Teesdale last year and it’s so interesting to be in a place with so many different races of immigrant families all living in this North American setup. It’s very unique to Toronto.
When I first came to Toronto, I lived in the Annex. That area’s amazing to me as far as the uniqueness of the buildings. There’s this North American vibe on Victorian architecture. I lived on Madison and Dupont for awhile, which has great restaurants. Rose and Sons is there, Ezra’s Pound has great coffee and there’s a diner, Vesta Lunch, that’s been there forever and is awesome.
I also like Parkdale. My friend has a studio there so I was staying there a lot and painting. It’s a very transitional area. I’m really interested in areas that are changing. There’s just so much stuff happening all the time. My studio’s in the Junction, and it’s changed a lot in the last five years.
What is it about Toronto that separates it from other cities you’ve travelled to?
For me, Toronto is very diverse in the sense that it kind of has the infrastructure of an American city but it’s Canadian. So it’s a real international level city that has Canadians living in it…which is actually the most diverse group of different cultures. In Toronto, you can get on the bus and there’s literally everyone from any place in the world on it. I think that’s unique to Toronto. Even though every place in the world deals with racism, it’s iconically one of the most tolerant places in the world, which allows for a lot of benefits like good food from different places in the world and a good life.
Do you find that Toronto is making a name for itself in the world and that you’re able to represent your city?
I think Toronto really is a place that you can base yourself out of instead of being in LA or New York. There are so many good artists living here and Toronto is definitely on the world stage right now. It’s given me the opportunity to foster my skills. And it’s inspired me to travel. I was able to do something successful here and it gave me the motivation to travel further. I’ve continued to base myself here because it’s been such a good city to me.
When I travel I realize all the greatest things about Toronto because I don’t have these things that I took for granted when I was here.
See his mural at 162 Portland Street.
About the Author
Interviewer: Meghan Yuri Young is the editor of her eponymous site encouraging readers to pursue happier, healthier lives through her own experiences. Follow her adventures: Meghan Yuri Young on Instagram.