Toronto is a very special city when it comes to graffiti and street art. The well developed graffiti scene has become a legend, and these days, it even has the power to draw tourists, who come only to explore the exciting graffiti on the walls of the city. Street art, as always, is often defined as a mixture of different forms of artistic expression, but street artists often use methods reminiscent of graffiti. Some of them include stencil, sticker art, wheat-pasting, sculpture, and street poster art. Whichever form the street art takes, one thing is certain: it’s a stunning phenomenon typical for the post-modern age that we live in, so let’s take a quick closer look at the developments of street art/graffiti in our city.
Graffiti Alley by Missy S.
Controversy with City Authorities
Graffiti artists and street artists in Toronto remember probably the toughest times ever that was only recently, as the current mayor Rob Ford promised to clear the city of graffiti, saying that the downtown would be spotless soon. The city authorities’ measures stem from the so-called “broken window theory” developed in New York in 1982. The theory says that if there are broken windows in houses, it will lead to more disorder and degradation in a neighbourhood — and nothing’s easier than extending the idea of broken windows to litter or street art.
Graffiti in Toronto by Missy S.
Furthermore, in February 2006, the City of Toronto adopted its Graffiti Bylaw, prohibiting graffiti and defining it as
“one or more letters, symbols, figures, etchings, scratches, inscriptions, stains, or other markings that disfigure or deface a structure or thing, howsoever made or otherwise affixed on the structure of a thing, but, for greater certainty, does not include an art mural.”
It basically introduced special permits that have to be obtained to create legal graffiti, even if the owner of the wall approves of the painting.
Not only did such repression not stop graffiti artists, but also some of them felt even more encouraged to swim against the tide, so it boosted the amount of their work. Another front of opposition arose from the lines of small businesses owners who used to be responsible for the removal of any markings subsumed under the graffiti bylaw within 72 hours and at their own costs. Since the bylaw didn’t account for any kind of financial reprieve for businesses, the city was quickly accused of “making a victim of a victim,” and businesses claimed that costs for graffiti removal companies often amounted to almost a quarter of their budget.
The Graffiti Management Plan
Street Art by Carsten Keßler
However, last year, the city realized that the war on graffiti is virtually impossible to win without more dialogue, and it proposed one of the most innovative solutions to the issue ever seen, which tried to appease both sides. The newly launched Graffiti Management Plan sticks to the efforts to eliminate illegal graffiti, but on the other hand promises extensive support for programs and locations where artistry can be freely developed and respected. For example, large-scale projections of works onto some of Toronto’s landmarks were commissioned as a measure to promote our city as a street art tourist destination and to add vibrancy and artistry to the streets.
Naturally, all of the above-mentioned steps were praised by the street art and graffiti community as a great idea that shows the right path for future city policies. Shawn “Zion” Jones, owner of a specialty shop selling graffiti-related products and a respected voice of Toronto’s graffiti scene, took an opportunity to comment on the new plan:
“It gave a chance for me and the graffiti community to express ourselves legitimately. Without any question, we’re willing to take the time to create something magnificent rather than just bombing back alleys.”
One of the most prominent areas for legal graffiti is “graffiti alley” or Rush Lane, running south of Queen Street from Spadina to Portland. It’s about a kilometre of space full of graffiti murals of varying sizes and quality. Another space where artists obtained a permit is the Ashbridges Skateboard Park. The annual site of the 416 Graf Expo at Queen and Portland and two of the biggest legal walls in the city, Keele Station and Lawrence East Station, are also on the list. By following this policy, the city ensured that the main buzz of the graffiti scene moved to these legal areas, where some of the best artists started to work.
The artists' point of view
On the other hand, most street art and graffiti artists claim that they will never give up on painting on private property walls under cover of the night, hooded and prepared to run as soon as police lights appear. The adrenaline pumped up in their blood and parkour running, which most of them pick up to make their escapes through the urban jungle easier, is part of the game, and the old ways are unlikely to be abandoned in such a short time. Using the streets, including private properties, as a communication space with the public and undoing “boring” plain walls will probably always stay at the very core of these artists’ philosophy.
Toronto Street Art by Martin Reis
It seems that the fight between city authorities and graffiti and street art artists is not about to stop. So, is street art an actual art or a crime? Let us know your opinion and check out our list of the most amazing street art and graffiti found on the streets of Toronto to help you decide. Both legal and illegal street art and graffiti is included, mostly from the main street art centres in the city like Kensington Market, China Town, and Graffiti Alley.
1. Rock Street Art
The Rock Street Art project shows that it’s not always necessary to use walls as a place of expression. Street art loves freedom of different forms, and this installation of various rocks piled one on top of another right on the pathway earned its reputation by creating a little open-air sculpture gallery with no entrance fee. I’m sure the Flintstones would appreciate this project as well!
2. Colourful Window Shutters
Toronto Street Art by Paxpuig
Sometimes, street art isn’t about deep social messages that need to be delivered to the public. This picture of colourful window shutters on a run-down house covered with graffiti shows how a simple idea completely changes the aesthetics of the place and turns it into a bright and playful object. In addition, someone added a little stencil of an old-school cassette on one of the shutters.
3. Man with a Top-Hat
A stencil of a formally dressed man with a top-hat, who is apparently about to put it down to salute the audience or greet a friend takes us to another important topic that street artists often use in their works: nostalgia. It’s unclear why it’s so, but a surprising number of street art works found on the street relate to the past — the gallantry or glamour of the early 20th century — as if they meant to show the striking contrast to contemporary urban culture and environment. This piece can be found outside the Green Room.
4. Girl with Floral Motifs
The girl with floral motifs, a beautiful large-scale mural, is located in Kensington Market. The style of the painting is reminiscent of Art Deco artists, and especially of famous Alfons Mucha’s stylized posters of girls covered with flowers. The mural is painted using autumn-toned pastel colours, which fit perfectly to the red brick wall of the house and add greatly to the ambience of the place. Again, a clear tendency of returns to the past can be seen.
5. Green Room Graffiti
Green Room by
This spectacular mural full of psychedelic imagery can be found outside of the Green Room. I bet that Salvador Dali himself would appreciate the surreal quality of the work, which includes breasts with sad eyes instead of nipples supplemented by the huge head of a circus elephant, someone solving a Rubik’s cube, and an incredibly lively-looking snake. Taking into consideration the nature of graffiti murals, you should go and check yourself whether any new images have appeared on the wall besides the ones in the picture.
6. Art Starts
It’s likely this mural on the corner of the road is an official one — a piece of street art that obtained an official permit. Lush green, forest animals, windmills referring to green energy, and a hip bike with a basket on the front all add up to the calm and peaceful feeling emitted by the painting. What would otherwise be a greyish and bland part of the street is suddenly turned into a friendly spot in the neighbourhood.
7. The Raven
Raven Mural by Toban Black
Underpasses are a paradise for graffiti and street artists. Even though it’s probably true that underpasses full of tags and unprofessional graffiti generally don’t contribute to passers-by’s feelings of comfort and safety, sometimes street artists can bring the decoration of underpasses to a brand new level. The Raven on a grey and green background is a great example of a well-used opportunity to enhance the space in the city that usually stays ugly and boring.
This piece of slightly morbid street art on the corner of the street relates to the popular fashion of depicting ghosts, zombies, or the dead in a pleasing way, clearly inspired by the aesthetics of Tim Burton’s films. I’m sure that not a single child in the neighbourhood would get scared by these two amiable creatures hanging around the cemetery in the dark of the night.
9. Graffiti Alley
There is good reason why Toronto is considered to be home to some of the greatest graffiti artists in the world. Enjoy an afternoon stroll in so-called Graffiti Alley, located south of Queen Street West, to find out why Toronto’s graffiti scene earned its name worldwide. The picture shows just a small excerpt of the alley, which is full of similar murals.
Graffiti Alley by Missy S.
10. Toxic Mickey Mouse
The “Toxic Mickey Mouse” stencil points to another issue often represented by street art: a strong ecological accent and criticism of capitalist and consumer society. Probably there’s no need to provide any further explanation; the message delivered by the artist is very clear.