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Street art hunting has become a new favourite pastime of mine because I like colours and pretty, shiny things. So when I visited Canada in early February, I was excited to check out the Toronto street art scene. And I was far from disappointed.
Unfortunately, it was cold – below freezing at times – so I didn’t get to see as much Toronto street art in as many different spots as I’d hoped. But I did manage to find a few different forms of street art, not just the spray paint on walls type either. There’s sculpture and a few other bits and pieces for good measure. If you like colourful Instagram shots from your holidays or vacations, this is the spot to find them.
Toronto has a pretty good reputation when it comes to street art, and it’s well-deserved. According to this very well-written piece by Kate Pocock on Tourism Toronto’s website, the “abundance of epic street art is party due to the caliber of the graffiti artists/writers…. and partly due to StreetARToronto”. StreetARToronto connects artists with neighbourhoods that could use a bit of rejuvenation and colour. There are a few arms, and one of them combines improved amenities such as better lighting and sidewalks for underpasses with opportunities for mid-career or established artists to contribute street art.
Obviously government support plays a huge role in keeping Toronto colourful. There may still be a bit of argy-bargy in terms of what’s considered vandalism and what should be called street art. But it seems to have been a step in the right direction for Toronto at least.
TORONTO STREET ART
Now that we know why it’s been so welcome, let’s talk about the famous street artists who have used the city walls and tunnels as canvasses for their work. Banksy is arguably the most famous street artist in the world and has been for a while now. The anonymous British artist visited Toronto in 2010 and drew several pieces for the public to find. Only two remain today. One depicting a guard holding a muzzled dog balloon, was moved under the city, into the warren of pedestrian walkways known as the PATH. The other is on the corner of Church and The Esplanade and is less easy to describe.
Another anonymous artist, Alec Monopoly, has endeared himself to Torontonians with his Rich Uncle Pennybags character – coming straight out of a game of Monopoly it seems. The New York artist has created a mural on the red carpet for Justin Bieber’s Believe film premiere in 2013. Apart from that, he’s had work purchased by the likes of Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg and Seth Rogan.
A little closer to home, Elicser Elliot is a Montreal native but his work is well known in Toronto, where he’s now based. Apart from his prolific street art murals and public artworks, Elicser’s work has been exhibited at The Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum.
Then there’s Anser. His artwork is easy to identify, it usually includes the face of a character known as Mysterious Date, first created in 2007. Anser is known as one of the city’s most prolific graffiti artists and his one line face was created to engage the public, most of whom can see themselves in the character.
TERRIFIC TORONTO STREET ART AND WHERE TO FIND IT
You might have heard of a few of these places before, but some will almost certainly be new to you, as will the street art you’ll find there, since it seems like there can be a high turnover rate in some spots. Brace yourselves for the photographic onslaught.
Probably the most well known street art spot in Toronto is Graffiti Alley. You’ll find it between Portland Street and Spadina Avenue in the city’s west, and you’ll get more than your fill of aerosol art right here.
It’s in the Fashion District, which may explain some of the creativity out there. And if you can’t find it under the name Graffiti Alley, try typing in 1 Rush Lane into your Maps app and give it a burl. There is about a kilometre of legal graffiti on everything from the brick and veneered walls, to garage doors and sidewalks. Basically anything that’s not going somewhere is going to get sprayed.
You might recognise Graffiti Alley from TV if you’ve watched Canadian Broadcasting Corporation comedian Rick Mercer, who made the alley famous by filming his weekly commentary there. He may have started a trend, because while I was there a young teenager was being filmed for a school project. Well I assume so anyway, she was speaking French so it was tough to make out.
You can’t miss Uber5000’s work in Graffiti Alley – he’s got some of the biggest and most impressive pieces of work in the place.
My favourite was the underwater world created on the side of Portland Place Non-Profit Housing at 169 Rush Lane. The vibrant oranges and pinks of coral and the bright blue water make the building stand out. There are so many different fish and sea creatures jammed into this huge canvas that it feels a bit like a Where’s Wally (Where’s Waldo for the North Americans playing along) picture.
You really have to see it in real life to get an idea of the scale of the street art. And an idea of just how long it would have taken to get all of the details just right to fill up this huge side of the building.
A more recent artwork by Uber5000 has a little more local flavour to it and the reaction from Torotonians and Canadians alike is usually a quick chuckle. I’d like to introduce the third of three pieces that includes the reef above, that Uber5000 said work together, according to thestar.com.
The reef was a metaphor for the city of Toronto, in that it’s a tiny place that’s home to an enormous population of life. The same goes for the above work of street art. There’s so much going on in such a small place that you’ve really got to stop and take it all in. Here’s a few things to spot:
- Darwin ‘the Ikea monkey’: See that monkey climbing the CN Tower? His name is Darwin, and he was found wandering around outside a Toronto Ikea store, wearing a coat in 2012. I’m not even joking. He’s been living at a Primate Sanctuary ever since.
- Drake: Perched on the top of the CN tower, is the human-shaped figure of musician Drake. It’s a nod to the cover art for his 2016 album Views.
- Crane woman: Marisa Lazo plead guilty to “mischief” charges after climbing a crane on a Toronto construction site in April 2017 and becoming stranded. She had to be rescued by a firefighter. Read more here. The mind boggles.
- Dart Guy: Under the crane is a man painted blue, perched on a roof. That’s Dart guy, made famous after he was the lone Toronto Maple Leafs supporter in a sea of Washington Capitals fans during a Stanley Cup playoff game. I don’t know why he’s named “Dart guy”. Maybe because he had a ciggie hanging out the corner of his mouth when he was put on the big screen.
- Godzilla: He’s not Canadian at all, but when you have the opportunity to paint a cityscape, why would you pass up the opportunity to throw him in? He’s a DJ in this depiction.
Then there are a few scenes of Toronto life as depicted by Uber5000’s chicken characters. Whether you’re into skating, hockey, music, or kicking back and watching the world go by, there’s a story for you right here.
ELICSR / ELICSER ELLIOT
I’ve found a couple of different spellings of Elicser’s name both online and in his tags so let’s hedge our bets here. It turns out that Elicser did a bit of “Artist Formerly Known As…” gear and went by Elicsr for a year, but eventually moved to Elicser Elliot. He’s got quite a few murals up in Graffiti Alley and they are pretty starkly different to Uber5000’s. For starters they’re much more focused on people and tends to be influenced by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
Elliott’s portraits can be dark, but are always beautiful, even when depicting tragedy or hard times. And according to Wikipedia (yes, I’m quoting the pedia): “His character work is often mediated by past experiences and relationships while also drawing on the likeness of passers-by to complete his community-based murals.”
I would love to be able to tell you more about this work, but I honestly can’t find anything on it, and my attempts to contact Elliott have not been successful. So we’ll all just have to stare at the wall and think about what it means to us.
The above iconic piece is one that Elliott himself says he doesn’t do often – a tribute to the lives of the deceased. He explained his decision to paint this one on Instagram:
Its coming to that time in my life when people are making new babies, weddings are happening, and people die.. I never do R.I.P pieces but I knew these cats.. I listen to there music and felt proud to have known them. Time.. We are all getting old.. Take care of your selves.. Rest in piece to Son of Soul and King Reign. Toronto’s children. – @ElicserElliott
A heart attack put King Reign (Kunle Thomas) into a coma, and ultimately lead to his death in June 2016. DJ Son of Soul (Masimba Kadzirange) died in his sleep in September 2015, aged just 44.
Naturally framed by the wall it resides on, the above piece of Elliott’s street art has no explanation that I could find. Which, of course, doesn’t make it less lovely. But I’m loathe to put my own meaning on it.
EatUrPie and #PieBoy are the pseudonyms (or is that noms de plume?) of Toronto-based graphic designer and illustrator Billy Franklin. Who helpfully pixelates his face from photos of himself. Not only is he a master of keeping his facial features well-hidden, but in a world where a Google search usually brings up something about everyone, Franklin is mysteriously absent.
Describes him/it self well in an interview with Bizarre Beyond Belief Magazine with the words “Earth Crusher is the embodiment of the secret ruling class; the PR super mind, the master of money. As long as there has been an opportunity for corruption, there has been Earth Crusher.”
It kind of says it all, to be honest. If you’re looking for an artist/s that lives and breathes a project, Earth Crusher seems to be it. If you look a little closer, its aim is to “maximize overall return to its shareholders by controlling and dominating all life on the planet”. Kind of sounds like a Doctor Who alien villain to me. One that I’d probably be fine with since it leaves behind some pretty cool street art in the process.
FEEL THE RUSH / GREG MIKE MENSCHING
In the red and blue corner, representing America is Greg Mensching, better known as Greg Mike. After kicking off his graffiti education at 13, Greg moved over to murals and street art and has painted works in the US, Australia, Canada and Switzerland.
He also has his own art gallery and agency called ABV Agency and Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, where artists from around the globe exhibit their work. If you’re looking for the key to Worcester, Massachusetts, Greg Mike was awarded it in September 2016. He also won the Creative Loafing award for Best Established Visual Artist in 2017. He was named a Notable Georgian that same year.
Poser‘s bunnies can be found all over Toronto displaying many moods – from manic to happy, sad and disturbed – the rabbits have been multiplying for years since 2012. They’re iconic and unmistakable, you don’t walk past a Poser bunny without knowing that it’s his.
He started his street art career back in Ottawa more than 15 years ago and learned the art the hard way – seeing his pieces crossed over for a few years before he started getting some well-earned respect. Now in Toronto, you can see Poser’s work everywhere. He’s also part of the International ABM Crew.
TORONTO STREET ART WITHOUT THE AEROSOL
While street art has evolved to describe aerosol and mural art commissioned for buildings and sometimes surreptitiously painted on them, there are other types of street art. I found so much of it around Toronto that it’s impossible to leave it out from a comprehensive post like this.
I’m bound to have missed a bunch of them, but this is the street art that I stumbled across on my Toronto exploring trips by foot.
The Toronto Sign
The Toronto Sign is always an Instagrammable spot that you’ll see plastered all over your feed by travellers. But in winter the sign takes it up a notch when the pond in front of the sign is turned into an ice rink. I don’t skate myself because of a severe lack of coordination diagnosed at birth that has not been cured to this day, but the photo opportunities in winter are pretty nice.
It’s situated in Nathan Phillips Square, right in front of the Toronto City Hall and was first installed in July 2015 to celebrate that year’s PanAm Games.
The Simcoe Wavedeck
You don’t usually equate docks with street art and design aesthetics, but the Simcoe Wavedeck turns that on its head. The cedar decks were designed with the shorelines of Ontario’s lakes in mind. In winter the decks are closed because the snow and ice makes them slippery. It’s my excuse for not getting a better photo from the opposite side, where you’d be able to see the decks heights vary and their waves look like ripples on a lake.
If you visit at night you’ll get to experience the Simcoe Wavedeck all lit up at the water’s edge. The Simcoe Wavedeck was opened in 2009 it its waves undulate 2.6 metres above the water below.
The Runaway News Truck
Venture over to the east side of the CTV building on Queen Street and you’ll get a glimpse of something you don’t see every day – a truck hanging half out of the building. The former City News truck is on the corner of Queen and John streets, where the news studio was headquartered previously.
If you get there on a windy day, you’ll be lucky enough to see the wheels spinning as well.
Canine fanatics should stroll down to Berzcy Park in the St Lawrence Market area to see the fountain installed in 2017, designed by Claude Cormier. The fountain includes 27 dogs staring at one giant bone at the fountain’s peak. Oh and one scatty-looking cat.
It was a little tricky to get a proper photo of the fountain, so my advice is to go and see it in person. There park was refurbished in 2017 and is a beautiful spot in the middle of the city.
Brookfield Place is two towers worth of office space, but connecting the pair is the Allen Lambert Galleria, also known as the Crystal Cathedral of Commerce. It sits above the Hockey Hall of Fame and Toronto’s PATH, an underground warren of tunnels with shopping and cafes that serves the city when the mercury dips below zero.
But back to Allen Lambert Galleria, which was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and is six stories high. It’s reminiscent of a high canopy of trees in a forest and if you visit at night you can see it all lit up. It really is awe-inspiring and a jaw-dropping place to visit.