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Jason from Tour Guys on the Graffiti Tour in Toronto

Jason from Tour Guys leading the Graffiti Tour in Toronto

It’s not often you get a free tour led by a cultural anthropologist who also has a fine art degree. But that’s exactly what we got when Henk and I took a Graffiti Tour of Toronto with Jason Kucherawy, one of the founders of Toronto’s Tour Guys. Not only did Jason give us a glimpse into the culture behind street art, he gave us a look behind the familiar streets of our own city.

Our tour began on Queen Street West, the original home of alternative and boho culture that has become more gentrified in recent years, with mainstream retailers replacing some of the head shops and comic book stores that once characterized the neighbourhood. But while the Gap and Shoppers Drug Mart may now own the storefront streetscape, alternative culture still rules in the alleyways. But not to worry, this is Toronto the Good after all, so what you can expect to encounter here is street art, not street gangs.

Evolving from its earliest days when it began with a single tagger named Taki183 who wrote his name on subway stations around NYC, forty years later graffiti has become one of the four ‘pillars’ of Hip Hop culture, the other three being DJ-ing, MC-ing, and breakdancing. A far cry from Taki183’s sharpie on a tiled wall, the art has evolved as well. Not enough to just leave your name on a wall, where it could be lost amongst others, graffiti artists began to embellish their lettering so that it would stand out more, leading to different styles of ‘bubble’ lettering, and now to what is called ‘wild style’, where the legibility of the words is less important than the recognizable style.

Legibility isn't as important as style but you can learn to 'read' graffiti with practice

Legibility isn’t as important as style but you can learn to ‘read’ graffiti with practice

Recognizable style is important in the world of street art, not just for recognition, but for credibility and respect – and respect is big in this community: borders around artwork (called ‘force fields’) are usually respected; if you are going to cover up another artist’s work, it better be better, and you better sign it;  and upstarts who deface recognizable artists’ work with their own graffiti are labelled ‘toys’.

Yet the very nature of street art is its transience. Stale art is vulnerable art, and only rarely are pieces left alone forever. Even commissioned artwork, paid for by building owners or community organizations, are likely to become a new canvas for someone else eventually. But here is where the line between art and vandalism is defined: permission. When done with the knowledge and permission of the building owner, graffiti becomes art. Without that permission, it is vandalism.

Sactioned graffiti becomes street art, not vandalism. This one's even framed.

Sactioned graffiti becomes street art, not vandalism. This one’s even framed.

Of course, there is always the subjective viewpoint as to ‘what is art?’ that muddies this line, beyond just the permission factor. Equally controversial is the definition of what constitutes ‘public’ space. Is the side of a building the property of its owner, or is it public space because we all view it?

How art is defined is subjective

How art is defined is subjective

What cannot be denied is that what was once street art has become recognized as ‘art’ art. Take the recent Basquiat exhibition at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. Jean Michel Basquiat started as a street artist in NYC, became peers with Warhol and is now lauded as one of the 80’s most important urban artists.

Toronto’s street artists may one day earn that same recognition: names like Uber (look for little yellow birds), or Elixir who is best known for his ‘Hug Tree’ on Queen at Peter street.

Toronto street artist Uber uses physical structures like this gate to influence his concept, like these 'Jailbirds'

Toronto street artist Uber uses physical structures like this gate to influence his concept, like these ‘Jailbirds’

And there are many others, like Indigo, Spud, and Stikman. For now, though, their art is displayed in Graffiti Alley, not the Art Gallery, so you’ll have to go there to judge for yourself.

Stikman places small figures around the city, including on the street asphalt itself

Stikman places small figures around the city, including on the street asphalt itself

Just

graffiti cameron and ants
before the tour ended, Jason explained something else I have always wondered about: the story behind the ant ‘sculptures’ on the side of a well-known music venue called the Cameron House. Apparently, years ago many artists had taken up permanent residence in what was licensed as the Cameron ‘hotel’, and city bylaws prohibited a hotel from having long-term tenants. So the owner asked the artists to create ’10 ants’ to place on the building so that he could answer truthfully that yes, the Cameron house did have ‘ten-ants’. It was a cheeky response to the bylaw, and since then the building has been reclassified as a legitimate residence – but the ants remain.

As travellers we often ignore our own city, thinking that we know all about the place where we live, or that it isn’t interesting because it isn’t foreign.  Saturday’s tour of Toronto’s backstreets showed me that there’s more to my own city than I realize – and there’s plenty to see and discover right here at home if I just tour my own city like a visitor would.

TIP: ‘Graffiti Alley’ is located in the Queen St. West district, between Spadina and Portland, just south of Queen. But there are plenty of other laneways to explore in the area that are home to street art as well. You can tour them in depth with the Tour Guys.

To learn more about Jean Michel Basquiat, tour an online gallery of Basquiat’s work, as well as 50,000+ other artists at artsy.net, an internet resource with over 350,000 images of art.

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