Graffiti city

Behind Augusta Avenue and steps away from Queen Street East is Graffiti Alley, Toronto’s hall of fame for urban art. It’s not very big — you can walk through the whole network of interconnected back-alleys in ten minutes, but it tends to take longer. Like an art gallery, every new addition to the wall of art in Graffiti Alley compels you to stop, stare, and take pictures.

That’s what people were doing when I arrive there on a Sunday afternoon. A man, his wife and their young toddler are taking pictures. They had parked their Cadillac in one of two parking spaces in Graffiti Alley. The mother points out colourful fish and larger-than-life portraits done in neon colours to her daughter.

Graffiti Alley in Kensington Market. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY
Graffiti Alley in Kensington Market. JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY

The debate surrounding graffiti is an old one: is it art, or the mark of renegade rabble-rousers? Is it art because it’s the mark of renegade rabble-rousers, or in spite of that?

In the middle of the day, Graffiti Alley seems as far removed from subversion or rabble-rousing as a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is an institution, comfortably integrated into Toronto’s cultural landscape. It’s the background of countless political rants on the Rick Mercer Report. The surrounding shops have integrated graffiti into their signs and buildings. The Hideout on the corner of Augusta Avenue and Queen Street East, for example, features a graffiti octopus whose tentacles crawl onto the brick wall of the building.


The City of Toronto has not been averse to integrating graffiti into its local landscape. Ever since Richard Florida’s seminal work Cities and the Creative Class in 2005, in which he argued that it was imperative for economically successful, post-industrial cities to be friendly to cosmopolitan, creative citizens, Toronto has made an effort to include public art into its urban landscape.


Some of this integration in done by charitable and outreach organization. StArt, or StreetArt Toronto, is a City-sponsored “pro-active program that aims to develop, support, promote and increase awareness of street art… while counteracting graffiti vandalism and its harmful effect on communities.” StArt funds initiatives that support this mission, providing up to $40,000 per project.

At the intersection of Woodbine Street and Queen Street East, a mural of brightly painted trees and birds reads: “Mural made by Art City in St James Town children and Youth and Grade Two’s at Kew Beach Public School.”


Art City in St. James Town is an NGO (non-governmental organization) “committed to providing after school art programs to the children and youth of this community.” The charity fosters creativity from an early age, investing directly in Toronto’s cosmopolitan future.

About twenty minutes north of the Kew Beach Public School mural, at Woodbine Street and Gerrard Street East, is the abstract mural of MEDIAH, principal artist of IAH Digital. Walking north on Woodbine Street, you enter a three-dimensional time-lapse of a street artist’s life, second grade to adulthood, all in under 20 minutes. The intersection of art and local, community-based activism creates success that you can watch unfolding on the streets of Toronto.


And yet, written a little nearer to the bottom of the Kew Beach Public School mural are the words, “If you see graffiti please call Art City.” StArt, too, distinguishes between street art and “graffiti vandalism.” The choice of words draws a clear line between commissioned work — street art — and unplanned additions — vandalism. The request places the onus on citizens to distinguish between the two; which some might argue should not be separated to begin with.

As Florida argues, the distinction is economically strategic. High quality street art from people like MEDIAH makes the city more vibrant, and vibrant cities attract young, working professionals.


However, even MEDIAH had to start somewhere — and sitting down to speak with the artist reveals that the infrastructure necessary to foster artistic development in Toronto youth is still lacking, despite programs like Art City St. James Town and StArt.


“StART is a great program for promoting street art but it isn’t geared towards developing future artists,” says MEDIAH. “[I]t’s really for artists [who] are already established. Toronto lags behind many European cities in terms of artistic opportunities and training for young artists.”

Opportunities for young artists are scarce. “For example, when I was coming up I had to do my work without permission in order to be seen. Imagine if I had to wait for a Gallery to recognize me as a teenager and then expose my work. It wouldn’t have happened, ” he explaines.


The individuals in charge of graffiti regulation can also be problematic. The job of distinguishing between art and vandalism falls under municipal jurisdiction. Under the City of Toronto’s Municipal Code, graffiti vandalism, as opposed to graffiti art, “is defined as any deliberate markings made or affixed on property that is not currently exempted or regularized by the Graffiti Panel.

The City has created a Graffiti Panel to make these distinctions, but it also relies on citizens to report graffiti vandalism, without delineating very clearly between vandalism and art. It’s a problem MEDIAH himself has encountered in his career.


“The common layperson doesn’t know the difference [between graffiti vandalism and graffiti art],” says MEDIAH, adding, “For example when I was working on the RADI’AAL ENCOMPASS, a major underpass mural for the City of Toronto, I had residents call the police on me… even though I was [half] way finished one side of the bridge. Who in their right mind would paint a 96 feet mural for free in broad daylight without permission?”

MEDIAH attributes this to the lack of understanding the public has when it comes to distinguishing between the types of graffiti work, “The more public art projects that are funded by Street Art Toronto is the more the public will begin to understand the distinction between graffiti art and vandalism,” he adds.


Without appropriate public education or funding to legitimize street art in the city, the road to making a living off of street art is a hard one — much harder than a 20 minute stroll up Woodbine Avenue. If an artist is good enough to be commissioned, they’re allowed to express themselves. Anything less is prohibited.


“My experience was fairly difficult as a young artist,” MEDIAH explains. “I was only into graffiti at the time so there were no opportunities to be recognized professionally other than the 416 graffiti expo and Flexpo Graffiti Fair, both organized by an outdoor signage company called MURAD.

“Only certain graffiti artists were hired to do murals for Murad so that left young up and coming graf writers like myself out in the cold. Also, the graffiti scene was a lot more competitive and cut-throat. We really had to pay our dues to fight for our place in the scene.”

The journey to recognition was incredibly challenging, “It was a hard fought fight for legitimacy and respect from the established elite. After being dissed, dragged into bigger crew politics and being hated I kept painting, and improving year after year. Twenty years later and I’m now part of the established core of ‘older’ graffiti writers. In simple words, it’s been tough,” says MEDIAH.


He attributes this, in part, to the infancy of Toronto’s street art scene. Of course, becoming an artist in any field is not easy, and while activist projects funded by StART Toronto are helping to ease the path, there is a long way to go.

A sharp divide exists in Toronto between street art that is acceptable, and street art that is not. There is graffiti for Cadillac families to muse at on a Sunday, and there is graffiti that is considered to be the mark of a low-income neighbourhood — they are each art in their own way, existing side by side and sometimes merging onto one another in a tense intersection of social and economic divides.