“Do you think of graffiti as public art or vandalism?” Our tour guide, Jason asked the group this question. People raised their hands for one choice or the other, or hovered somewhere in between. Regardless, everyone was interested in discovering Toronto street art.
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This graffiti tour of Toronto is free and it’s offered through Tour Guys. Though I have seen some fantastic works of public art scattered throughout the city, I was really interested in uncovering some new graffiti on the tour. We met at the “Hug Tree” on Queen Street West at Soho.
The Hug Tree
Painted by Toronto street artist, Elicser, the Hug Tree has a very intriguing story. Elicser originally painted the acronym, “H.U.G.” on the back of the tree to represent his graffiti group, History Unleashes Genius. The average person assumed the tree was meant to be hugged, so people began hugging the tree.
Even though the tree would get scuffed up over time and lose some of its paint, Elicser kept coming back to re-paint the tree. Each time, he would paint the words, “Hug Me” on the back. One day, the tree fell over. But, it was saved. It was temporarily moved to the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) for a street art display, and was eventually moved back to its spot at Queen and Soho – this time, bolted to the ground where it remains to this day.
From Queen West, we walked one street north to Bulwer Street. We discovered some works of art that have been officially sanctioned by the city or commissioned by the building owners.
Toronto Graffiti Art
Jason taught us all about how the city of Toronto approaches graffiti, street art, and vandalism. There is a program called StreetARToronto that aims to, “develop, support, promote and increase awareness of street art and its indispensable role in adding beauty and character to neighbourhoods across Toronto, while counteracting graffiti vandalism and its harmful effect on communities.”
If a particular work of street art is painted on the side of a building, the owner can apply to have it recognized by the city as street art. If the art is deemed as artistic by the city, it becomes protected and will not have to be cleaned away even if someone complains. Furthermore, a property owner can commission a street artist to paint their building with funding from the city through the StreetARToronto project.
Why does the city have this program? Well, street art and murals can add beauty and character to Toronto. However, it actually reduces the amount of vandalism to buildings. There is a certain code of respect amongst graffiti artists. They will not tag or paint over another artist’s work. So, if you have a beautiful artistic mural across your building, it is unlikely that someone will vandalize your building.
From Bulwer Street, we walked south on Spadina to Rush Lane, one street south of Queen Street West. Rush Lane is otherwise known as Graffiti Alley. It even seems to be named Graffiti Alley on Google Maps now! Graffiti Alley extends from Spadina to Portland St. You’ll find a huge collection of graffiti, street art, and murals here. If you’re looking for graffiti in Toronto, it’s definitely the best place to start.
You’ll be able to see art by some renowned Toronto street artists, including Uber5000, Elicser, Poser, Skam, Spud, and many others. Here’s a short video to give you a view down Graffiti Alley.
One of the wonderful things about Graffiti Alley and street art is that it’s constantly changing. One mural or piece that might exist one year could be gone the next. Artists are constantly painting over their old works with new creations.
Let me take you on a tour down Graffiti Alley, showing you some of the amazing street art that Toronto has to offer.
Tour of Graffiti Alley
The above photo shows the name, “Spud” painted above another piece. Spud painted his own name using a fire extinguisher. Could you imagine how difficult that would be to control? Even still, he manages to paint it barely affecting the work below as a sign of respect.
I saw numerous elongated rabbits painted all over the place by the artist, Poser, similar to the one in the above image.
The above image is a prime example of an graffiti artist dissing another artist. Do you see that small head above the green writing? That’s Rob Ford’s head, the former Toronto city mayor (aka the crack-smoking mayor). There used to be a painting of Rob Ford sitting on top of a tree branch that “cracked”.
Another artist has painted over top of the Rob Ford image. This was the ultimate diss as the artist didn’t paint over the entire image – he left just the head remaining to remind everyone of the old art piece. Typically, an artist won’t touch another artist’s work without their permission, or the artist will paint over their own work only.
A work of street art serving as a memorial, dedicated to a young person who has passed away.
This street corner featured a couple of works by Uber5000. There was this artwork depicting singer/songwriter, Nellie McKay with lyrics to her song. And then there was this impressive painted building with a coral seascape wrapping around the whole building, showing images of fish and sea life in various comical settings:
This mural wasn’t located in Graffiti Alley, but behind a building at the corner of Queen and Augusta. It was also commissioned by Uber and he used the bars and pipes on the building to his advantage. The birds are now jailbirds behind bars, and the cat is perched up on the pipes. We ended the tour at this final mural with a quote from Wayne Gretzky:
The graffiti tour is offered through Tour Guys and I highly recommend that you attend! It is free each Saturday, and regularly priced at $30 per person. Our tour guide, Jason, was highly energetic and incredibly knowledgeable. I had a great time discovering some street art in Toronto that helps make our city so vibrant.
Want to See More Public Art and Street Art?
Toronto has so much incredible street art and murals. You can take my self-guided tour of Toronto street art, check out the works at Underpass Park, or even venture into Mississauga to view spectacular public art.