Graffiti Alley: A Tour of Toronto Street Art

Graffiti Tour in Toronto - Street Art

“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. This graffiti tour of Toronto is offered through Tour Guys and is free for the entire summer of 2015 through the sponsorship of the Queen West BIA. 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.

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Hug Tree - Graffiti Tour TorontoPainted 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.

Graffiti Tour - Street Art Toronto

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.

Graffiti Tour - Street Art Toronto

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.

Graffiti Tour - Street Art Toronto

Graffiti Tour - Street Art Toronto

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.

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

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.

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

I saw numerous elongated rabbits painted all over the place by the artist, Poser, similar to the one in the above image.

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

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.

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

A work of street art serving as a memorial, dedicated to a young person who has passed away.

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

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:

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

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:

Graffiti Tour Toronto - Street Art in Toronto

The graffiti tour is offered through Tour Guys and I highly recommend that you attend! It is free each Saturday for the rest of August, 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.

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What do you think about this art?

19 Responses

  1. Sally@Toddlers on Tour
    | Reply

    Street art, has really come of age. It is no longer just tagging a wall – some visually impressive works.

  2. Connie Reed
    | Reply

    I love street art—when it’s supposed to be there. I do not like trashy-looking scribbles, but colorful murals wake up tired old buildings.

  3. I almost did a post this week about the graffiti covered Art Alley in Rapid City, South Dakota. It’s such an interesting art form, isn’t it? I didn’t realize there was a whole code of conduct among graffiti artists. My favorite of the Toronto art you show is the sea life, especially because it wraps around 2 sides of the building.

  4. Fairlie
    | Reply

    Melbourne has a thriving street art culture, particularly in some of the inner-city laneways. It’s an interesting debate though about what constitutes ‘street art’ vs graffiti. One of the laneways in the centre of Melbourne city at the moment is so covered in scrawled tags that it is (in my opinion) quite aesthetically unattractive…while some other laneways have really beautiful (but unauthorised) artworks. Is the distinction purely in the eye of the beholder?

  5. Paula McInerney
    | Reply

    Love street art, it is so much better than looking at concrete nothingness. So many vibrant pieces go art In Toronto.

  6. Wow – Some of these are truly amazing! What a unique tour idea! I think I like the coral seascape building the best. Thanks for sharing. Found you on #WeekendWanderlust

  7. I think that encouraging street art is great. Make a city so much more interesting and vibrant! If I ever get back to Toronto, I would definitely check this out!

  8. Jennifer (Dr. J)
    | Reply

    I really love street art. It really adds to the character of a city in my opinion. Thanks for sharing…

  9. Great photos, I just love street art and this is some of the best.

  10. Rhonda Albom
    | Reply

    Really incredible, bright and colorful. I am not really a fan of tagging type graffiti, but those fish are really cool. It must be overwhelming to see so much huge street art.

  11. Ruth - Tanama Tales
    | Reply

    I guess we all have an opinion on this topic. I like most of the street art you have presented in this post. If the city has a program to promote these types of work, I think they deserve to be visited and admired. I know of a lot of areas in Los Angeles which have been revitalized after artist started to paint the walls.

  12. Sam
    | Reply

    Really interesting, guys! It’s always fascinating to me to see how different cities have different approaches to street art/graffiti/vandalism and how much of which people consider it to be is culturally dependent. “I miss my life before the internet” – I think that’s my favourite sentiment from these pictures! <3

  13. Karianne
    | Reply

    I love street art – when it is art! As Rhonda said, I don’t like tagging – but I do think that street art can be absolutely amazing, as your photos have shown. One of my favourite cities in Penang, where we spent hours tracking down all of the different street art. We’ve also loved going on street art tours in other cities – they can teach you a lot about the places you are visiting.

  14. Andrea
    | Reply

    Wow! The murals are pretty impressive. I love how much color they add to otherwise boring facades.

  15. What a great tour! I love street art and a tour like this would be so interesting to do to hear the history on some of the works of art. Great collection of photos and video too. How neat that these tours are free.

  16. Gemma
    | Reply

    Sad I missed this! I saw some street art in Kensington Market but this has now given me a excuse to head back to TDOT whenever I get back to Canada!

  17. Rabab
    | Reply

    I wonder how can I get involved with the street art in order to draw on a wall? Can anyone help me to get information to draw a graffiti legelly?

  18. […] Tour Guys Toronto: Several walking tours and themed tours around Toronto. Some of them are free! Check out when we did the Toronto Beer Tour and the Graffiti Tour. […]

  19. Danial
    | Reply

    This reminds me very much of Manchester’s Northern Quarter!

    I would definitely join a tour next time if I wanted to explore street art because there is a wealth of information on the artists, their style of work and code which I wouldn’t know if I’d just go there on my own.

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