Uncovering the beauty of graffiti in Toronto’s Graffiti Alley
Back in April, we delved into Toronto’s Hogtown moniker with a Bacon Tour. Along the way we had been briefly introduced to Graffiti Alley and its artwork. So when the opportunity came up for a longer and more in-depth tour of the graffiti, we jumped at the chance.
The tour is led by Tour Guys, who run a series of free and paid tours of Toronto. This graffiti tour would normally be $30 each, but thanks to sponsorship from the Queen Street West BIA, the tour is free this summer (July and August).
You can watch a short video of our tour below, or if you are reading this by email, you can watch it here!
We started by the Hug Tree – a tree which died and was turned into public art. Not my favourite piece of art ever, but at least it made for a convenient meeting point.
Our first real port of calls weren’t on Graffiti Alley itself, but along Bulwer Street to the north of Queen Street West. Here we were given the history and context of modern graffiti, starting with the origins when TAKI 183 and his friends began leaving their mark on the trains and stations of New York City.
We looked too at what constitutes graffiti and murals, as well as the different styles of graffiti from tags (the simple writing of your name – the graffiti that doesn’t tend to look good); throws (somewhere in-between tags and pieces); pieces (short for masterpieces – large and complex including plenty of colour and 3D effects, and are very time and labour intensive); and productions (the collection of pieces).
We often view graffiti as vandalism – the defacing of a building or infrastructure by a crude and ugly scrawl. So is all the artwork on show here allowed? After history and style, this question addresses the third theme of the tour – permission.
Graffiti is predominantly created by young people who have the desire to leave their mark on the world and amongst their peers. Give them a blank canvas of brick or alike in an urban landscape, and it is an invitation too good to turn down!
As a result a lot of the graffiti in this area is ‘graffiti art’, as it has been commissioned by the property owner, and/or approved by the city council. Graffiti that is not permitted is known as ‘graffiti vandalism’, and property owners will be asked to remove the graffiti within a timescale. If they don’t, the city council will do it for them and will find a way of clawing back the cost.
Therefore, the argument is, that if your building is susceptible to graffiti, then you may consider allowing a ‘piece’, rather than suffering the constant hassle of removing ‘tags’.
But what’s stopping a cocky upstart defacing ‘graffiti art’? In theory nothing, but in practice, there is an unwritten code of conduct for graffiti. Respect is everything, and you show none and certainly won’t receive any if you deface another artist’s work before it’s had its time (sadly, this doesn’t stop everyone).
It was a really enjoyable tour and a great way to spend a couple of hours. We loved having things pointed out that we wouldn’t normally see or understand, or in places that we’d ordinarily not venture.
An added bonus is that Jason, our guide from Tour Guys, really knows his stuff too. I liked hearing how artists adapt their tools, such as taking the heads off different consumer goods and interchanging them with the usual head on their can, so to achieve different results. Some artists are even experimenting with fire extinguishers!
If you’re in Toronto, and the tour sounds good, we suggest you book sooner rather than later. Not only is the tour free until the end of August, but our group was also very large (50-60 people), so you don’t want to miss out on spaces whilst they’re still available.