When it comes to graffiti, one man’s art may be another man’s vandalism. For that reason, a graffiti tour of Toronto may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it.
This hour and a half walking tour of Toronto’s famed graffiti alley and the neighborhood that surrounds it is a dive into the graffiti and street art subculture. My tour was led by Jason Kucheraway who is not a graffiti writer but instead, an anthropologist who has learned the styles, techniques, history, and names of the taggers, graffiti writers, and street artists that express their art (and/or vandalism) all over the city.
He covers the history of graffiti which started with simple tagging which is some punk spray painting his name on someone else’s building. Simple tags turned into balloon letters which let the writer cover more space in a short period of time. These, in turn, led to much more stylized and elaborate pieces that still incorporate a version of the writer’s name. We were taught that graffiti is the term for these text-based pieces while murals and other artwork would be better categorized as street art.
There are rules in the graffiti subculture. Everyone expects that their art is temporary, but you are not supposed to cover someone’s piece with an inferior piece. If you do cover up someone’s work you need to cover all of that work. To cover only part of it is an insult. Insult another graffiti writer and the word “toy” may be tagged on your artwork. You don’t want to be a toy.
Our guide would point out a combination of commissioned street artists as well as pieces held is less esteem by the building owners.
Toronto has tried various approaches to fighting graffiti. An all-out war on graffiti proved ineffective. Perhaps more effective was channeling would-be artists into sanction projects. The mayor of Toronto Rob Ford came out against graffiti. In return caricatures of the (allegedly) crack-smoking mayor appear all over the walls of graffiti alley.
The way the current rules work in Toronto, if your garage door is covered with graffiti and you like it, you can petition the city to keep it. Otherwise, you need to paint over it at your own expense. Some street artwork has been preserved because the process of blasting it off with high-pressure water hoses would be damaging to the building itself.
Here is some of my favorite street art that we saw in Toronto: