Toronto Street Art: From Ancient History To A Cultural Phenomena

Graffiti, Toronto | © Bruce D'Arcus/Flickr
Graffiti, Toronto | © Bruce D'Arcus/Flickr
Toronto street art has become as much a part of the culture in the city as the art galleries and cafés that line the streets. Although the argument of vandalism vs. art still exists, thanks to a pro-active program called StreetARToronto, street art has now become a vital part of the culture in the city, giving artists an outlet to express themselves outside of the constraints of the normal art world, ‘one neighbourhood at a time’. Discover the history behind street art, its place as creative expression in Toronto’s culture and where to view it with your own eyes.

A History of the Art

The history of street art and graffiti can be traced back thousands of years to the wall art of cavemen. What archeologists found in the caves of Lascaux in southwestern France were drawings scribbled on the walls and ceilings, which they were able to date all the way back to 15,000 BCE. Centuries later, graffiti made its way into the public eye when a popular tag – ‘Kilroy was here’ – was painted on the walls of areas that the US military occupied.

In the early 2000s, street art became legal in many countries despite the reformist approach to get rid of graffiti. People in Stavanger, Norway and Melbourne celebrated loudly, hosting large festivals to show city officials that graffiti shouldn’t be seen as an illegal activity, but as a form of art.

Over the recent years, street art has become more and more accepted across the globe, especially with the emergence of famous street artists like Banksy, an English graffiti artist – whose identity still remains unknown. He released a documentary film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010 called Exit Through the Gift Shop that tells the story of a French immigrant in Los Angeles, documenting his encounters and experiences with street art and its culture. Thanks to Banksy, and street artists across the globe who have risen up in effort to change the way society views graffiti, it has evolved into a heavily respected form of art – despite criticism – reflecting the cultural influences and energetic, artistic expression it represents.

Banksy Girl and Heart Balloon © Dominic Robinson

Street Art in Toronto

Although street artists were forced to conceal their identities in fear of being penalized or put in jail during the period of controversy over graffiti and street art, the street art community continued to flourish underground. Some city officials made gestures and promises to ‘get rid of graffiti’ in Toronto; however, with the help of StreetARToronto and ‘shifting perceptions, devoted public spaces, and brilliant (and brave) local artists’, Toronto’s street art scene was able to develop into something greater than just an underground scene: it has become one of the best cities in the world to view outdoor art, hosting beautiful and inspiring works all over the city.

According to StreetARToronto, their forward-thinking policy ‘treats streets as vital public space and aims to develop, support, and increase awareness of street art and its indispensable role in generating social and economic benefits, adding beauty and character to Toronto’s communities, and counteracting the negative effects of graffiti vandalism’. By changing perceptions of what graffiti is, Toronto has been able to transform the city into a culturally vibrant mecca, encouraging artists – local or international – to paint the town. Now, Toronto is filled with neighbourhoods that are unique to their own with a distinctive cultural flavour that is represented in the street art present in the neighbourhood. Whether its a political statement, or simply a colourful image inspired by the vibes of the neighbourhood, the landscape is always changing — what you see today, may not be there tomorrow.

Toronto street art © margonaut

Where To Find Street Art in Toronto

Graffiti Alley: Also known as ‘Rush Lane’, this is Toronto’s most celebrated street art area and a popular tourist destination. Covering almost 1km of space, vibrant art can be seen painted down the alleyways between Richmond St. and Queen St. W., and Portland and Spadina Ave.

Kensington Market: An eclectic and culturally vibrant neighbourhood with a bohemian vibe. Find brightly coloured awnings, colourful storefronts and painted murals, including works by popular Toronto street art artists Kwest as well as Anser.

Queen St W: Find a number of random murals that line the streets, the most popular being Jesse Harris’ You’ve Changed mural, a project collaboration with Spectrum Art Projects and COOPER COLE Gallery.

The Ossington Laneway: In 2012, 20 artists gathered together as part of a ‘beautification project’ and painted garages along the alleyway on Ossington, bringing the community together in a unique way. Street art by EGR and Peru143 are visible here.

Leslieville, Cabbagetown, East Side Mural: Leslieville hosts an iconic yellow ‘Leslieville’ mural; Cabbagetown is flooded with street art on anything from fences and walls to storefronts; and the East Side mural, one of the most iconic pieces in Toronto, can be found on the way to Scarborough. Located behind an old building, the artwork boasts the words ‘East Side’ in large block letters.

Parkdale: Known as ‘Milky Way’, this area is filled with murals hidden down an alleyway on the west side of Dufferin Street just south of Queen Street. Murals by local artist Matt McNaught can be found here.

Keele Wall: Just south of the Keele Station, the walls of the parking lot and the backs of a block of shops are filled with art, which has changed many times over the years. The works of Bacon, Skam and Sensr can be found here.

East End Laneways: In collaboration with the city of Toronto, avenues near the Pape and Danforth area have dozens of painted garages, decorated beautifully with street art. Keep your eyes peeled for painted traffic boxes and mailboxes (which can be found all over the city, as well).

The Annex/Bloor: don’t miss the mural on iconic music venue, Lee’s Palace, by artist Al Runt.

Queen West © CRUSTINA!

If you’re not into doing the search on your own, Tour Guys offers a unique Graffiti Tour that covers two hours worth of graffiti and street art near Queen Street West and Graffiti Alley, accompanied by information on the artists and a history of street art.