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Spray painted designs like these on a Queen Street alley are getting recognition as legitimate works of art. (Dave LeBlanc)
Spray painted designs like these on a Queen Street alley are getting recognition as legitimate works of art. (Dave LeBlanc)

Urban living

Graffiti: Mischief or masterpiece? Add to ...

It was only two feet long and probably took all of 10 seconds to create, but I sweated over the graffiti "tag" on my backyard fence for days.

This was a few years ago, when I lived in a Scarborough backsplit that backed onto Midland Ave. The tag was on the public side of my fence, but I still felt my private space had been completely violated. I was so angry, in fact, that as soon as I could I matched the fence colour and rushed out to buy cover-up; when I realized the colour worked for other fences along Midland, I took a walk with my can and brush and painted out every other tag I could in an act of vigilante justice.

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I didn't want to live in a place that looked like the title sequence of Welcome Back, Kotter, and I still don't.

But at the risk of contradicting myself, let me also state that I like graffiti: I think it's a highly expressive, bold art form that adds an interesting layer to the shared sociological experiment we call the big city. Because of this, I picked up the recently published 484-page tome, Toronto Graffiti: The Human Behind the Wall, compiled, edited and self-published by Yvette Farkas. With more than 1,000 photos and interviews with over 20 graffiti artists, Ms. Farkas hopes to "provide insight" on this "incredibly complex and little understood genre."

It does. I didn't notice graffiti until the late-1980s or early-1990s, so I was surprised to learn there were a few "pioneers" working as early as 1981. The book's interview subjects all agree that "Ren," a Parkdale-based painter, is the graffiti granddaddy. Now "retired" for close to a decade, he remembers finding himself so alone in those early years he "felt like a reject… it's so meaningless but I'd still keep doing it." (Funny, that could just as easily have come from the mouth of a painter struggling in 1911 with the new and misunderstood forms of abstract art.) By the 1990s, however, there were many crews, often amicably swapping members.

While some "graff" artists were self-taught, many were Ontario College of Art students (now OCAD-U), as evidenced by reproductions of pencil sketches and photographs of sculpture. Contrary to what one might expect, many are female and the scene isn't necessarily tied to hip hop music, since many interviewees associate themselves with the punk movement. It's interesting, too, to learn of motivation-while some are obviously attracted to the criminal element, others hope to do meaningful work that will delight onlookers by transforming grey, forgotten parts of the city-and of the gradual transition from a covert communication to something looser and, at times, even humorous.

Artist's personal accounts can approach the writings of William Carlos Williams or Jack Kerouac: "Daser" a painter originally from Kingston, is quoted as saying, "I can taste the fumes in my mouth, hours have gone by, I'm dead on my feet, there's no traffic or sounds at all now, it's got to be really late. Keep spraying till this is done. I hope no one or thing comes out of that creepy doorway or I will end up swallowing my own heart."

It's heady stuff, but thankfully not all voyeurism or a celebration of the illegitimate. Legal commissions are discussed (many on residential walls), as well as public versus private space. How Toronto, currently, is modeling its aggressive graffiti-removal efforts on the failed NYC program is highlighted, and the question of why small business owners are held financially responsible is raised. For up-and-coming artists, the advice of a criminal lawyer is offered (but at $74.95 for the book, it's unlikely very many will benefit).

It's such a hot topic-whether the ongoing fight to preserve huge swaths at the Evergreen Brick Works or the "accidental" removal of Joel Richardson's mural on Dupont St. near Lansdowne last week-I decided to take a walk along the "Queen Alleys" (a stretch of wide laneway between Spadina and Bathurst just south of Queen) and found myself in the company of other camera-wielding "architourists." I'm a typography aficionado, so I enjoy witnessing a new form in its natural habitat; I also enjoy that a few of the pieces now include links to websites in order to encourage corporate commissions.

Walking along, I thought of what an odd time it is for this world: Partially out of the shadows, there is tension between graff artists who remain underground (and illegal), and those who see nothing wrong in demonstrations at swanky corporate events or by helping companies with interior design; last November, as city crews scrubbed walls a few blocks away, my friends at Kim Graham & Associates were watching one interior wall of their Esplanade office transformed: "As creative storytellers about Toronto's changing urban landscape, we used graffiti to bring that street energy into our office," says Ms. Graham.

Along with vehement supporters and vocal opponents, there will continue to be fence sitters, such as myself, who appreciate graffiti when it's tucked away in "public" laneways but would recoil in horror if it was dripping down their own front door.

 

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