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British artist Mark Titchner is artist-in-residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
British artist Mark Titchner is artist-in-residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

ART

A graffitist who works on the city’s dime Add to ...

On a humid morning this week, the acclaimed British visual artist Mark Titchner was strolling down Queen West toward his new studio at the Art Gallery of Ontario, battling a case of jet lag while taking in the area’s “organic” graffiti mural scene. “There’s actually a lot of stuff up on the walls here,” he observed, “actually more than in London.”

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The 39-year-old artist, a one-time nominee for the prestigious Turner Prize, knows whereof he speaks. Mr. Titchner is famous for murals and billboards featuring edgy, ambiguous slogans – “Be Angry But Don’t Stop Breathing” – rendered in bold, luminescent lettering. His work is displayed internationally in major museums, but also on building walls, bus shelters and in subway stations, because he’s interested in depicting “the sense of silence” he perceives, paradoxically, in noisy public spaces.

Torontonians this fall will get a firsthand glimpse of Mr. Titchner’s distinctive sensibility. Through a partnership between the AGO, where he’s artist-in-residence, and a new city program, Street Art Toronto, he’ll be creating three or four major murals, including one on a large east-facing wall at the Drake Hotel, where he’s staying until early November. He also intends to develop other works in collaboration with local youth groups for the AGO’s Toronto Now space.

Street Art Toronto, interestingly enough, emerged from Mayor Rob Ford’s campaign pledge to eradicate graffiti, and has provided $325,000 for 23 works in 16 wards, including Mr. Titchner’s residency. Elyse Parker, the transportation services official overseeing the program, explains that it aims to move beyond the more traditional graffiti transformation projects that sought to engage at-risk youth. The city’s goal, she adds, is to raise the artistic bar without going to a highly formalized jury-selection process.

Over the past decade, the clandestine and often ephemeral street-art scene has exploded into the mainstream thanks to the popularity of stars such as Britain’s Banksy, as well as critically successful mural programs in Philadelphia, Miami and Brooklyn – cities where street-art tours have become common among art aficionados.

While street art traces its roots to New York’s graffiti and hip-hop scene from the 1960s and 1970s, the creators today are often young fine-arts grads who lack studio space and want to establish a profile in highly visible spaces, says Steven Harrington, co-founder of BrooklynStreetArt.com, who writes a weekly column on the subject for the Huffington Post. “We’re in a great period of flux.”

Drake curator Mia Nielsen and city officials hope Mr. Titchner, who works in several media, will help ignite Toronto’s indigenous street-art movement, elevating the profile of emerging local artists, such as Dan Bergeron (a.k.a. “Faux Reel”) while signalling residents and property owners that blank exterior walls are good for more than just ads, tags or whitewash.

In fact, his arrival this week coincided with the official unveiling of the first major commission by Street Art Toronto – a spectacular 80-foot mosaic mural at the ferry docks.

From experience in other cities and with state agencies such as Transport for London, Mr. Titchner is keenly aware of the inherent tension – using public spaces or funds, on the one hand, while creating genuinely provocative work on the other.

He offered a clue about the Drake project, which he’ll install in late October. “It’s not really supposed to be about me. … I suppose it has a lot to do with the idea of authority and power, and which voices are heard.”

 

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