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With big city programs to discourage graffiti on hold, several alternatives are filling the gap

#ItsAllRightNow is a public-art project being co-sponsored by the Bentway.Samuel Engelking

If you venture down Toronto’s Graffiti Alley these days, you’ll see a new series of murals commemorating Black lives. Paint the City Black, a gathering of 40 artists organized by Jessey Pacho and Moises Frank, has created a portrait gallery on construction hoardings at the east end of the alley at Augusta and Queen Streets. There’s a tribute to George Floyd and others killed by police, along with dramatic images of Martin Luther King Jr. and the author James Baldwin, all painted in shades of black and grey. Every doorway and pole in the area is sprayed with tags but the murals, including an earlier one of rapper Nipsey Hussle, remain untouched.

There is some concern that graffiti has been on the rise during the pandemic. Vancouver, in particular, has suffered a nasty spike in racist anti-Asian slogans. And I can report that a particularly obnoxious tagger has been busy marking fences and signs in my Toronto neighbourhood. Banksy they ain’t. On the other hand, there have also been inspiring examples such as exhortations to wash hands and thank yous to health care workers, along with lots of sidewalk chalk drawings.

Self-portraits fill up Gallery 1313 reflecting how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting artists

Like many big cities, both Toronto and Vancouver have street art programs that are supposed to discourage graffiti by providing artists with materials and permissions to paint murals on the tempting blank walls of both public and private properties. Those city programs are on hold, but several alternatives have sprung up to encourage pandemic-related street art.

Toronto and Vancouver's programs to discourage graffiti are on hold, but several alternatives have sprung up to encourage pandemic-related street art.Samuel Engelking/Handout

Vancouver’s Mural Festival commissioned artists to paint on the plywood hoardings that had gone up over closed stores. Most of the 60 murals have come down as stores reopen, but that’s immaterial to those of us who aren’t able to visit Vancouver anyway. A gallery of #MakeArtWhileApart works can be viewed at vanmuralfest.ca.

Some feature COVID-19 themes and slogans – “Together For What’s To Come” or “Smiles are Contagious” and “WE ALL SEE THE SAME MOON” – but others are simply smart graphic solutions. Ben Knight covered the black façade of a bar with the outlines of white flowers. Atheana Picha fashioned an intricate Coast Salish design of bright green frogs. Aimee Young created a pattern bold enough for bedsheets over the front of a housewares store.

Some of the plywood is being repurposed in construction projects, but a selection of the murals is being saved and donated to the Museum of Vancouver, which is planning an exhibition about how the city lived during the coronavirus.

In Toronto, the Bentway (that artsy public space under the Gardiner Expressway) got together with the Waterfront Business Improvement Area and the Cossette advertising agency to commission billboard designs, calling the project #ItsAllRightNow. Twenty artists were asked “What words are you living by?” and replied with such slogans as “WE WILL MEET AGAIN,” “MAKE yourself at HOME” and the one word “STASIS,” accompanied by an image of a worried face. One of the most powerful, especially considering the recent Black Lives Matter protests, features a cluster of smokestacks and the slogan: DON’T TURN THE OLD POWER BACK ON.

In Toronto, one of the most powerful commissioned billboard designs by the Bentway features a cluster of smokestacks and the slogan: DON’T TURN THE OLD POWER BACK ON.Samuel Engelking

The images are cycling through electronic billboards at Yonge and Dundas, and along the Gardiner. As well, copies have been physically pasted around town. I spotted some on a small-scale billboard outside a corner store in my neighbourhood and realized I had walked past them several times without recognizing the project: The posters have to be small enough that they can be put up by one person.

Meanwhile, at Yonge and Dundas, the huge electronic versions were alternating with ads for Hyundai and Rogers when I last biked through. The square was a confusing mass of messages – City of Toronto signs were still telling people to stay home while H&M was excitedly announcing “We’re Open” – and the artists’ billboards inserted themselves quietly into the odd destabilizing of what is normally a single-minded commercial space.

At Yonge and Dundas, the square is a confusing mass of messages: City of Toronto signs, store advertisements and artist billboards.Samuel Engelking

As a street art program, #ItsAllRightNow is unusually surreptitious, sneaking up on you in a way that neither angry graffiti nor bold murals do. More common are murals that impress through colour or scale, such as the giant Leonard Cohen in Montreal or the massive yellow BLACK LIVES MATTER the mayor of Washington had painted along the city’s 16th Street artery. Those words derive instantaneous power from their sheer size and colour, the yellow of road signage and median lines everywhere. But I wonder how long before the traffic wears them away?

Impermanence is in the nature of both street art and graffiti. The last time I walked through the park nearest my house, I noticed that one of the local tagger’s most prominent marks had been totally eclipsed by a healthy crop of weeds. It seemed appropriate.

Samuel Engelking