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The secretive artist behind the 'We’re all in this together' signage, seen here at Lipstick & Dynamite in Toronto on March 27, 2020, that has proliferated across central Toronto used an old Honest Ed’s sign to create a stylized look he hoped would channel 'the optimistic, can-do kind of attitude that is part of what the city is.'

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

It’s a message for our nervous time, but presented in a way that harks back to an era when COVID-19 didn’t exist.

That’s deliberate, said the secretive artist behind a poster – “We’re all in this together” – that has proliferated across central Toronto. He used an old Honest Ed’s sign to create a stylized look he hoped would channel the spirit of the long-time retail mainstay, what he called “the optimistic, can-do kind of attitude that is part of what the city is.”

His posters are now displayed in a wide range of downtown storefronts, forming, along with the hand-lettered messages of hope put up by many businesses, a collective message of civic unity to residents being told to avoid one another.

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Across Toronto, these words of encouragement and defiance speak to people faced with mounting numbers of COVID-19 cases, increasingly urgent pleas from health officials to flatten the infection curve and ever-stricter restrictions on actions and businesses.

It was the looming shutdown of restaurants and bars earlier this month that prompted the artist to create his poster, he said.

He handed out the initial batch and then started offering them for sale, pledging to give all the proceeds to a charity he has not yet selected. This week, he also made them free to download through the Instagram account @Dreeemlord.

“I felt, you know, it’s unethical to say you can only be in this together if you can afford a $16 [poster] at a time like this,” the artist, who produces under the pseudonym Dreeem, said in an interview.

He said the sentiment and style for the poster came to him as a package. And so he spent a recent Sunday evening photographing an old Honest Ed’s sign – he’d salvaged it, a warning not to block an emergency exit, at a store-closing party – and massaging the original letters into a new message.

“It is interesting that this sign that had no purpose any more … got retired and now it’s, like, back in action,” the artist said. “It’s a very unglamorous sign and those letters have found a new life – it’s kind of unexpected.”

David Mirvish, the son of Honest Ed’s founder Ed Mirvish, said he had not yet spotted one of the posters but agreed that the decor of his father’s old store had a special resonance.

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“It’s a certain spirit and a certain style, but very tongue in cheek and ultimately meant to give people a laugh,” Mr. Mirvish said.

“The idea of making posters in the style of Honest Ed’s, that encourage people to recognize that it’s a battle but we’re going to support the people who are helping us get through it and we’re going to support each other, is good.”

The artist printed about 300 of his posters and hit the downtown to distribute them. But he kept a low profile, which he says was critical. Even people close to him don’t know that he does art under the name Dreeem, he explained, because he wants his work to speak for itself.

The clerk at a convenience store on Bloor Street just shook her head mutely when asked whether she knew the source of the sign in her window. Sean Killen, the owner of Bikes on Wheels in Kensington Market, said he had no idea where his shop’s sign came from. After consulting staff, he said the best they knew was that it had been dropped off by “a young guy on a bike.”

Bicycle-repair shops were declared an essential business by the provincial government. And Mr. Killen said that although they are less busy than usual for this time of year, his shop is still serving a steady stream of customers. They see cycling as a way to avoid transit and get around while keeping a safe distance from each other.

He called the poster an important message of civic boosting, aimed in part at those businesses that are still operating.

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“It’s … Toronto strong, we’re all here working this together,” he said. “That’s what I thought the sign, the meaning of it was. And also trying to support the small business as well in all the neighbourhoods and communities.”

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