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Artist Shalak Attack’s artwork at King and Sumach Streets is one example of Toronto’s StART underpass mural project, part of a series of murals to be unveiled over the next few weeks. The project lead calls the murals the ‘cherry on top’ of efforts to make underpasses more inviting. They’re inspired by an initiative in Philadelphia, which claims to have the most expansive mural program in the United States.Brian B. Bettencourt

The image of proud, smiling monochrome faces is serene and inviting, a complete juxtaposition to its viewing perch – a median underneath the subway tracks near Warden Station on St. Clair Avenue East. This may seem an unlikely place for a piece of art to honour working women during the Second World War, but it's part of a municipal initiative designed to reclaim such neglected spaces.

The Scarborough Junction mural, by Montreal artist Omen, is one of five commissioned this fall as part of the Underpass Program. It's an offshoot of StreetARToronto, the city's attempt to embrace and legitimize street art.

StART, as the city's Transportation Services department's program is also known, had already identified underpasses that had potential for art, in particular those that wouldn't require structural rehab in the next decade. "Generally, they're quite dingy, not places that are celebrated in the community," says Kristina Hausmanis, StART's project manager.

The city wants to change that perception. The man ultimately responsible for the transformation is Stephen Buckley, the general manager of Transportation Services. Mr. Buckley was lured away two years ago from his hometown Philadelphia, a city renowned for having the biggest public art program in the United States.

Last spring, StART recruited 23 artists to be on a roster for projects around the city. A committee representing each of the five underpass sites decided on a theme, shortlisted three artists and solicited design proposals from them. After community consultations, the committee reviewed comments, graded the submissions and chose a winner.

Each mural serves its respective neighbourhood in a different way. Long-time Toronto muralist Bill Wrigley's depiction of birds' and butterflies' migratory journey across the Scarborough Bluffs is simple by design, given that its audience is primarily made up of motorists.

Paul Aloisi's mural, Synesthesia, on Davenport Road north of Dupont Street, is interactive, allowing the audience to dial in to hear the sound of moving trains that inspired the strokes of paint on the walls.

And artist Elicser paid tribute to the mothers who take care of the Rail Garden on Woodfield Road, a collection of garden plots for neighbourhood use. His work makes the tunnel connecting the neighbourhood to Monarch Park a little less intimidating.

Toronto-based Elisa Monreal's homage to local factory workers and settlers came out on top in Corktown. Her artwork splashes around the pillars where Adelaide and Richmond Streets sweep over King Street East.

Unlike the surroundings of Omen's canvas, hers has a much higher concentration of foot traffic. It's more appealing for passersby to linger. "I walk by and I see the spot of colour and it puts a smile on my face," says Corktown resident Beth Jordan. "You want to look at the story that's being told on the pillars."

In a sense, Monreal's mural will be a gateway between two parks, Orphan's Green and Underpass Park, and harmonize the orphaned space in between.

Monreal – who has participated in art projects around the world including Chile, Brazil and Mexico – believes Toronto is only just warming up to street art. "A couple years ago there was a negative connotation when you would say graffiti. Street art is a new vocabulary," says Monreal, whose artist moniker is Shalak Attack.

While the overpass itself is unattractive, Councillor Pam McConnell, whose ward includes Corktown, feels the artwork at least mitigates the way it has intruded upon the neighbourhood's prime real estate.

"The overpass had really sliced our community in half. It was a huge barrier to connecting people between the West Don Lands and Corktown," Ms. McConnell says. "It was essential that we really take some of those orphaned spaces and make them feel safe. The StreetART program gave us an opportunity to test that out."

The mural is one part of a transition beneath the hulking concrete that began with Underpass Park and could be a blueprint under the Gardiner Expressway's belly downtown. But it's a work in progress, one Ms. McConnell hopes will make more corners feel safer. "Those activities that are out of sight, out of mind flourish in those sorts of spaces. In Corktown, we had a lot of those spaces.

"This art project begins to rehabilitate these empty spaces. And when that happens you don't have people camping out, people availing themselves of prostitutes or drugs."

Arthur Sinclair, vice-president of the Corktown Residents and Business Association and a civil engineer, says he's a firm believer that the proper environmental design can curb undesirable activity and attract family-friendly use of the space. "I find that increased awareness of the surroundings is a very good thing for community cohesion," he says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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