Walking through the streets of Toronto feels like striding through a vibrant, colourful outdoor museum. From Gay Village to Little Italy to Chinatown, the many artists of Toronto never miss an opportunity to display impressive murals that reflect the multiple faces of the city’s many neighbourhoods.
As one recent BBC Radio study claims, 51% of Toronto’s population is foreign-born and the city comprises more than 230 nationalities. Toronto boasts a colourful and versatile art scene, which is expressed on urban canvases.
Vandalism or art ?
The flourishing street art culture has sparked interest and controversy among prominent figures and institutions in Toronto. Defined as “vandalism” by former graffiti-removal obsessed and incidentally crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford, who in 2013 even went as far as to ask people to call 911 if they ever witnessed “graffiti vandalism” in their neighbourhood (priorities, I guess), street art became the source of heated debate.
With artists striking back, and a paradoxical increase in vandalism graffiti since artists had to paint murals quickly so as to avoid getting caught, causing a decrease in quality in their art, the role of street art had to be redefined. Ironically, this war on graffiti paved the way for the launch of a public-private partnership programme backed by the City of Toronto and the Art Gallery of Ontario. More than simply aimed at “beautifying the streets of Toronto through community-engaged street art”, StreetARToronto, launched in 2012, has become a way for artists, often young fine-arts grads lacking studio space, to establish a profile in noticeable spots, and a way for neighbourhoods to display their specificities and their stories through community-based practices.
Giving a voice to communities
For visual artist Jenny Li, who was born and raised in Shanghai and now does art at the University of Toronto, “Street art of course makes the city scene better, but it also shows the characteristics of the city. »
« Street art creates a lot of jobs and opportunities for the artists in town, and at the same time decreases vandalism, making people cherish property better, » Li said.
« I believe street art plays a role in shaping Toronto’s multicultural identity, » Li said. « There is a lot of street art that carries messages, and there are so many artists in Toronto that come from different cultural backgrounds. We are all built up by our past and our culture, and those things will definitely show in the works.”
And indeed, murals in Chinatown have nothing in common with murals in Little Italy or Cabbagetown, a neighborhood scattered with cute Victorian houses, whose name stems from the cabbages the poor Irish immigrants used to grow in their front yards. Works of art in Chinatown depict huge, colorful dragons and scenes of Chinese daily life, while Little Italy displays not only the cultural but also the natural history of its neighborhood. The stories of historic families of Garrison Creek, a legendary river that used to run through Little Italy and which now lives as a sewer system, run through the walls of the neighbourhood. The walls of Cabbagetown are painted with enormous and ornate cabbages.
As a pretty young city undergoing substantial urban transformations, Toronto is steadily asserting its distinctively inclusive and multicultural identity, and at the same time making a place for itself on the international art scene. Murals play in this sense an important role. The city becomes an object of communication, on the one hand a means for local communities to tell the stories of their neighborhoods, on the other an urban marketing tool used to increase the city’s visibility on the international stage.
When murals builds an inclusive environment
Today, street art has become an integral part of Toronto’s beautification scheme, turning the city into a vibrant urban canvas. By engaging local and international artists, as well as communities through public events and initiatives, the programme has significantly changed the perception of this form of art by Torontonians and visitors alike.
The “Outside the Box” programme, whose aim is to bring color to the streetscape by giving artists the chance to create works of art on traffic signal boxes, which are often targeted by vandalism, is an example of such an initiative. Another example is the StART UP (StreetART UnderPass) programme, whose goal is to transform at least 5 underpasses per year, making them safe, walkable, and beautiful.
Giving a voice to the various communities which make up its colourful neighbourhoods is a way for Toronto to emphasise its multicultural character and build a supportive, integrated cultural mosaic. Various organizations work towards this common goal.
UrbanArts, a non-profit Community Arts Council, helps youth engage in community development through art, while the Steps Emerging ARTivists Programme, aims at bringing communities together to improve some of Toronto’s most underserved neighborhoods through public art. Sketch helps homeless and “on the margin” young people engage in artistic activities. These three organizations, to name a few, are all examples of how art is used to shape communities and neighborhoods.
Toronto-based artist Paul Byron tells me that what he particularly likes about creating art outdoors is the interaction between the murals, the people and the environment. His brightly colored, pop culture inspired murals and mailboxes are in constant conversation with the buzzing environment.
This communication can take various forms: a casual exchange of words with curious passers-by, or merely the reflection of life in a particular spot in the city. In Toronto in particular, the artist can also have another important role: that of providing people who have difficulties making themselves heard with a voice. Paul volunteers at Hong Fook, a mental health association which helps people with an Asian cultural background. As a street artist, his role is to help these people find channels of expression through art. A task which is not always easy: “Sometimes, a certain population has been deeply wounded, and finding a way to express feelings is difficult”.
« A golden age for urban artists »
What is more, developing a strikingly original artistic scene is a way for Toronto to assert its position as a creative and innovative artistic hub. This is done through the creation of a new, urban, iconic culture thanks to original exhibitions and the fusion of old and new. A representative example is the recent architectural renovation of the Royal Ontario Museum and its weekly “Friday Night Live”, where alcohol, medieval suits of armour, graffiti and mammoth skeletons are a perfectly acceptable mix. The street beautification StreetARToronto programme and development of an incredibly diverse outdoor scene has made Toronto one of the top cities to see outdoors, rivaling New York, London and Berlin.
“I think we’re living in a golden age for urban artists,” said Lilie Zendel, the Director of StART. “With the City of Toronto now permitting and even encouraging street art, a once illicit form practised under the cover of dark is now a full-blown phenomenon celebrated in all neighborhoods across the city.” Toronto might be young (Canada will indeed be turning 150 next year on the 1st of July), but its walls are on their way to becoming some of the most interesting and diverse in the world.