The little voice inside my head was on red alert, as I stood staring down the road of a narrow alleyway just up ahead in search of graffiti. Armed with nothing but courage and a camera, I was easy pickings for whatever was lurking deep within. My mind told me that there was somebody inside; waiting around a dark corner for the moment some naive idiot like me wandered by so that they could snatch all of my valuables and escape down a hidden corridor of this concrete maze.
A million scenarios flashed through my brain as I looked within. Maybe I’ll get hurt; maybe I’ll get robbed; maybe I’ll get dragged away into the sewers kicking and screaming into the dark tunnels below. Or maybe I’d get lucky and nothing would happen because all those scenarios were just in my head, created by that devious little voice that keeps me from doing anything wrong.
It probably would have been smarter to just go to a gallery instead. The upscale areas of Toronto certainly had their share. Proudly lined along the manicured streets of Yorkville and Grange Park, these havens would be a perfect place to get an education on “real art”; curated by august intellectuals with impressive credentials and upturned noses. There within those fancy exhibits, basking under the glow of ambient lighting, I could gaze upon the hallowed paintings, graced along the clean white walls of the gallery. Endless creations of every kind made by contemporary visionaries who are praised and revered by the cultured and elite, as they sipped fine wine in their fine silk clothes, praising fine art that could only be understood by the finest of individuals.
The only likely confrontation I was to experience there would be a slightly overweight security guard telling me to step back from the paintings and stop using the flash on my camera, “Or else!” I could deal with that. All it would take is a quick eye roll and a curse under my breath to resolve the issue, then I could walk away from the situation relatively unharmed.
But I don’t want to squabble amongst crowds of pretentious connoisseurs, droning on about the life and times of Renoir and Monét as they clutch a glass of complimentary champagne in one hand and the gallery pamphlet in the other. I would rather take a risk and step into the dark, filthy caverns of Toronto’s streets to seek the unknown.
Deep in the heart of the city lies such a place; a legendary stretch of road between Queen St West and Richmond that’s a testament to power of graffiti. A once unassuming back alley lane transformed itself into a vibrant showcase, aimed at promoting the very best street art that the city had to share. Within this concrete chasm, masterpieces lie in humble seclusion, shielded from the outside world by their own primal inhibitions and fear.
Within this concrete chasm, masterpieces lie in humble seclusion, shielded from the outside world by their own primal inhibitions and fear.
It’s only when you work up the courage to get out there and actually search, that you realize that the city is a gallery within itself. A giant canvas made of brick and stone that contains a ubiquitous collection of paintings and murals hidden in plain sight for you to enjoy. They are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, hiding within the cracks of urban development, and waiting behind faded signs that proclaim: “NO TRESPASSING!”.
The real names of the artists who spray these paintings will never be known. They are shrouded in secrecy, creating alluring images under the cover of darkness, then escaping back into obscurity when the sun returns. They are members of an underground subculture; leaving behind nothing but cryptic messages scrawled in paint which are decipherable by only a select few.
Like the ancient hieroglyphics of the past, these audacious symbols tell stories of a mystical kingdom that, seemingly unknowing to us, parallels our own in its nocturnal splendor. Faded murals and hidden messages date back to the days of the great Graffiti War in 2011, when Mayor Rob Ford waged battle against vandalism as he attempted to banish street art into oblivion in a bold move of extermination. Community groups were formed, by-laws were passed, and a final solution was placed into action. The great graffiti purge had begun, led by the infamous Mayor and his power washing goons. The Graffiti Eradication Program was enacted, and the rebellious art exhibits of the streets were brought to the brink of extinction.
Like the ancient hieroglyphics of the past, these audacious symbols tell stories of a mystical kingdom that, seemingly unknowing to us, parallels our own in its nocturnal splendor.
Bureaucracy would not prevail, though. The citizens of Toronto fought back, and local businesses rallied together to organize the legitimization of graffiti in Toronto. A humble road behind Queen Street once known as Rush Lane became the symbol of change, and the now famous Graffiti Alley was born. The art scene triumphed through, and mysterious legends ushered in a new age to the city.
Tucked in the center of this road is its glorious centerpiece, The Toronto Tribute Mural, created by Uber5000, which has become a monument to the beauty of Toronto, with Rob Ford as one of its depicted characters. The cruel colossus who once terrorized the streets now gazes down upon admiring tourists, mounted on a grinning moose. His likeness forever solidified in the thing he despised the most.
The cruel colossus who once terrorized the streets now gazes down upon admiring tourists, mounted on a grinning moose. His likeness forever solidified in the thing he despised the most.
It makes you wonder who these artists truly are. They live in anonymity as part of an exclusive club of talented rebels who were forced into hiding by the laws of society. They chose to go against the grain, using their skills to light up the dull grey streets with splashes of colorful flare.
They chose to go against the grain, using their skills to light up the dull grey streets with splashes of colorful flare.
In this urban gallery, there are no shiny brass plaques and freshly printed pamphlets to be found, only the enigmatic names whispered in the dark and written underneath their creations provide clues. Legends by the names of SKAM, ARTCHILD, Getso, PERU 143, and Shalak Attack are some of the most honored leaders in this underground faction.
And what would Toronto be without them? What would Kensington Market be without the vibrant murals gracing its brick walls and storefronts that seem to pour along its colorful streets? What would Chinatown be without its back-alley dragons; emerald, fire-breathing beasts brooding in the shadows behind takeout restaurants and wholesale markets. And what would Graffiti Alley be? What would any alley be but empty canvases of stone?
I turned back towards the narrow alleyway and decided it was time to tell that little voice inside my head to get lost. Too many years had been wasted listening to him drone on about the terrors that may be waiting within the dark. I looked around twice, took a big gulp, and slowly made my way into the shadows. Armed with nothing but courage and a newfound perspective on rebellious art, I was free to discover a whole new world decorating my cities streets. One where the very walls seemed to come alive in a brilliant spectacle and a hidden exhibit has been left for me to explore.