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Tag Archives: Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto is also known as Rush Lane or Rick Mercer’s Alley. It runs between Queen and Richmond streets and west from Spadina Avenue to Portland Street. It is an alley in every sense of the word, a single one lane access for services, parking and deliveries. There might be fashion shoots in Graffiti Alley but it still is full of rubbish and delivery vans. It is mostly low, one story with the occasional multi story building, a couple of full building commissions but mostly just piece after piece, on back wall after back fence. There are so many pieces that it goes for almost a kilometre.

I know nothing about Toronto’s graffiti and street art. I’m from Melbourne, as the subtitle of this blog indicates and I want to see something like Hosier Lane. One distinct difference is the community garden off Graffiti Alley.

It is the first place that I go in the city, it says something about me but also the attraction of graffiti for a jet lagged international traveller as it is there when you are, a twenty-four hour seven days a week spectacle. I walk to Graffiti Alley from my central hotel (my wife is attending a conference in the city). There aren’t any other tourists in the lane but I believe that there are graffiti tours of the area (I was just on the wrong day).

There were several pieces are commenting on former Toronto Mayor, occasional substance abuser, and currently deceased, Rob Ford. Ford is targeted because he promised to stamp out graffiti. Graffiti culture is frequently a reaction to its most prominent opponents.

Graffiti Alley is in a cool neighbourhood of Toronto with interesting shops, places to eat and band venues. There is the “hug me” tree on Queen Street. There are a full more murals on carpark walls around the area and a few other small concentrations of graffiti.

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Graffiti Alley is not the only place to see graffiti and street art in Toronto I saw more murals in the Kensington Market area. Lots of cool things in the Kensington Market, marijuana dispensaries and Sth American food. This is Canada in the twenty-first century and not Australia stuck in the past and aspiring to be another Singapore. Maybe I should just live in Toronto, after all I am a Canadian.

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London Regionalism

London, Ontario is the first place that I remember and I lived there for 7 years during the first 9 years of my life. London is on the River Thames in Middlesex County in Ontario; it is a very Anglo area of Canada. It is a small university city and this was part of an environment that allowed for people to develop in freedom. At the time my father was lecturing in Zoology at Western University and London it was going through its own artistic renaissance. And this is the point of this blog entry how a small city became significant in the history of Canadian art.

Recently I returned to London for the first time since I left. I was fortunate to see “A Circle of Friends – the Doreen Curry Collection” at the Western University’s McIntosh Gallery. This modest collection by a librarian from the local public library shows that you don’t have to be a millionaire to put together a significant art collection. For Doreen Curry only collected work from local artists who she knew and these artists turned out to be significant to Canadian art of the 1960s – 80s in a movement called London Regionalism. The focus of Regionalism wasn’t a particular style but the local site and building a community mindset that embraced complete artistic freedom.

When I visited the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa I was surprised to find that the Regionalists of London Ontario are so important to Canadian art history. The first room of the Canadian art section, “Modern 1960 – 1975” is full of their work. Then at an exhibition on abstraction at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal I saw more paintings by Paterson Ewen.

The local artists that Doreen Curry collected included the twin artists, David and Royden Rabinovitch. David Rabinovitch was studying at the University of Western Ontario when he did his first floor sculpture. Greg Curnoe, painter and drummer, kazoo-ist and co-founded of the Canadian noise band the Nihilist Spasm Band. Curnoe also published a Region magazine and established an artist run centre in 1973. And Murray Favro, an artist and the guitarist in the Nihilist Spasm Band. Along with Ron Benner, David Boldoc, Richard Bonderenko, kerry ferris, Dave Gordon, Jamelie Hassan. Doreen Inglis, Ron Martin and Paddy Gunn O’Brien.

There wasn’t an overall style to the art of the London Regionalists just a location and enjoyment of artistic freedom in materials and expression. The location with both the Western University and the public library was important to that local regional cultural renaissance.

I would like to say that some of this radical art attitude rubbed off on my young self that the Regionalists had indeed succeeded in building a mindset that embraced artistic freedom in me. I remember the public library’s collection other media and I listened to a lot of the spoken word from its the record collection. The library’s director Dr Crouch was very progressive and believed that information could be contained in media other than books.

I also remember visiting Western University on an open day and going into the art workshop and an artist saying: “We don’t use art materials any more, we use anything” and pointing to an assemblage of monkey wrenches on the wall. Maybe it was David Rabinovitch or one of the other Regionalists.

I have some vague memories of visiting the public art gallery with my mother and siblings as it was in the same building as the public library. And I definitely remember enjoying an exhibition of edible art by some university students, as you could eat the art after the viewing time. It was an interactive exhibition, in the elevator on the way to the exhibition one of the students announced that he had brought his own spoon. It wasn’t the most serious of exhibitions, these weren’t exclusively art students, and some of the works were just a bunch of students having a laugh, like the rice crispy coffin or the mock up of the cake from the cover of the Rolling Stones “Let It Bleed” (released Dec 1969). Other pieces had a message; the aquarium full of what appeared to be polluted water with weeds and a coke can was in fact a jelly.

Anyway I was digressing into reminiscences when I should be looking at what made London so fruitful artistically. And even this question is around the wrong way, although the public library, the university and the city were part of the structure that allowed the London Regionalists it was the artists who made it, who were determined and conscious about their goal to make it artistically free and fruitful.


Paintspotting in America

Paintspotter, noun, definition: like a trainspotter but for people who look for street art and graffiti (a portmanteau word coined by Fletcher “Facter” Anderson, editor of Invurt).

Stencil Dumbo district NYC

Stencil Dumbo district NYC

I’ve recently returned from travelling in Canada, New York and Boston. When I visit other cities I am a stranger trying to get to know the place, finding the hidden places where street artists and graffiti writers like to work is even more challenging. I try to find a street art tour or a local who knows the scene but often this is not possible. I probably am not seeing the best locations for street art in these cities. Street art is such an insider’s game and that makes it difficult for a tourist to play. In this respect sticker art is the travelling paintspotter’s friend because it gives you a sample of local street art conveniently located on the backs of signs.

Railway graffiti Canada

Railway graffiti Canada

The way to see lots of graffiti is to travel by train. It is not a good way to photograph graffiti but it is a good way to see a lot (respect to all the Bridgeport writers). I did to train trips from Ottawa and Montréal and from NYC to Boston. The best graffiti that I saw in Canada was in Montréal’s plateau district; there were also a couple of impressive walls in London Ontario.

Wall, London, Ontario, Canada

Wall, London, Ontario, Canada

Street art in Montreal

Street art in Montreal

Of the notorious or famous artist whose work I saw Revok up high up in Montréal, Neckface high up in NYC’s Bowery, Shepard Fairey in the Bowery and a piece by Kenny Scharf in Chelsea – Scharf had an exhibition in a gallery just across the road but it was shut so I could only see it through the large windows.

Shepard Fairy Bowery NYC

Shepard Fairy Bowery NYC

Kenny Scharf, Chelsea, NYC

Kenny Scharf, Chelsea, NYC

Another way to find graffiti is to track down the art galleries and there will often be some street art and graffiti in the area. This rule proved true for NYC’s Dumbo district where I saw some of the best street art that I saw in NYC. I didn’t any further into Brooklyn but there was so so many things other that I wanted to see and do in NYC.

Graffiti Wall of Fame, Harlem, NYC

Graffiti Wall of Fame, Harlem, NYC

In Lonely Planet I read about the “Graffiti Hall of Fame”, a wall in NYC but when I got there it was small and capped. The other side of the wall was in better condition but less accessible. So there was I standing on the corner of this street in Harlem asking people passing by if they knew of any other good graffiti locations – New York is a very friendly city but nobody knew of any good walls.

Reverse side of the Graffiti wall of fame, Harlem, NYC

Reverse side of the Graffiti wall of fame, Harlem, NYC

I was just lucky in Boston on the way to the Barry McGee exhibition (see my post) I left the T station and right in front of me is this great wall by Os Gêmeos.

Os Gêmeos, Boston

Os Gêmeos, Boston


Street Art around the World

Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat,

Coz summers here and the time is right for painting in the street.

(Apologies to Marvin Gaye/William “Mickey” Stevenson/Ivy Hunter)

Of course the list of cities where they are painting in the street is a bit longer than a few cities in the USA. Is there city in the world where there isn’t graffiti or street art? It would have to be the most repressive of police states and probably affluent without slums or other areas of neglect (e.g. empty factories). Nor could there be any indigenous tradition of wall painting. It is not Singapore, Iran or even the Vatican City (where there is both ancient and modern graffiti). In Tahiti there is Kreative Concept, l’association graffiti de Tahiti, representing Tahitian street artists. The site is in French (try Google translate) but has lots of photos as you might expect that require no translation. Requiring no translation is Cebu Street Art, from Cebu City in the Philippines. Of course we can just forget about war torn states like Somalia where a Canadian soldier reports “graffiti on everything”. I don’t know where there isn’t graffiti and I wouldn’t bet a dollar that any city in the world was graffiti free now.

As I explored the wide world of graffiti and street art I thought that I would to find more regional differences in this the most international of all art movements but there isn’t anything as obvious as that. The internet has made street art influences global even the cultural divisions of languages and alphabets is not significant in street art. The domination of English language in street art is surprising; even some francophone artists use English. It is disappointing that there aren’t more local references evident in global street art. Surely somewhere in the world traditional wall painting has merged with contemporary street art?

I have been reading, or rather looking at because it is ≈98% photographs, Nicholas Ganz Graffiti World – new edition (Thames & Hudson, 2009). I’m glad that I borrowed it from the library rather than buying it. Artists from the Americas and Europe occupy most of the book so the title is misleading. Although it mostly photographs with very short pieces of information about the artist and it does provide some small overviews of street art in various countries. For example, that Eastern bloc countries were late in developing a street art scene because of government bans on the sale of aerosol spray cans. And Nicholas Ganz reports that the first pieces have gone up in Burma and North Korea (p.374) addressing the question that I raised at the start. There are a few parochial features mentioned in Graffiti World like drawing on rail cars in oil chalk in Canada or the strategies of the some street artists from Brazil. I haven’t been able to compare it to the old edition (2004) but the list of Australian and Singaporean artists appears to have not been greatly revised in this new edition.


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