Monday, May 07, 2012

Jane's Walk 2012 - Graffiti Walk

Participating each year in one or more Jane's Walk events, in honour of the late urban visionary Jane Jacobs, brings new understanding and appreciation of our city.  This year, inspired by the graffiti wars between Mayor Rob Ford and street artists, we participated in the walking tour about graffiti in Toronto.

The walk was led by Jason Kucherawy, cofounder of the group The Tour Guys, who provide both free and paid tours in Toronto and Vancouver.  Since he does this as a profession, this walk was one of best Jane's Walk that we've ever been on.  The content of the talk was excellent as Jason provided history and background on the graffiti movement, terminology and lingo, motivations, rules of engagement and then showed us examples of works by prominent Toronto graffiti artists.  He had a loud booming voice which he attributed to theatre training, that projected easily to the crowd of over 100 people.  His delivery style was light and humorous as he peppered facts with fascinating anecdotes. 

The walk started at the corner of Queen St West and Soho St, the home of the HUG tree created by the graffiti artist known as Elicser.  The tree is a legalized piece of art that was at one point transported to the ROM for an exhibition, and which Elicser spray paints with a new image regularly. "HUG" is actually the name of the crew of artists that help paint the tree but people have taken the name literally and assume that you are supposed to hug the tree.

We were told that the although wall paintings date back to ancient times with hieroglyphics and cave drawings, the current graffiti culture started in the late 60s.  In Philadelphia a kid nicknamed Cornbread wrote his moniker all over the place on walls, while in New York City, TAKI 183 was written by a Greek kid on subway trains to represent his nickname and the street he lived on.

We learned that the writing originated by Cornbread and Taki is called a "tag".  This evolved into "bubble" art or "throw ups" where the writing became more and more elaborate and stylized.  Finally a "piece" combines the fancy writing with some sort of drawing, often referencing cartoons, video characters or other pop culture images.  Images not accompanied by writing is not considered graffiti by graffiti artists, but instead is called "street art".   City Hall however considers any unauthorized markings on a wall that it finds distasteful, political or offensive to be illegal graffiti.  Business owners are liable for cleaning up any graffiti that the city considers unsightly at a cost of about $180 and the fee is added to their property tax if they don't comply.  However businesses can now try to register street art and pieces to get them deemed to be "murals" and therefore art as opposed to graffiti.

We walked through Rush Alley (nicknamed Graffiti Alley) which runs between the boundaries of Spadina Ave and Augusta Ave, Queen St and Richmond St.  This is a utopia for graffiti artists who seem to have carte blanche to ply their trade without interference from the city.   Jason introduced us to the works of several graffiti artists and their trademark images.  Uber draws the yellow birds, often using physical elements of the setting such as a crack, a ledge, the bars of a gate to complement his pieces.   Poser draws rabbits and Spud draws animated grenades and recently, cartoon versions of Rob Ford's face.

Graffiti artists try to one up each other in style and compete for wall space.  Younger, less established or less talented artists should never write over superior work.  Anyone who does so is labelled a "Toy" which is considered the ultimate diss.  Gregory Allan Elliott applies stencils with kitschy sayings over other throw ups which results in the word "Toy"
being scrawled over his work.  DeadBoy is another contentious street artist who stencils images of raccoons and politicians (Ford, Harper) giving the finger.  Again he infringes on the writings of graffiti artists who retaliate by blacking out enough of his work to obscure it, but leaving enough so you can still tell it is his.  

Anyone who copies another artists' work is said to be "biting" and is therefore considered a Toy.  The exception is to copy a dead artist in tribute.  In general tribute works are never written over.  Hospitals, charities, schools and churches are also considered off limits.  It's nice to know that graffiti artists have a code of conduct.

We ended the tour at the Hotel Ocho, the location of the last remaining Banksy drawing from several years ago when several Banksy works started showing up in Toronto.  The hotel pays the $180 monthly fine to be able to keep it from being whitewashed (although they may have registered it by now).  However they cannot keep it from being defaced by other graffiti artists.  The hotel has a framed drawing of what the work originally looked like in comparison to what is currently remaining.  Someone actually offered the hotel $160,000 to sell him the bricks with the Banksy on it, but they refused.

We had an unexpected thrill when we actually came across a graffiti artist priming a wall for a new piece that will be a tribute to the late Beastie Boys member MCA.  Surprisingly he was not disguised or protected with shades or mask or googles and was a bit unnerved to be swarmed by this big crowd with cameras in hand.  After explaining we were on a graffiti tour, he let us watch him for a minute before we respectfully moved on.  Later we were told that we had just met Uber.  It will be interesting to return to the alley to see his finished product.

We learned so much about the graffiti culture from this tour.  Hopefully our city learns to embrace this as an art form that adds diversity and hipness to our image of Toronto the Good.

1 comment:

Jason Kucherawy said...

Thanks for coming on the Jane's Walk! I'm happy you enjoyed it!