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In June, I spent a weekend touring Montreal’s vibrant street-art scene with the MURAL Festival team. The annual public-art fest, which happens in the city’s trendy Saint-Laurent Boulevard neighbourhood, has expanded from a modest three-day event into a 10-day party, attracting big names such as Shepard Fairey and Saype, who, this year, created a massive eco-friendly mural of two interlocking arms on the grassy eastern slope of Mount Royal as part of an ongoing project to create the world’s largest human chain.
I realized how many of Toronto’s street artists are recognized around the world at art festivals and with high-profile commissions, and deserve more name attention at home. While 2021–22 was officially Toronto’s Year of Public Art (artworxto.ca), this long weekend is a great time to tour our own city’s rich legacy of street art.
It was a challenge to narrow down the more than 1,000 sites across the GTA, but here are 10 locations I recommend adding to your personal street-art map.
birdO: 105 McCaul St.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when meeting the acclaimed Jerry Rugg, a.k.a. birdO, who publicly hides his face under a massive bird head — though he is isn’t shy about revealing his nude butt on Instagram. While Rugg appeared barefaced (and pants on), his signature bird head beside him in a large plastic bin, we were sitting near another of his avian creatures: a delightful 40-foot inflatable sculpture residing over the site of MURAL’s lively block-party stage.
Like many street artists, Rugg, who was originally attracted to birds as a symbol of freedom, began with graffiti. Working as a graphic designer helped him hone a signature style, integrating 3-D geometric patterns into his hybrid creatures. At Yonge and St. Clair, his colour-popping 10-storey deer is a cheeky nod to the Deer Park neighbourhood. But if birds are your thing, check out the watchful owl that covers the basketball court at 90 Mornelle Ct. in Scarborough or head to 105 McCaul St., where a black-headed oriole surveys Village by the Grange from high above, perched on a cluster of M.C. Escher–inspired cubes.
Jordan Bennett: pi’tawita’iek: we go up river, OCAD U, 100 McCaul St.
As your gaze is directed upward on McCaul, take in Jordan Bennett’s “pi’tawita’iek: we go up river” on the south-facing wall of OCAD U. The Mi’kmaw visual artist, from Stephenville Crossing, N.L., Ktaqmkuk (Newfoundland), reimagines traditional Mi’kmaq porcupine quillwork designs as contemporary graphic patterns to create his own visual language and modes of storytelling. Walk around and view it from every angle — I love how the vibrant designs play against the stark pixelated black and white “tabletop” of the Rosalie Sharp Centre for Design.
Earlier this June, Bennett, who has been nominated multiple times for the Sobey Art Award, transformed busy College Park for the Luminato Festival with his installation “Echoes Calling Back.” Like birdO, Bennett turned to inflatables as a new medium to present his graphic style, this time as a massive Tim Burton-esque antler; an unexpected sight downtown serving as a reminder of a pre-colonized Tkaronto and the Indigenous Peoples who call it home.
Bacon: Metro Toronto Zoo, 2000 Meadowvale Rd.
Chances are as you’ve moved around the city, you’ve passed a mural, alley artwork or painted utility box by Alexander Bacon, who started out in graffiti artist as a ’90s teen. Bacon, who also has an active painting practice, is in demand at prestige international festivals and for commercial gigs — you can even find his graffiti work on a variant cover of a Spider-Man comic, an artistic collab with fellow Toronto artist Mike Del Mundo. He’s also been an artist-in-residence at Stackt (28 Bathurst Street); its community laneway is another mural tour worth exploring.
When I met with Bacon in Montreal as his wall was being prepped, he shared how he’s been experimenting with AI as a tool, much like Photoshop, to achieve new textural effects with his art (his prompts are a secret). It is already astonishing how he replicates the glossy sheen of metal or the delicate curves of a flower petal, so I’ll be watching closely to see what he does next. Bacon’s versatility as an artist is really showcased on the mural he produced for the Toronto Zoo last year, with the assistance of Karen Roberts and Leyland Adams. It’s a stunning menagerie, including a realistically rendered polar bear, wolf, owl and a rhino, comingling in soft shades of blue, turquoise, pink and orange, bringing the warmth of nature to a cold concrete wall.
Clandestinos Art: RendezViews outdoor patio, 229 Richmond St. W.
Ever wonder how street artists physically transfer their visions onto large walls? Some employ stencils; others use projections. When I came upon Shalak Attack of Clandestinos Art on a quiet Montreal side street, she was standing on a scissor lift, marking out the lines of a woman’s face using only a small print-out of the design as her guide.
For larger works, most artists rely on a crew for support. For Shalak Attack, it’s a family affair. Since 2010, the biggest collaborative work to date by Chilean-Canadian artist and her husband, Brazilian street artist Bruno Smoky (now joined by their sweet daughter Violeta), have travelled the world, infusing various locales with their artistic visions. Often they combine their bright colourful styles, which are informed by their Latinx backgrounds, but always approach each project with a deep sense of humanity. Their RendezViews, a 30,000-square-foot parking lot transformed into Toronto’s largest outdoor patio. In addition to covering the asphalt with organically meandering islands glowing with acid colours, the multi-talented duo also designed the adjoining 15,000-square-foot wall mural. Amongst the rainbow of streetscapes, plants and animals that appear to be sliding down the walls onto the ground, Bruno Smoky also painted a portrait as tribute to a dear friend who passed away from COVID-19.
You could spend a full day touring Clandestinos Art’s work across the GTA, but to start, I recommend a mini tour of Little Portugal on Dundas West where you’ll find arresting works by both artists, as well as pieces by Jieun June Kim, Emmanuel Jarus and Portuguese artist Vhils. For a list, check out dundaswest.museum.
Adrian Hayles: Reggae Lane, 1584 Eglinton Ave. W.
In 2021, the stretch of Eglinton Avenue West from Allen Road to Keele Street, known as Little Jamaica, was designated a heritage neighbourhood to help preserve local businesses created and supported by generations of diasporic Jamaicans and others of Caribbean descent. There are several murals here that reflect the street’s vitality, including the gorgeous “Our Crowns” (529 Oakwood Avenue), created by artist Curtia Wright. With faces grounded in deep shades of purple and lilac, the 1,300-foot mural celebrates the cultural importance of Black hair while nodding to local salons and barbershops.
Adrian Hayles — the self-declared “aerosol assassin” — has produced some of the city’s popular exterior artworks, including the two murals at 423 Yonge, the latest of which features musical luminaries such as Carole Pope, Dizzie Gillespie and Rush. He just wrapped up “Concrete Jungle” (1531 Eglinton Ave. W.), a storey of tangled vines, trees and roots, adjacent to Little Jamaica’s “Reggae Lane.” Produced in 2015, here Hayles pays homage to the musicians, recording studios and record shops that made the neighbourhood an epicentre of reggae talent. Swathed in red, gold and green, the 1,200-foot artwork includes portraits of musical luminaries such as Jackie Mittoo, Leroy Sibbles, Johnny Osbourne and the Cougars. If these artists aren’t familiar, add the seminal “Jamaica to Toronto: Soul, Funk & Reggae 1967–1974” to your playlist.
Fiona Smyth: Sneaky Dee’s, 431 College St.
The fact that this scrappy late ’80s bar and performance space (with arguably the best nachos in town) is still standing feels like something of a miracle in the land of glass and steel. Fiona Smyth’s iconic psych-western mural, featuring the signature bonehead with its spiralling eye, may recall a Toronto of yesteryear, but Smyth — who got the gig for $50 after being discovered doing graffiti in a bar washroom — continues to produce unique, feminist-centred comic art that speaks to the present.
Last year, the OCAD U teacher created an interior mural for the Art Gallery of Ontario’s exhibition “I AM HERE: Home Movies and Everyday Masterpieces,” collaging illustrations in her signature style of bold black lines that feature seminal social-justice figures intertwined with artworks, objects and people, some of whom draw on her personal memories. Most recently, the latest title in Smyth’s collaborative picture-book series with Cory Silverberg, “You Know, Sex,” took home the 2023 Doug Wright Award for best kids’ title.
Nadijah Robinson and Elicser: The Dandelions: Queer and Trans Performers in the Wind, 508 Church St.
In 2013, the Church Street Mural Project kicked off in preparation for Toronto’s hosting of the 2014 World Pride festivities. Under co-curatorial leads Syrus Marcus Ware and James Fowler, 11 projects were selected, each representing a diverse aspect of the LGBTQ2+ community and local histories through varying artistic styles and subjects. The Village — and the world, for that matter — has changed a lot since 2013, which makes the murals that remain today more than just a legacy project. They also serve as a sign of resistance.
Nadijah Robinson and Elicser’s mural “The Dandelions,” which wraps the facade of the 1850s Romanesque Revival-style building in a popping cobalt blue, honours a legacy of Toronto queer and trans performers and creative producers, including 1960s soul singer Jackie Shane who, on June 23, received a heritage plaque in her name at the site of the old Sapphire Tavern (Richmond Street East and Victoria Street). “The Dandelions” also features portraits of other entertainers including DJ Zahra, the amazing ballroom House of Monroe and the Great Impostors, featuring Michelle DuBarry, one of the oldest and longest-performing drag queens in the world.
Multipli’city: Underpass Park, 29 Lower River St.
If the Underpass Park was a meal, it would be a buffet. This West Don Lands neighbourhood community gathering space (beneath the Eastern Avenue, Richmond Street and Adelaide Street overpasses) features a skate park, basketball courts and a playground. Be sure to reflect in the “Mirage” installation by Paul Raff, which bounces light and movement through a connecting pattern of octagonal steel mirrors.
But the real draw is the murals, with concrete and steel serving as frames for this massive outdoor gallery, which was featured in a 2016 exhibition by Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, for its innovation. Funded by a coalition of organizations and led by artists Labrona and Troy Lovegates, the Multipli’city project launched in 2017 with a group of Canadian artists including Al Runt (of Lee’s Palace mural fame) and works by two of my personal favourites, Chief Lady Bird and Ness Lee. Many of the works are figurative in nature, a nod to the people who make up this neighbourhood, but the eclectic styles, colours and subjects meld together like an urban wonderland.
And speaking of food, a great time to check it out is during the the underpass’s seasonal farmers’ market, which runs every Thursday from 4:30–7:30 p.m. until mid-October.
Christina Mazzulla: 299 Euclid Ave. (Euclid/Palmerston laneway)
I first discovered tattoo artist Christina Mazzulla’s murals on Instagram and instantly fell in love. I am still on the hunt to find the location of her work in an unidentified Parkdale alley featuring a cartoonish sexy leopard woman, with its nod to 1950s flash tattoos, surrounded by stylized graffiti tags anchored in shades of pink. Often Mazzulla presents beauty with a twist: her massive tropical fish in a Euclid laneway seemingly floats by, creating an aquarium effect. Only at second glance did I realize this beautiful fish has a ghostly skeletal twin swimming behind it.
In 2017, the OCAD U fine-arts grad took part in the three-day event Women Paint, along with 19 other artists, including Chief Lady Bird, Emily May Rose and Bareket Kezwer, to transform a 2,000-foot Parkdale alleyway north of Queen and Lansdowne into a living gallery worthy of a stroll. The number of female-identifying and non-binary street artists have increased, thanks in part to Women Paint initiatives such as their 2021 Mural Jam in North Etobicoke and their series of interconnected murals in the Riverside neighbourhood.
Amir Akbari: Susan Street mural, 3847 Lawrence Ave. E.
Amir Akbari’s charming Susan Street mural, created in 2019 with fellow artists Leyland Adams and Senthuran Kanna, honours local women and caregivers. They’ve captured an open joy in the subjects’ faces; in particular, the child standing on top of a stack of books and seemingly high above the world brings a smile.
For Akbari, the final image is not as important as the process of community involvement and consultation. In an interview with artworxto.ca (a good place to create your own map), the professional artist and educator refers to himself as a craftsperson who creates art on behalf of a community who will have to experience the work every day. Nearby and close to birdO’s owl basketball court at 80 Mornelle Ct., check out “Let your Imagination Fly,” a playful landscape painted by Akbari and a group of local youth on a set of outdoor stairs leading to two local schools — no doubt inspiring the next generation of street artists.
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