It was only two feet long and probably took all of 10 seconds to create, but I sweated over the graffiti tag on my backyard fence for days.
This was a number of years ago, when I lived in a suburban backsplit that backed onto a commercial street. The tag was on the public side of my fence, but I still felt my private space had been violated. I was so angry, in fact, that as soon as I could, I matched the fence colour and rushed out to buy cover-up paint; when I realized the colour worked for other fences along the street, I took a walk with my can and brush and painted out every other tag I could in an act of vigilante justice.
I didn’t want to live in a place that looked like the title sequence of Welcome Back, Kotter, and I still don’t.
But at the risk of contradicting myself, let me also state that I like graffiti: I think it’s a highly expressive, bold art form that adds an interesting layer to the shared sociological experiment we call the big city. And my big city, Toronto, has plenty of it.
I didn’t notice graffiti in Toronto until the late-1980s or early-1990s, so I was surprised to learn in Toronto Graffiti: The Human Behind the Wall (compiled, edited and self-published by Yvette Farkas) that there were a few pioneers working as early as 1981. The book’s interview subjects all agree that “Ren,” a Parkdale-based painter, is the graffiti grand-daddy. Now “retired” for over a decade, he remembers finding himself so alone in those early years he “felt like a reject… it’s so meaningless but I’d still keep doing it.” By the 1990s, however, there were many crews, often amicably swapping members.
While some “graff” artists were self-taught, many were Ontario College of Art students (now OCAD-U), as evidenced by reproductions of pencil sketches and photographs of sculpture in the book. And, contrary to what you might expect, many are female and the scene isn’t necessarily tied to hip hop music, since many interviewees associate themselves with the punk movement. It’s interesting, too, to learn of motivation–while some are obviously attracted to the criminal element, others hope to do meaningful work that will delight onlookers by transforming grey, forgotten parts of the city–and of the gradual transition from a covert form of communication to something looser and, at times, even humorous.
Take a walk along Toronto’s famous “Graffiti Alley” near Queen St. West and Bathurst (Google Maps can point you there!) and see for yourself how fun and silly it can be. And should you find yourself a little west of there, at Bellwoods Ave., travel north to the yellow-painted brick building at No. 65 and head east along the alley beside it. There, an OCAD-U graduate who goes by the pen-name “Elicser Elliot” taught me how to do a “piece,” for Where Cool Came From’s amazing three-part look at street art (Google him, by the way, his portraits will blow you away!).
Despite being given permission, doing that piece felt cool and dangerous; I guess I can now partially understand what was going through the mind of the person who tagged my fence all those years ago. Maybe that person now paints on canvas. Maybe they do both!
It’s a weird time for graffiti: Partially out of the shadows, there’s tension between artists who remain underground (and illegal), and those who see nothing wrong in doing demonstrations at swanky corporate events or by helping companies with interior design; we’ve all been to a restaurant that has a commissioned piece inside, right? Does a piece in a restaurant devalue the art form?
And what about those artists who’ve left the street for the art gallery? Join us on WCCF and we’ll explore these questions together.
Yours in Coolness,