When you think “Toronto,” you usually see the iconic CN Tower in your mind’s eye–that spire reminiscent Seattle’s Space Needle that makes the Toronto’s skyline across the St. Lawrence River so distinctive. But the most impressive sight I found in Toronto was the stretch of colorful murals on a central Toronto backstreet known as Graffiti Alley, which runs along the alley behind Queen Street West, between Spadina and Portland Street.
I visited Graffiti Alley in the summer of 2018 on one of the few cool, rainy summer days. The rain made the gritty alley even grittier and made my bike trip through the alley quicker than I would have liked. My visit was the classic example of letting your camera get between you and your experience,so that I can’t even tell you whether the murals are done entirely with spray paint or contain some brush work. And though some of these murals appear to contain words, even in photographic form, they are difficult to parse.
Graffiti has become an accepted urban art form not only in Toronto but many other cities, and it’s gone beyond graffiti to urban murals. Sacramento, where I live, also has many downtown murals that would never be called “graffiti.” Toronto also several murals about town in addition to Graffiti Alley, and these, too, remain now that the Toronto City Council has legalized this art form.
The Council adopted a Graffiti Management Plan in the summer of 2011, which then prompted the creation of StART, or StreetARToronto, which promotes street art in the city. The effort was led by the Queen Street Business Improvement Association, which represents local businesses within the particular area, because business owners didn’t want to have to remove the murals.
On my rented bicycle, I tried to dodge the rain, as well as a spat between a woman sweeping behind her Chinese restaurant and a homeless woman squatting in a makeshift tent. Then I had to run a gauntlet of photographers, who had arrived at the alley in a posse led by an instructor.
Since 2011, Graffiti Alley has become a tourist stop as well as a spot for local street fests and even music videos, according to one report. Photos of Graffiti Alley are all over the web and blogosphere; the photos here that I shot that day are just a small example.
After Graffiti Alley was designated “an area of municipal significance,” and Vogue called Queen Street West as one of the “coolest” neighborhoods in the world, the alley landed on the list of places for city walking tours and drew artists to paint a mural on the cement walls and doors. Some murals get painted over, so that the alley may look totally different in a few more years.
What struck me were the bright colors and the racy, cartoon-like aspects of nearly all of the murals. Several of the murals in the alley when I was there appeared to have been painted by the same artist.
There was one wall that contained a very different style of mural that seemed more organic, reminding mean of flowers or sea anemones.
But more often the graffiti artists seemed to be going for a space age or road racer look. The murals are abstract, colorful and imaginative.