At Yonge and Bloor. Photo by Metrix_X.
Over the past two years, one hundred (or so) faces have popped up on walls around the city. Most were completed in stages: a quick sketch of a woman done one night in black paint might grow blue eyes, brown hair, and earrings soon after, provided she hadn’t already been painted over. The work, especially the female sketches variously dubbed “the painted lady” and “the lady,” gained many admirers, including us, but the artist behind them managed to stay anonymous even as the sketches grew in number and reputation.
But then, in January, the recently-opened Funktion Gallery announced a new show, and a familiar face graced the poster advertising it. The jig was up: the answer was Anser. And after months spent trying to pin the artist behind the faces down, Torontoist finally caught up with Anser near the Art Gallery of Ontario this past weekend to talk.
On Dundas Street West. Photo by Michael D’Amico.
Torontoist: Did you start [drawing the faces] last year? Or were you doing it long before then?
Anser: I’ve been doing traditional graffiti for a really long time. Then I had a fall out where I wasn’t into it. I wasn’t really appreciating it as much—I still liked it, but it just wasn’t me. And I had a bit of an epiphany after a while: I realized graffiti itself is very elitist…it’s only meant for people within the graffiti culture to really participate. And after a while I just felt like, it’s in the public realm, why not involve the rest of the public? Especially because graffiti gets such a bad rap because of that: people fear what they don’t understand, and they don’t really understand graffiti….I just felt like I wanted to put a friendly face on graffiti; that was the whole idea, basically, and I wanted to involve the whole public. I didn’t want to just be another graffiti artist. And that’s why I chose to do all these faces in spray paint, so that [the public] could see the medium, still see the link to graffiti, but all of a sudden say, “Wait, that’s not a jumble of letters that I can’t understand. It’s a face. It’s looking at me.” And half the time it might be smiling.
[The faces] blew up this time last year. I started two years ago, but I didn’t have the balls: once you stop doing it and you’re out of the scene, and you try to get back in, it is fucking hard. It is shit-your-pants type shit, ’cause it’s not easy under pressure to just bust anything out. I think that’s one of the funniest things, when I get criticism for how a face might look. I just think it’s hilarious because, I mean, give them a spray can, tell them in ten seconds to get a face done, and they’ll see how the proportions go.
What was the first one you did?
The first one I did was overseas. I was travelling, and I was just painting with a bunch of friends. All of a sudden I just looked at the bombs they were doing, and I felt like standing out. And I don’t even know where the fuck it came from. I just did an eye all of a sudden, and then another line led to an eye, and because I was trying to do it fast they would all turn into one line, and that was the start of it. It’s kinda funny, though, because when I think about it, if everybody in the graffiti world did characters I’d probably be doing letters. But half the reason I’m doing the characters is because I want to stand out. I want people to notice [graffiti] in a different light.
I also noticed you don’t tag your name, really, ever.
I try not to.
The brand is more the actual style of what you’re doing, right?
Exactly. I kinda wanted it to be like that; I wanted people to recognize the face and not think, “Oh there’s a whole other person behind this.” It’s like the face is the thing.
There was a definite process to the faces, too: it seemed like you would do them in stages….was that just because you wanted to get it done as fast as possible and get out?
My thing is I can’t be seen. When I’m painting, I can’t be seen, because if I’m seen it really ups the ante. With the graffiti artists, because people don’t understand it as easily, there’s a certain barrier of illusion there, there’s a buffer zone. Whereas me, with the face, it’s automatically recognizable. So for me, secrecy is the biggest thing; I gotta make sure I’m just not seen. So a lot of the times what’ll happen is that I’ll wait at a spot for like an hour and maybe get only ten seconds in three intervals.
Like, of actual painting in.
Yeah, exactly. But the stages are a funny thing. A lot of times it’s purely situational: there was one at Yonge and Bloor, and I’d have to wait for the Blue Night bus, and I only painted this wall because I had to keep waiting for the Blue Night bus. And it had to be done in certain stages because I only had a specific amount of time.
Is it totally random—do you typically have cans of spray paint on you and then just go “oh, this’d be cool to do it here”—or do you scout locations out?
It’s a bit of both….I did one around the corner that it was just like I looked around and all of a sudden it was dead, and I had a can, and I was like: “Holy crap, this is the perfect opportunity, I gotta do this.” Moreso, I’d say it’s I think of a spot, I pick it, I find the right day, the right time, and I just go and try and get it done. But I do do a lot of the coming back. I like people seeing the stages. I like leaving it black and white, and then coming back, finishing the hair, and then coming back and doing the eyes a certain colour.
What’s the actual process? Do you spend like ten seconds each time adding stuff? Or you get any time in you can?
Any time in I can. I mean, if it’s free it’s free. If it’s not it’s not, and then I have to do it in intervals. Ideally it’s all one go. Then again, sometimes I’ll go out with only a black can. I’ve had a few nights where I’ve gone out and done maybe like five faces and then the next day it’s like, “fuck, I’ve gotta put colours in those eyes so that they actually stand out.” And I’ll have to redo my route and just go add colour.
I saw, too, that some other artists have been adding to it: I saw Books made one of them a gypsy.
Oh yeah, yeah. But Books is an anti-graffiti artist. He’s like the Dadaist of graffiti. He’s like: “I hate graffiti, but I’m using its tools to make fun of it.”
At the Poor Alex Theatre on Brunswick Avenue. Photo by Michael D’Amico.
When you go back to the places [where you've put up the faces], are most of them gone now?
Graffiti moves so fucking fast. Especially in Toronto, it’s done and it’s gone. There are only really a few that are still left that I think are actually good ones or valid ones. The only one, actually, that I can think of is [at] Dundas and Spadina. There’s a bit of an alcove; it’s still there and I know it’s gonna be there for a really long time…that one to me is the ideal form of graffiti, which is a mix between painting and installation. Because it’s using the public space around it.
It belongs to the place it’s set at…
Exactly. It actually fits. Cause this face is in the alcove, it’s the way she’s staring down, it’s kinda hidden, mysterious.
It seems particularly like the one character, the woman, is everywhere. Is that based on a real person?
So it’s just…
Well, okay, we could get into so many different arguments here. It could be like subconscious, that subconsciously I started with a certain person. There definitely are times when certain people will come out in my face and I can recognize that. But then a lot of the times it’s just a matter of chance, and a lot of it is how the face gets formed. All it really is a matter of lines, like I do the eyes a certain size…
And that’s how the variations happen…
Exactly, it’s all based on the moment. A lot of it might even have to do with how I feel, like sometimes you’ll get a piss-off one, cause it’s in the middle of the winter and I know it’s gonna be buffed in four days. And sometimes you might get a happy one because I want people to look at it and smile or something.
And you try to incorporate the location into each one?
It depends. Ideally, I want all my things to be like that. But I gotta be honest that I’m doing the exact same things that other graffiti artists are doing, other bombers, which is: you take an image, you take an idea, and you plop it in a spot that it’ll be noticed as much as possible….I mean, there are times where I definitely try to fit it in. But I’m not always able to do it. A lot of the time it’s just like, gotta rock out with my cock out and just throw it up.
Anser’s show at Funktion Gallery, “A Mysterious Date with Anser.” Photos by funkaoshi.
Were you always planning to do the show?
I’m friends with José[-Gabriel, Funktion's founder], and once he opened that gallery I wanted to help support him. And we talked about this as basically a money-making opportunity. Really, that isn’t the type of publicity I want, because that’s taking something out of its context completely. The face belongs in the street. Really, my art [in the gallery] is completely separate from my graffiti [on the street]. And that’s the big difference: I’m trying to support the gallery.
But the show was interesting…it’s taking the face and putting it in a safe place and saying, “just expand.” Because under the pressure, a lot of the time I can only get a certain few ideas out, and I don’t like to think too much about the face; I just like to do it. That is the special part about it. But in the gallery, it was really fun because I got to explore different things. In the future, I really want to do different ethnicities; I want the face to be the multicultural image of Toronto.
The one really neat one I saw on a wall [at the show] was the woman in the hijab.
And it extended past the boundaries of the poster [it was painted on] onto the wall, too.
Well that’s the whole idea of the show. Almost everything in the gallery goes off the canvas. That’s because the only real piece of art is the whole thing, and when you buy the canvas you’re only buying a small little portion of a whole piece.
On Queen Street West. Photo by Michael D’Amico.
Is the [fundraising] logic behind putting it on t-shirts, too? Like “I’m gonna make some money for my friends and some for myself?”
That’s not completely it; that incorporates another form of graffiti, which is advertising. The more people that have that shirt, the more people notice the face, the more it’ll get out there.
And you want that.
I do kinda want that. But I wanted [the face known] more in the context of the streets, because I’m really trying to be the bridge between street art and graffiti, and I’m trying to get people to look at how it’s not so scary.
I almost think of street art and graffiti not as two separate things but as sort of the same…
Oh, they’re totally separate, they’re totally separate. I mean you look at the mediums that they use. Street art to me is the more artistic, the more easy-to-access side of graffiti. Graffiti really is a totally different cultural phenomenon that people are participating in.
Like having a huge tag on a wall is more graffiti…
Oh, that is graffiti. And someone who does an amazing image and puts it on a poster and posts it up—that’s street art. It’s having a dialogue with a total different medium, total different people, total different space. And to be honest, I agree more with street art.
And that’s why you moved a bit from graffiti to street art…
But I love graffiti. So that’s why I’m in between these two boundaries. Personally, I do do some postering, I do do some other forms of street art. But really, I think the thing that attracts me so much to graffiti is that it’s a moment in time that is a moment of creation, where you have to step to this spot, you have no time to think, you have no time to go “okay, this line’s gotta go this way, and I have to make sure that this is perfect”…you have to just boom [snaps fingers] and do it. And that is why I think a lot of graffiti artists can’t appreciate street art—because you’re removing that instantaneous creation.
Because of all the prep work, right?
Yeah, exactly. It’s like you’re sitting at home and you made this amazing drawing, sure, and then you just went to the spot, you go buh-buh-buh-buh-buh, and it’s on the wall, instead of you actually creating it there. And that’s one of the reasons why I do the faces, because it’s still using that tool of creating in the spot, which to me is a very very valid art form.
On Euclid Avenue. Photo by Michael D’Amico.
Did you choose the name Anser recently, for the show?
No no no, I’ve been known as Anser for a really long time….I was doing letter-based graffiti ages ago, like maybe six years ago was when I first started. Maybe a bit longer, I don’t know. The thing is I just never got too into it, so my name never got known until this happened. José is the one who connected the face with Anser. Before this—you said it yourself—I never really leave a tag next to the face.
Yeah, and most people had no idea…
Who I was.
Not even the name you’d chosen.
Exactly, and that’s the point. I wanted it to be anonymous, I wanted it to be out there. Anser is me; the face is “mysterious date”…it’s like a little separate genre. There was this one guy, a photographer, who for the CONTACT exhibition around Toronto took photos of [the face] and then, you know those TVs in the subway station? They were running photography and one of them was all pictures of my faces. And he dubbed it “Mysterious Date.” [That photographer was Michael D'Amico, whose photos fill this article: he followed the faces around Toronto last year, and named the collection "Mystery Date," after the board game.—Ed.] And that’s how I got the name. I thought it was funny, I thought it was kinda true: you mysteriously walk into this moment with another person.
And that’s what I like about the faces—it’s one of the few faces in the world that you can stare directly into the eyes and the eyes will stare back. It’s a moment where you can actually have a connection with something, even though it’s not a real person. It’s trying to create a connection, trying to create a dialogue. I think on the subconscious level, and maybe a romanticized, idealized level, graffiti is trying to put organic forms back onto an inorganic world. We live in gray, steel, concrete. And tags really are just organic colour, organic forms, and that to me is like creating a dialogue with each other. It’s about communication.
Top: Os Gêmeos in São Paulo. Photo by amfdesigner. Bottom: SWOON in San Francisco. Photo by Heart of Oak.
It feels like there’s an explosion going on [in street art in Toronto] over the past five years. There have been people who’ve been around forever, but I know so many more people are interested in it now and so many more people are doing it now, too.
Yeah, and I think it’s important. But it’s really sad because we’re in the least prevalent graffiti scene…If you look at Montreal’s graffiti scene, it’s exploding, and it’s incredible. Every corner you go around, somebody’s commissioned a mural. And the graffiti itself is a lot better, and that has to do a lot with our cultures, with the way we perceive our environment. Here, it’s like the tie’s up; there, the tie’s down.
I definitely sense that the debate is still going on about whether it’s valid art or not.
That debate will always go on.
But it’s funny because it seems like some people and some places are over that debate now.
Oh yeah, I mean, go to São Paulo. Even the London Tate has had a retrospective on graffiti artists. Os Gêmeos are these amazing brothers from Brazil, these two twins from Brazil…one twin is a graffiti artist, and the other twin is a street artist, so together they create this amazing team. When you see some of the pieces they’ve done illegally, you’re just like, “What the fuck?” It’s like a storey high and it’s an amazing piece, and then you see the guys’ characters and they’re just genius. They’re very very installation like, they’re very quintessential, stylistic—but the Tate modern had an exhibition of them. Another artist is SWOON. She’s a street artist. What’s really going on is that street art is getting recognized. Graffiti will always be where it is, and that has very much to do with its cultural parameters. I mean, It’s made for graffiti artists by graffiti artists.
Have you found the style that you wanna do? Or…
No no no. I’ll always be doing the face. I’ll always have that, just because I’ve created something that people notice, people appreciate, and it uses that same tools of graffiti, like, “Oh that guy’s been here, oh that guy’s been there.” And I like that tool of graffiti, I like that recognition: it’s like the world isn’t that alone. You’re not that alone. So that’s why I would keep doing the face. But at the same time, everything gets stale, everything gets old, and as an artist I grow and change every day. But there already have been different movements. Me and a friend started invisible children. We both saw this documentary called Invisible Children, about the child soldiers of Sudan, and we’ve been doing wheatpastes and other things. I’ve been trying to do actual characters there; obviously it’s a lot harder to a child soldier than to do a face of a girl that I’ve done a million times. But there are a lot of branches that I wanna change. I wanna expand. The funny thing is that I want to keep them slightly separate so that only a select few would even notice that it’s the same artist.
On Nassau Street. Photo by Michael D’Amico.
Do you think your style is malleable enough that people won’t notice? Even in the gallery show, I could definitely connect one piece [to another] even if it was of something totally different just because of the style you’re doing it in.
Oh, the stylistics are very different. I’m pretty sure a lot of people wouldn’t recognize that they’re the same. There was one faction that I was doing for a little bit that I really wanna continue that I think is even more impressive than the faces, but it’s a lot more hidden, a lot more subtle: the tree shadows….those were going up the same time as the faces.
You were doing those? I didn’t know you were the one doing them.
Yeah, that’s me.
See, that’s what I mean. I want to be able to have these different things going on, and people just notice them….I don’t really want it to be like, “Oh that’s the same dude; he’s doing a lot of amazing shit.” Who the fuck cares who I am? Are you noticing these things?
I love [the tree shadows], because they have a very different conceptual feel than the faces. The faces to me are talking to graffiti. The tree to me is talking about our environment, because it has this double life: it disappears at night time, because it copies the shadow that’s already there. It slightly enhances it, but a lot of people can’t even notice that. And then during the day time…it actually comes out for people to even know it’s graffiti. Another reason why I love the trees is that it’s been a year now since I did some of them, and obviously the tree’s grown, so the shadow’s changed. So it has this play between time and between permanence.
I was on the streetcar once, and I heard this lady as we were going by one of the faces go: “Oh, did you see that? That’s the guy that does the faces! I love them!” And from that moment on I decided this is what I’ve got to do more of. Because people are actually starting to recognize it, and they’re actually starting to appreciate them, and they’re starting to not be so scared of graffiti, to feel like they’re actually participating in this art form. It’s happened to me where I’ve been painting on a street corner and I’ve just not given a fuck that this person is walking by, and they’ve actually stopped and gone: “Holy fuck! It’s you!” And they stop and actually look out for cops for me. That to me is the amazing part of the face: it’s that people actually are noticing it and appreciating it and wanting to actually participate in this whole dialogue.
“A Mysterious Date With Anser” runs until February 21 at Funktion Gallery (1244 Bloor Street West), with a student discount for pieces on the final day.
All photos, save for those of Os Gêmeos and SWOON’s work, are from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.