Illustration by Roxanne Ignatius/Torontoist.
Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.
It’s not that Toronto doesn’t have any number of great street artists; it does, and this year was an especially big one for them. There was a massive and unprecedented street advertising takeover that saw the ads inside dozens of Pattison ad pillars swapped out for art. The Urban Repair Squad stayed busy with interventions on cyclists’ behalf, from onomatopoeias painted alongside bumps in the road to bike symbols and sharrows where there weren’t any. Others played with geese and yarn and mattresses and Stephen Harper. Some just really hated Roncesvalles construction.
In May, though, street art’s biggest name blew through town for the very first time, and that was that.
Banksy’s pieces, seven of them in total, dotted downtown from Chinatown to the Port Lands. Then, just as the city made its way out to see them, the street art did what street art does, and started changing. Some were painted over, others tagged, others protected behind plastic, others carted away by property owners. Today, they’re nearly all gone. It’s a bit of a shame, but it comes with the territory.
As Nick Mount wrote in his essay, “Searching For Banksy,” “the main virtue of Banksy’s North American tour is simply that it got some of us out of our homes and into what’s left of our public spaces on a collective scavenger hunt, searching for Banksy and often finding each other.” That is: the art, good as it was—Banksy is famous first and foremost because the art he creates is very good—was a means to another end. And that end does not involve us sitting in a movie theatre or in front of a computer.
What Banksy did was make Toronto unexpected, even some of its most boring bits, like a parking lot flanked by Lake Shore Boulevard, or Polson Pier. If it’s the case that a city like Toronto is at its best when it surprises us when we step out of our homes and into its streets, street art might be the medium best-suited to consistently delivering little doses of that thrill. Banksy gave us seven works of art, put them where many of us who lived or worked downtown could stumble across them, and then left them in our hands. That Toronto fucked them up was too bad, but what mattered most is that they were ours to find in the first place.