It’s a strange time for Toronto graffiti. On the one hand we’ve got as many cop crackdowns on street art as ever; on the other, we’re still moved to collectively soil ourselves with giddiness when the most famous graffiti artist of them all visits our town. Then there’s the whole ambiguity factor of the thing: is graffiti always art, sometimes art, vandalism, or a combination of the above?
As it turns out, there’s no easy answer to the riddle of the tag, and that’s precisely the point. Toronto Graffiti—a heavy, honking, five hundred–page monolith of a coffee table book—points to a local graffiti legacy that is every bit as much about art as it is about transgression, about cred as much as social commentary. It has a thirty-year history that grew up alongside breakdance culture, hip hop, and the establishment of artist hierarchies. And it’s full of surprises.
Surprise number one? Toronto, apparently, is a town with a solid graffiti culture.
It might be a typically self-deprecating Torontonian response to approach Toronto Graffiti‘s one thousand lovingly curated photographs and interviews (put together by Yvette Farkas over the course of 2009) with a level of measured skepticism. Something about Toronto the Good having a storied, celebrated graffiti culture seems out of place, as if it’s almost too cool to be true. But then you realize there’s graffiti everywhere—a hidden laneway off of Queen Street West, a wall in Kensington, that stretch of Bloor West visible from the subway.
The book does a thorough tracking of the history of Toronto’s graffiti scene with artist interviews that span generations—Ren, Cola, and our very own Posterchild among them—and with input from community organizations that have made safe and legal spaces for kids to get their street art action on. There are helpful tips for the aspiring graffster as well: health and safety advice (e.g. wear a good mask!) from a health and safety consultant, legal advice provided by a criminal defence lawyer (“Citizens: know your rights!” reads the caption), and detoxification strategies from a local naturopathic doctor. There’s even a vintage Torontoist excerpt debating the finer points of art and subjectivity.
Graffiti may not always be warmly received by audiences or authorities—in Toronto or elsewhere—but it sure seems like it’s here to stay, and we’re not complaining.