Placemaking: The East Side Mural
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Placemaking: The East Side Mural

Where street-art history meets the Scarborough RT.

Placemaking tells the stories behind the buildings that define the GTA, beyond the downtown core.

Toronto doesn’t have “sides.” The hemispheres of the city as determined by the Don Valley are, rather, nearly always called “ends.” Torontonians are fiercely territorial over which is theirs, be it west or east. A piece of public art has become emblematic of that geographical divide. Curiously, it seems to have gotten the lingo all wrong.

The “East Side” mural that covers an entire wall just north of the Lawrence East stop on the Scarborough RT has been there for as long as riders can remember, a honking amalgam of contorted faces and barbed wire against the words “East Side,” written in giant, yellow, gothic lettering. The upper right-hand corner reads “Mobility Depot,” the name of the business once housed within the attached building’s spray-painted walls. It’s been gone for nearly two decades.

“I don’t remember a time that it wasn’t there,” says writer and blogger Jeff Roulston of the graffiti wall, already in place when he moved to Scarborough in 1989 at the age of seven. Roulston views the East Side mural as symbolic of both the city and the RT line, and cites the piece as a highlight of his daily commute.

Roulston guesses that the mural has been there since before the RT opened in September 1985, and he’s likely right. Its creators, the self-styled Graffiti Knights crew, hearken back to the beginning of the city’s street art subculture. By 1985, they’d already hit their peak.

View from the moving train.

Formed on Halloween 1982, Graffiti Knights’ core members were artist/writers Trax One (Scarborough’s original and most prolific tagger, according to Yvette Farkas’ street-art encyclopedia, Toronto Graffiti), Crazy Roc (later known as Spade, from Scarborough rap collective Citizen Kane), and Treach (nicknamed “the human spider” for his building-scaling prowess). The threesome travelled with an entourage of so-called bodyguards and friends, picking out high-visibility spots for their creations across Scarborough’s east side.

TTC spokesperson Brad Ross admits that he is unfamiliar with the mural. Despite its close ties to the Scarborough RT, the work is not technically on TTC property, meaning it falls outside of the Commission’s jurisdiction. Clara Hargittay, a public art officer for the City, says she is aware of the East Side mural’s existence, but that she doesn’t know exactly when it was painted, or why. At any rate, the East Side mural has become a part of the scenery, a flash of colour on the northbound LRT commute. It’s a tribute to an east-side corner of the city’s east end.

Photos by Jeff Roulston.