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Street Art's Identity Crisis
Two key players in the graffiti world set the record straight about street art. Plus, a virtual tour through Toronto's 'Graffiti Alley'

Futura takes you on a virtual stroll through Toronto’s ‘Graffiti Alley’

Like any other art form, graffiti hasn’t stopped changing since it first began. But, unlike other art forms, graffiti still strives for recognition as a legitimate one– even a legal one. 

This is where famed NYC street artist Futura (formerly Futura 2000, who collaborated with The Clash on tour) and Clay Rochemont, a Frisco native who’s curating DOS, come in. DOS, which will take place on July 19th, is the follow-up to last year’s UNO, a large Toronto celebration thrown by the people behind La Carnita (a popular Mexican foodtruck-cum-restaurant now based on College St). It’s suiting that these two spheres will come together for DOS as graffiti, like the restaurant, is settling down indoors from a life out on the streets. 

Futura and Rochemont agree it’s time to set the record straight on street art. “From my perspective I see graffiti art, and then I see street art as something different,” Furtura begins. Likewise, Rochemont argues that “the definition of graffiti art has changed quite a bit in recent years. It used to be every kind of vandal act in the outdoors. I believe graffiti art now is the guys who really study the letters, the guys who really make a name for themselves, and make that name as big as possible, whether indoor or outdoor. I would consider those guys graffiti artists, and I would put the rest into a street art category.”

With the guidance of two key players in the street art world, I sought out to redefine the terms ‘graffiti’ and ‘street art,’ and ended up disproving some popular myths about the art form along the way. Street art seems to hit a wall every couple of years when it has to come to terms with its identity crisis. It happened in the early 80’s with Basquiat and Warhol’s collaboration, and it’s happening again now. Each time street art has its back to the wall, it emerges a little different than it was before– and a little better too. 

Graffiti Glossary for the Uninitiated:

Tag: “A stylized signature or logo that is intended to identify an individual or group or any other marking used for a like purpose or effect.” – The City of Toronto

Throw Up: generally consists of a one color outline and one layer of fill-color, somewhere between a tag and bomb in complexity

Bomb: A quick and dirty job, meant to cover lots of space

Piece: “It’s more calculated, and premeditated. Yeah, I guess you can still be breaking the law, but it’s not as aggressive an approach as just bombing or tagging” – Futura

Myth 1: Street art has to be outdoors

As street art steadily gains recognition as a legitimate art form, it has become increasingly common to stumble across pieces within the walls of a gallery (usually in Kensington or a swanky Queen West loft).

Such is the case with DOS, and the event is shaping up to be a pretty important one for the world of street artists, with draws from all over globe. Clay Rochemont, the event’s curator, hopes this event will allow for some well-needed mingling in the street art community. “As far as our show is concerned, we’ve gathered a lot of the top guys that I think are the best worldwide and have mixed them in with Canadians, not only to invite people here (we’re flying in some of the world’s best graffiti artists – Faith47 and DALeast from Cape Town [South Africa]), but we’re also allowing these Canadian artists to be shown by side with these people to (hopefully) help boost their careers in other countries as well.”

Beyond the gallery setting, graffiti is also being used to push products. Futura himself just designed a pretty nifty looking bottle for Hennessy. Selling out? not exactly. “[Sponsored graffiti] has never been a money grab. It’s always about survival. People aren’t collecting coins, they just want to keep going. So if people are waving money at me, there’s no guarantee I want it – it has to be right.” And right it was for Futura, who had the same goal in mind as the upcoming DOS: “It’s been a fantastic experience. I’ve gotten to fly to a bunch of the world’s best cities, meet their street artists, and have some great discussions with some really genius people.”

Of course bringing graffiti in from the outdoors isn’t without it’s dangers. Futura pointed to Banksy, who we agreed was the Basquiat of the new generation, insofar as he was able to simultaneously push the art to the brink while also bringing the art back into the public eye. He observed that people “want to go out and find all the Banksy they can, and then what? They want to tear his walls down, and possess it. There’s this thing about possession that… it doesn’t sicken me, but, you know… Banksy didn’t want you to do that. He wanted it to be out there for everyone to see.” 

So if street art doesn’t need to exist on the street, what separates it from regular painting? Perhaps somewhat problematically, both Rochemont and Futura see street art’s origins in the street as crucial to any street artist’s passage. “People in those beginning vandalism stages can evolve into something bigger and better creatively,” admits Futura. Likewise, Rochemont recognizes graffiti artists as “the guys who really study the letters, the guys who really make a name for themselves, and make that name as big as possible, whether indoor or outdoor.”

A literal take on “Fordgate”

Myth 2: Street art is usually illegal

Thanks to Mayor Ford, that is. In his cruisade to prevent graffiti vandalism, Ford has misdiagnosed the cause and impetus for graffiti tags, and has arguably created more problems than he’s solved.

Mayor Ford has attempted to change the face of graffiti in the city and, as a result, the graffiti in the city has changed the face of Mayor Ford. All of this began back in April 2012, when Mayor Ford announced the launch of ‘SeeClickFix,’ an app that was deigned to report unwanted graffiti to the municipal government. Of course, there’s no such thing a quick-click-fix, and this app did little to prevent graffiti, and instead just slapped the property owner with a bill as per accordance with the municipal bylaw. This was the same bylaw that was launched in conjunction with the dissolution of the Graffiti Transformation Project (GTP). The project was a grant program that worked with youth to create sanctioned graffiti murals, which both covered unsightly tags, and deterred them from popping up in the future. This program was replaced by the new Graffiti Management Plan, which essentially transformed the old program into a public-private partnership, meaning it would have to raise significant funds from various organizations to keep running. If anything, the Mayor’s attempts to eradicate graffiti only worsened it, ensuring that graffiti artists would have less funding, and less time to complete any serious pieces. 

Local Torontonian Spud has been engaging the public through his works, many of which use Mayor Ford as a muse. Spud’s depiction of Ford had a few recurring themes and versions: a Blob-like fleshy and melty Ford, as carnivorous bicycle and public transit-eating Ford, and more recently a phallic crack pipe graced with Ford’s face: that’s what we call a Freudian-Fordian art work.

Myth 3: Street art, like graffiti, is meant for the public eye

According to Futura, much of the tagging (and even some of the larger pieces) in the city are designed to only be understood by the graffiti community, not the general public. “I think graffiti, in the tagging sense, has a real magnetic effect on the community. And the public at large? Who cares, it’s never like we’re really ever talking to them… I’ve always thought that most work in public space, it’s largely by [the painters], and for [the painters]. The public’s just a bystander to the whole event.”

That may be why most graffiti is no longer made extremely visible to the public, as was the case with graffiti on the NY subway system in the 80’s. Toronto holds its own a global scale in terms of the quality of its graffiti production, it’s just not all immediately visible. If you’re looking for quantity, a good place to start is “Graffiti Alley,” a corridor that runs just a little south of Queen West. If you’re looking for a lesser known top spot, you can catch a glimpse of the Keele Wall, which is a stretch of wall that can be viewed from the subway between Dundas West and Keele stations on the Bloor subway line. Says Rochemont: There’s a crew called the HSA [Humble Servants of Art] and they get together, and it takes them about a week to do it. They end up producing probably the best graffiti in the country there year after year, and every year you get the chance to see something new: something amazing. That crew involves people like Skam, and Kane, and Kwest, and all those guys. I think that’s my favourite spot to go.”


Jeremy Schipper is an intern at Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeromeoschipps.

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