Rain or shine, drizzle or snow, nothing lifts the spirit more than the colourful panoply of wall murals and graffiti art proliferating in the city. One of the first and most famous is Derek Besant’s Flatiron Mural on the back of the heritage flatiron building, constructed by Gooderham and Worts Brewery in 1802, at the corner of Wellington, Church and Front Streets in downtown Toronto. The “mural” is most distinctive; done in trompe l’oeil style, it seems to be a large draped cloth surrounding a series of windows. Not only are there no windows, the mural itself sits on a steel armature and is not a mural painted on the building at all. This brilliant example of street art never fails to delight all who pass by.
Everyone living in downtown Toronto likely has favourite wall murals. One of my favourites is the mural painted each year by the graduating students of Harbord Collegiate Institute. They use the wall across the street from the school, made available by the proprietor of OJJJ’s Convenience Store at the corner of Harbord and Manning, a favourite student haunt during the school term. Each year, we look forward to new ideas and designs offered by the students. Naturally, we thought that the best were those painted the years our two sons graduated. But that’s only our perception. Others will undoubtedly differ. Another favourite of mine is the painting of gigantic golden sunflowers on the back of the building at Richmond Street West and Tecumseth, in the block south of Queen Street. For four and a half years, I commuted to Brampton, passing by the sunflowers each morning. Every day, I revelled in their bright sunny glow and gave thanks to whomever was responsible for that glorious gift to the city and to me.
Wall murals and “graffiti art” are more commonplace now, partly in response to the City’s draconian anti-graffiti bylaw. Property owners must remove “graffiti” at their own expense within 72 hours. Graffiti means “one or more letters, symbols, figures, etchings, scratches, inscriptions, stains or other markings that disfigure or deface a structure or thing.” “Graffiti vandalism” done without the owner’s permission, considered a tag, or which may incite hatred or violence against others, or which has profane, vulgar or offensive language, is expressly forbidden. If any property owner ignores graffiti or graffiti vandalism, on complaint, the City will clean it and charge the cost to the tax roll.
The City suggests several strategies to deter graffiti. These include improved lighting, security cameras, neighbourhood watch groups, planting climbing vines or thorny plants along building walls, and using murals. “Art murals” and “graffiti art” approved by a property owner “to aesthetically enhance the surface it covers and the general surroundings” are encouraged. Should there be any dispute about what is “art” and what is “graffiti,” the Graffiti Panel appointed by the City will decide. Their test? “Having regard to the community character and standards.” “Community character and standards” vary across the City; what is okay in the West End may not fly in Yorkville. All approved “graffiti art” or “wall murals” are registered in a municipal database. Businesses, community groups, or individuals can apply to the City to have any art initiatives regularized in advance.
The West End YMCA Walking Club frequently passes through inner city laneways and alleys. We are constantly surprised by the variety of wall murals and graffiti art we see on garages and walls. Some are more sophisticated or more edgy than others. All are striking for their colour and design. The laneway south of Grace and Dundas streets, bordering on the north-east corner of Trinity-Bellwoods Park, is a good example of a community effort. Thanks to all those property owners who have joined the street art movement. The City is better for it.