Street art is an integral part of any urban space, and thankfully Toronto has been quick to catch on. It’s impossible to walk anywhere in the city without stumbling across a gorgeous mural or other form of art that inevitably adds more colour to the city’s landscapes.
Ever wonder how a particular mural came to be? Here are background stories to some of Toronto’s most commonly noted street murals.
The DVP’s Rainbow Tunnel
The rainbow tunnel located on the east side of the DVP near St. Lawrence is deeply embedded in Toronto’s history. The rainbow first appeared in 1972, when a 16-year-old artist known as “the Caretaker of Dreams” visited Toronto from Norway and decided that Toronto needed to smile more. “People in Toronto never looked up,” he said, as reported by the Toronto Star. “They looked down. They never smiled too much.”
As a result, the Caretaker of Dreams, aka B.C. (Berg) Johnson, hitched a rope to the railway that ran above the tunnel and lowered himself down to paint the tunnel (at the time, the East Don Trail didn’t exist). Unfortunately a train went by and snapped the rope, leaving Johnson to fall and break his leg. Children from Don Mills Middle School then took it upon themselves to help Johnson finish the mural. After it was finished, the North York parks organization painted over the mural to cover it up.
Johnson then went back and forth between law enforcement and the city, having repainted the mural about 40 times since 1972. He was arrested numerous times, and in 1994, after his fourth arrest, the community took it upon themselves to maintain the mural as much as possible. In 2012, Toronto finally restored the mural to its original beauty, which resulted in the installation of the East Don Trail.
It’s reported that Johnson painted other rainbow murals in the GTA in the 70s, but the rainbow tunnel is the only one that remains.
West Queen West has had a very bittersweet relationship with its artists over the years. Before major developers took over the strip between Ossington and Dufferin, this area wasn’t considered a desirable neighbourhood by many Torontonians, but it was known as a haven for artists, so much so that it became known as the Gallery District. As developers came in and gentrification took over, many artists were pushed out due to landlords raising rent and selling property to development. The “You’ve Changed” mural at Queen and Ossington reflects the neighbourhood’s rocky past and the way gentrification changed its streets. At first glance, many assume the mural is solely meant to be a positive message for CAMH patients, which it is, but it is also a reminder of the Gallery District’s artful history and the transition that many Toronto neighbourhoods have made.
2015 saw the rejuvenation of Underpass Park, thanks to collaborative efforts by StreetARToronto, Mural Routes, Corktown Residents and Business Association, Friends of Pan Am Path. Before its transformation into a skate park, basketball court, and playground, this area was simply an underpass that pedestrians would occasionally pass through. Located under the Adelaide St/Richmond St/Eastern Avenue overpass, 23 pillars were painted by over 20 artists to create the Underpass Park, which represents the relevance of urban spaces in cities as well as diversity in Toronto.
David Crombie Park
The Esplanade Basketball Court mural located in David Crombie Park started out as an initiative to take back the basketball court after a police chase destroyed it in July 2013. The mural was organized by a non-profit called Jamii and painted by 16 local youths.
The chase that occurred in 2013 destroyed the court’s tile floor, which was donated by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. After the incident, the MLSE restored the court without its original tiles, which left it to become a bland reminder of an unfortunate night and the tension that resulted between the police force and the community’s residents. The mural was meant to restore these tensions by representing the “core values of love, peace, diversity, nature and teamwork.” The police from 51 Division also helped with the restoration by cleaning up the court in preparation of the mural.
Yonge and St Clair
The idea behind the eight-storey-high Yonge and St Clair mural came after Slate Asset Management, the company that owns all four corners of that intersection, approached StART and STEPS to beautify the intersection. The organizations decided on an internationally renowned anonymous illustrator who goes by the name of Phlegm. Phlegm’s fantastical creatures and black and white imagery proved to be the perfect fit for the project.
With help from Toronto muralist Stephanie Bellefleur, a massive mural was painted on the west wall of the Padulo building at 1 St Clair Ave W. The mural depicts a human body composed of elements of Toronto, and although some have interpreted it as a representation of claustrophobia and overcrowdedness in the city, Phlegm’s intentions proved to be the complete opposite — the artist wanted to depict Toronto as a living and breathing ecosystem, hence the interconnectedness of the image.
Before the anonymous street artist known as Alec Monopoly was identified as the real-life Alec Andon, Monopoly became notorious for his murals of Rich Uncle Pennybags. In these murals he’d often incorporate social issues into Pennybags’ portrayal, such as the “starving artist” DJ Pennybags that was painted in Toronto at King and Portland. At the time, Monopoly was still anonymous and becoming internationally recognized as a street artist, so it was really exciting to have one of his works show up in Toronto.
The Reclamation Wall in Parkdale is reportedly Canada’s largest street art mural. The wall, which is a sound barrier located on the Metrolinx along Joe Shuster Way, stretches for about 1000 ft and features murals from 65 artists across Canada. After an ongoing battle between graffiti artists, law enforcement and the city, as well as a failed attempt at covering the wall with foliage to deter graffiti artists, Urbancorp decided to move with the tide rather than against it. They then recruited artists from all over the country, and gave each one their own section of the wall, resulting in a long stretch of beautiful murals.
Feature photo courtesy Ken Lane via Flickr.