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Canada, TBEX, travel

Urban Art: The Graffiti SubCulture in Toronto

Urban art or misguided youth?  What do you think?

Graffiti Art in Toronto with Toronto Tour Guy

I had the pleasure of joining Jason on his Tour Guys Graffiti Tour in downtown Toronto (an activity on my TBEX Bucket List).  It was an eye opening experience – I had no idea there was so much more to the scribblings and scenes painted on walls, trains and highway underpasses.  There is an entire sub culture that has its own strict etiquette and guidelines – a moral code amongst artists if you will.  In some instances, graffiti artists work together to create some of the most incredible urban art and are often commissioned by building owners to create these colourful and highly visually appealing displays!

Colourful urban art on the street of Toronto - Tour Guys Graffiti Tour

Jason introduced us to examples of urban art by some of the most popular, and sometimes controversial artists in Toronto, sharing the history behind the works and giving us a peek into the world of what is often a very private group of people.  He showed us how to read the work, pointing out the styles of the various artists and how they sign their work.

There really is so much more to it than meets the eye.  The hidden messages are not always so apparent.  Take, for example, the HUG ME tree.  Like so many before and so many after, I had my photo taken hugging the tree that stands boldly on Queen St West.  Beautified by Elicser Elliott in 1999, the graffitied stump’s art continues to be tended to by Elliott and the HUG is always replaced.  While tourists and locals alike get their photos taken hugging Elliott’s work, I wonder how many actually know that the H.U.G. stands for his crew: History Unleashes Genius.  The “ME” was added by Elliott in a move to soften the blow of tagging a tree!  Given the notoriety of this particular tree, I would have to say he was successful.

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Street art on the #TBEX Graffiti Tour #instafun #HUGS #urban #Toronto

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I have never understood the value of the scribbled tags people leave behind.  I get it – you were here, but does everyone really need to know about it?  Especially when the tag defaces historical buildings or private property.  I do not believe that that kind of scrawl is appropriate, but as the art of graffiti has evolved, with far more stylized “wild” style graffiti or the bubble lettered “throw-up” style, I do see the statement that can be made through such an art form.  It is an interesting line of thought to consider that cave drawings, prized and protected now, are in fact graffiti of a time long ago.  The Aboriginals in Australia, the Native Indians in North America, and cultures throughout history have used graffiti to tell their stories.  Is the work of modern day graffiti artists much different?  There is generally a story or a message behind the various works that Jason pointed out to us as we walked the streets of Toronto.  Today’s graffiti art may be more transient than the “historical” graffiti, but they too are the stories of our generation.  It makes for a fascinating anthropological study of our times.

Tour Guys Toronto Graffiti tour - urban art on the streets of town

Interestingly, the city of Toronto, at one stage, tried to outlaw graffiti artists.  Largely unsuccessful, the city now embraces the skills of the true artists, allowing their messages to be shared through the City of Toronto’s Graffiti Management Plan.  In an effort to eliminate graffiti vandalism which can have a detrimental impact on property owners and neighbourhoods, the plan has added vibrancy to the streets through art – something I believe has been successful.  While scribbles of graffiti still do appear throughout the city, the etiquette of the craft maintains the integrity among these urban artists and retaliation is evident when the defacing of an established graffiti artists occurs.

The Pink Grenade - Graffiti subculture

So, what is the difference?  According to the city management plan:

Graffiti Art is defined as markings made or affixed to properties that are approved by the property owner or occupant, where the markings aesthetically enhance the surface they cover and the general surroundings, having regard to the community character and standards.

Graffiti Vandalism is defined as any deliberate markings made or affixed on property that is not currently exempted or regularized by the Graffiti Panel, Executive Director or Council and: was made or affixed without permission of the owner; is considered to be a tag; for which there are reasonable grounds to believe that it may incite hatred or violence against any person or identifiable group; or contains profane vulgar or offensive language.

Graffiti paint can left behind in Toronto

What do you think – Graffiti – is there more to it than meets the eye?

Graffiti Tour leader Jason of Toronto Tour GuysJason Kucherawy started Tour Guys in 2009 with Steve Woodall, offering quality city walking tours to locals and visitors. They began with free public walking tours in Toronto and Vancouver before successfully branching out into specialty tours. Tour Guys as a business was born. Tour Guys Toronto runs tours including history, beer, ghosts, culture, rock & roll, bacon the fantastic graffiti tour that I had the privilege of taking courtesy of Toronto Tourism and Tour Guys.  This tour was offered through the TBEX travel bloggers conference I attended.  As always, opinions remain my own.

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About Anita Mac

The bucket list just keeps growing! The more I cross off - the more exciting new destinations and activities I find! I have been fortunate enough to travel a considerable distance over the years. My love of many things, including travel, cycling, kayaking and photography fit together like hand and glove. I have to keep asking myself....where to next? I am happy to share my travels and photography through my blogs: http://traveldestinationbucketlist.com and http://anitamacphotos.wordpress.com Hope you enjoy them as much as I do! On to the next adventure!


26 thoughts on “Urban Art: The Graffiti SubCulture in Toronto

  1. Very informative and well written. Nice images, too. I like you asking your audience what they think of graffiti and then offering a new way to view these paintings.

    Posted by Michael Doran | June 28, 2013, 2:03 pm
    • Thanks Michael. There was so much information on the tour – tough to share it all! Same with the pictures…looking to do a photo essay on my photo blog…will add it to the related links once those photos are up!

      Posted by Anita Mac | June 28, 2013, 6:17 pm
  2. VERY COLORFUL. I love graffiti art.


    Posted by fgassette | June 28, 2013, 2:16 pm
  3. I’m all for graffiti art, although I’m not a fan when private property is painted without the owner’s consent. When I was in Toronto I randomly happened upon an artist painting a fence adjoining a home. He was commissioned by the homeowner. That is something I can get behind in a major way.

    Posted by Trips By Lance | June 28, 2013, 4:14 pm
    • I wonder if more home owners will do that in an effort to avoid the vandal style tagging. My understanding is that the vandals are less likely to deface the art of graffiti artists. I thought the art I passed added a lot of beauty to some of the back alleys and spaces that would have otherwise been ugly concrete and no doubt covered by scribbled tags of vandals, not artistic tags.

      Posted by Anita Mac | June 28, 2013, 6:20 pm
  4. Reblogged this on Time for Action.

    Posted by Jim Wood | June 29, 2013, 12:21 am
  5. I think graffiti is sometimes more artistic than some paintings. I always find graffiti in our country colorful and beautiful. Though I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to paint a tree. 😉

    Posted by Jemma | June 29, 2013, 11:29 pm
  6. When I was reading I thought of the Lennon wall in Prague. It all started as graffiti. Now the wall stands for peace and love and is a great symbol. Cool tour! And great pics! I need to hug that tree! 😉

    Posted by Lola DiMarco | June 30, 2013, 5:34 pm
    • The Lennon wall in Prague is special. I wish I had spent more time there however I was on a mission to find the love locks! Love the message from both places – peace and love – we could use a little more of that in the world!

      Posted by Anita Mac | July 6, 2013, 9:41 am
  7. Really cool!! 🙂 I like how graffitti can be used positively and really making a comeback in some places!

    Posted by Ana Silva O'Reilly (@mrsoaroundworld) | July 1, 2013, 4:43 am
  8. This was a really good tour – interesting art and great background info from the guide. And I’m glad we got to meet in person there! 🙂

    Posted by Pola (JettingAround) (@jettingaround) | July 1, 2013, 11:04 am
  9. Someone else had a picture of that tree that wasn’t on the tour. I can’t remember the name now, but this is all really cool. Iove graffiti art!

    Posted by Leah Travels (@L_e_a_h) | July 2, 2013, 11:09 am
  10. Interesting tour and cool that they have it to show there is more to art than what you see a museum.

    Posted by Traveling Ted (@travelingted) | July 2, 2013, 11:28 pm
  11. Awesome murals! Who knew Toronto had such art around!

    Posted by Raul (@ilivetotravel) | July 5, 2013, 9:28 pm
  12. LOVED this post! I am so glad to have read it after coming back from Santiago, a city whose street art I immediately fell in love with. When done right, it can really turn an ordinary place into something special. I happen to love it!

    Posted by The World Wanderer (@TheWrldWanderer) | July 7, 2013, 1:14 pm
  13. I recently attended an outdoor art exhibition in Taichung and one of the areas of focus was graffiti art and I became very interested in the history behind it’s beginning as well as it’s evolution. This was a great read. You touched on some topics that I was wondering about and you provided an in-depth and insightful perspective on the topic! Thanks for dropping by my page and letting me know about your post!! Thoroughly enjoyed reading it!!

    Posted by foreignsanctuary | August 17, 2013, 11:12 pm


  1. Pingback: More from the Toronto Graffiti Tour | Shutter bug - July 9, 2013

  2. Pingback: TDBL Roundup – July 2013 | Travel Destination Bucket List - July 31, 2013

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