10 Toronto graffiti writers worth knowing about
Despite a promised crackdown on vandalism under Mayor Rob Ford, Toronto's graffiti scene is thriving. As more and more people take an interest in the street art that surrounds them, the number of writers continues to expand (at what some less sympathetic readers might call an alarming rate). For those who have a budding interest in graffiti, but don't know much about who's behind the throw-ups and murals that dot our back alleys and railway corridors, here's a quick guide to 10 Toronto graffiti writers worth keeping an eye out for.
It's worth noting, of course, that this list is subjective and focuses on the writers who have been most visible to me, a journalist and non-graffiti writer, in 2012. This is not explicitly a top 10 list, and there are many excellent writers in T.O. who I couldn't fit into this post.
Pronounced "Quest," some of the best graffiti in the city will be adorned with this name. His recent work in Kensington market is, in my esteem, the most accomplished graffiti art in Toronto right now.
Remember that he works free hand with a spray can. Seen more legibly in the burners above ("K-W-E-S-T"), KWEST is best known for writing his 5-letter tag in a complex style of interwoven letters known as "Wildstyle." KWEST values his privacy, though, so don't expect to see anything but his artwork in the years to come.
ANSER's faces are unmistakable, irreplaceable. At their best, they're mysterious and erotic. Known as the "Mysterious Date," these faces show off ANSER's ability to fuse "high art" portrait techniques with street-graffiti bombing tactics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work has also made it into gallery settings from time to time.
This elder statesmen of the local graffiti scene is one of the best known writers in Toronto. Influenced by classic New York City hip hop and BBoy cultures, SKAM (and his boys SIGHT, REN, WISPER, + members of the HSA and DOH crews) dominate large parts of Toronto's famous Graffiti Alley with consistently crisp and pristine piecework. They've also got several walls in Kensington, Parkdale, Bloor & Ossington, Little Italy, and beyond.
SKAM's paid his dues and commands respect from Toronto's younger generation of graffiti writers. While a lot of writers retire in their 20s, he's painted for over 20 years and is still going strong, mostly sticking to large, vibrant alley pieces. You know the spray painted satellite dish on the wall of the CHUM-CITY parking lot? That's him.
4. 56 & the KPS Crews
Graffiti writers usually belong to at least one crew, that is, a group of buddies who paint together, and watch each other's backs in the field. The overlapping 56 and KPS crews are currently the throw-up kings of the city, amongst other things.
While your average naysayer dismisses this stuff — and perhaps for good reason — I love bubble letter throw-ups. Using one colour to fill in the letters and a second as outline, there's a definite skill in doing these efficiently, illegally, and consistently in difficult-to-access locations.
Towering over Toronto this year was that notorious graffiti-propagandist, SPUD. Last winter, he targeted Rob Ford's anti-graffiti bylaws by putting up an effigy of the mayor around town, which ultimately led to a gallery show at Don't Tell Mama.
Unfortunately, though, the political impetus behind his art provoked a severe retaliation from the city, who targeted SPUD's work and got rid of many of his block letter pieces. My sources tell me SPUD's left town for a while to regroup.
And yet, SPUD may yet get the last laugh. Rob Ford's approval rating is down, and the graffiti file can't have helped. By overzealously enforcing his anti-graffiti bylaws, the mayor has shot himself in the foot with property owners, who resent being forced to clean up graffiti at their own expense.
ELICSER's stylized portraits are a staple of Toronto's downtown graffiti scene. The most prominent display of ELICSER's skill is in and around Graffiti Alley (just South of Queen West, between Spadina and Strachan). Here, dozens of his finest pieces can be found. Alternately dark, mysterious, brooding, and beautiful, it's hard to imagine T.O.'s graffiti scene without ELICSER's stunning and affective portraits.
Influenced by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, ELICSER blends conceptual, "high art" portraiture techniques with graffiti-writing aesthetics. While his biggest single mural — which spans an entire city block of Graffiti Alley — isn't necessarily his most technically accomplished work, the vast majority of ELICSER's stuff is just excellent.
Over 2012, Toronto has witnessed POSER's bunnies multiply around town. Appearing in a prime location under a bridge near Roncesvalles, this massive POSER bunny (below) is pretty fresh, and suggests another mating season may be at hand.
"Breeding like rabbits," as it were, his iconic graffiti bunnies are edgy and playful (and are excellent examples of the "Bambi goes downtown" effect described by Nick Mount in The Walrus).
8. Joel Richardson
Joel Richardson is one of Toronto's more eccentric street artists. A filmmaker and mixed media artist, Joel is most famous for his stencils and poster art, and is often seen about Toronto in character with a suit and tie. Over the past few years, Joel's slowly transformed a Junction railway underpass (near Dupont and Lansdowne) into a massive mock-shrine to the excesses of market capitalism. For those of you with an interest in street art, a pilgrimage to this wall is a must.
Joel's got some interesting events coming up too; for more info, check out his website.
LISTEN has been very successful over the past few years in getting this human-sized throw-up of a bird up around the city. I've seen his birds everywhere: on doors, walls, alleys, mail boxes, dumpsters, pay phones — even on the soap dispenser at Luna Café. These two, below, have been up for a while and are in excellent locations.
I'm always happy to see a new GOON pop up. Alternately known as GOONONE, GEWN, and JEWN, GOON mixes letter-based graffiti with a variety of different cartoon faces, usually with their tongue or teeth hanging out. GOON's got pretty good coverage around Toronto, and is recognizable to both graffiti writers and non-specialists.
Writing and photographs by Peter Jermyn