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New book documents hidden graffiti in Toronto

Posted by Scott Snider / April 2, 2013

Hidden Toronto bookHidden Toronto is a new book that explores the city's inconspicuous places and the graffiti that's found among them. The book's fifty-two images are organized into three sections covering buildings, bridges, and watersheds and is based on the premise that interesting spaces and artwork lie just out of view all around us. Once you have the desire to go and find them, there's a world of treasure to be found out there.

In anticipation of the book's launch tonight, I spoke with author Kathy Toth about Toronto's graffiti scene, the so-called war on street-art, and the pleasures of urban exploration.

Why a book about Toronto's hidden spaces and why now?

Well, I've been photographing graffiti in Toronto since 1994. At first it was out of curiosity...I didn't have any connection to graffiti culture through siblings or even friends. Photography allowed me to study what people were doing, but it took me a year of wandering around to find pieces, another year to meet someone and to figure out where writers got caps and zines.

I wrote for a few years starting in 1996 but I stopped in 2001. I still kept getting drawn back to the work, and it was then that I started to notice that graffiti changed everywhere and street art seemed to emerge as well. Graffiti in the city was hard to come by as the scene really only started to get a newer generation of writers in 1995. This of course advanced every year and now you have more then a hundred active writers and even more transient ones.

I wanted to make a book on the city's graffiti for some time but I wanted to do it in a new way. I combined the concept with in situ documentary images. Usually you only see tightly cropped images of work, and I always found the images that document the spaces more interesting and dynamic considering some of these places are train tunnels, drainage channels or abandoned buildings. The mix of hidden and creative use of space interested me enough to start documenting the work that way.

Hidden Toronto bookWhat makes Toronto a fertile spot for graffiti art and artists?

There are a lot of talented writers in this city, but to be honest I've always been surprised that we didn't have more, considering the size and diversity of this city. There has been a long history of legal walls in the city, and illegal spots usually ran for a long time. It wasn't until Rob Ford declared war on graffiti when he took office that pieces from 1993 and earlier were buffed (and are now covered with ugly tags).

Americans who come here always say it's amazing how relaxed the city is to work in, and that's mostly because it's nowhere near as saturated as NYC, Philly or the Bay area with bombing and tagging. Sure some parts of the city are bombed hard, like Chinatown, but it doesn't extend like that outward. When the city says they have an epidemic on their hands most people's just a political fabrication. Toronto also has a lively arts scene so writers, who tend to be artists, also do other work in the city.

Hidden Toronto bookWhat effect do you think Rob Ford's much-publicized war on graffiti has had on the local scene?

Well I've seen lots of work, such as old tags from the 80's and 90's painted over and old pieces from 1992 and 93 painted over. Friends of mine who write said they have never made as much money painting for shop and property owners as they do now, and projects like the reclamation wall didn't happen before, so in an ironic way the anti-graffiti push by Mayor Ford has been helpful to writers getting paid work, and also stimulated working underground, further out from the downtown core.

Hidden Toronto bookHow has the explosion in publicity and popularity of urban exploration affected things in Toronto?

I used to read Ninjalicious' "Infiltration" zine when I was at university. Ninj had a much wider view of what 'urban exploration' actually is, so initially I didn't connect UE with graffiti, but the truth is they are very related. Graffiti writers have to take more risks, not just going somewhere with a camera, but also painting, walking on ledges, running in subway tunnels, drains and more.

Although Urban exploration has become mainstream, it seems to be limited to decay / ruin porn in the mainstream media. Graffiti is looked down upon in 'the scene' and tends to be a hot forum topic, but writers for the most part don't care. I think writers are more open to using public and private spaces to their end, and the most interesting aspects of both cultures still exists under the surface, shared between friends.

If too many people start trafficking a painting spot, pieces get ruined or the wall gets buffed. If too many people visit a location, access gets clamped down eventually. So these pieces and spaces exist in a continuum which is what makes them interesting. Graffiti seems to have a short lifespan if it's out in the open, although my graf mentor Sady Ducros has a piece across from Lawrence East LRT station which has been there for 18 years!

Hidden Toronto bookYou started appreciating and seeking out graffiti art and hidden spaces at a fairly young age. What advice would you give to somebody starting out today?

As with all projects that interest me, my first suggestion would be find something you enjoy doing and work on that and don't listen to people who want to steer you away from that. Something which interests maybe 15 people can be the next 'big' thing to break and become a global scene. As a writer, more work is acceptable now which wasn't 15-20 years ago. You can work with multiple mediums, styles and not have to deal with dogmatic concepts. As a photographer, find your style over time and devote time to learning about projects you want to work on. I started photographing graffiti to understand it better and that led me to working as a photographer and visual artist today.

Hidden Toronto bookBook Launch at Swipe Design, 401 Richmond in Toronto on April 2, 5-8 PM with author and several artists present.



Grafitti is Garbage / April 2, 2013 at 11:00 am
A book on graffiti!? Finally, a book on artless, valueless crap that I can use to wipe my butt, excellent!
AV replying to a comment from Grafitti is Garbage / April 2, 2013 at 11:01 am
Graffiti is not art? Sure bud!
Grumpy replying to a comment from Grafitti is Garbage / April 2, 2013 at 11:13 am
I bet you're one of those ignorant, annoying bastards who complains that their 5 year old can do a Jackson Pollak as well. Pull your head out of your ass and open your eyes. The world doesn't end at your white picket fence and art takes many forms. Graffiti can last, there's graffiti on the walls of Pompaii that was uncovered during excavations that was put there before the volcano buried the town. Graffiti opens our minds and makes us think, it's a means of expression and makes our concrete surroundings colourful and interesting. People like you who think art is limited to portaits and landscapes, framed and stuck in a gallery are missing out. You're a sad, negative bunch and I weep for you.
Grafitti is Garbage replying to a comment from Grumpy / April 2, 2013 at 11:35 am

"I weep for you"? No bub, I weep for HOMEOWNERS AND TAXPAYERS who have to pay to remove this unwanted blight from their houses, garages, and bridges. Make these pricks clean the garbage off, then put them in jail, where they belong.

Grafitti is art, yeah, sure. Tell me where you live (likely a government welfare dumps), and let me "artify" your place, free of charge!
Grumpy replying to a comment from Grafitti is Garbage / April 2, 2013 at 11:41 am
Excuse me? What kind of right arsehole are you? Just because I happen to appreciate many different forms of art does not automatically mean I live in, and I quote, "government welfare dumps". I don't. Where I live exactly is none of your goddamn business. And yes bub, graffiti IS art, you're confusing it with 'tags', not surprising given how ignorant you have just proven yourself to be.
Poopdawg / April 2, 2013 at 11:46 am
Hopefully my welfare check comes in soon, because I'd really like to check this book out.
Resist the temptation / April 2, 2013 at 12:07 pm
Don't feed the trolls.
yawn / April 2, 2013 at 12:32 pm
There are 57 shitty books exactly like this available at the Blurb website right now.
MSigs replying to a comment from Resist the temptation / April 2, 2013 at 12:37 pm
jer replying to a comment from heyzues / April 2, 2013 at 12:39 pm

I do agree with you though that the pictures are not that great...

Look at that dark tunnel where you can't see anything.

The other shots aren't that captivating. My friends instagrams pics of graffiti are better than those
yes replying to a comment from Grumpy / April 2, 2013 at 01:03 pm
the world doesn't end at your white picket fence. high five.
yes replying to a comment from Grumpy / April 2, 2013 at 01:05 pm
sidenote - this is kind of stupid considering in two pictures the focus is on landscape like the shine of the water and the green moss not the graffiti. isn't this book on graffiti not landscape?
Grumpy replying to a comment from yes / April 2, 2013 at 01:20 pm
I *think* she was going for showing the graffiti in it's full context of the space it's in, at least that's what she said in the interview.
Clarification replying to a comment from Grumpy / April 2, 2013 at 02:12 pm
Where "in it's(sic) full context" means "on other people's/the community's/the province's/the nation's property"

Turd Photog replying to a comment from Grumpy / April 2, 2013 at 02:16 pm
To Grumpy: I've been photographing turds on the sidewalk since 1994, and my book is due out this month! I'm so excited I'm about to poop myself...wait, let me grab my camera!!!

With any luck, you can be my next subject!
Grumpy replying to a comment from Clarification / April 2, 2013 at 02:25 pm
Oh shut the hell up.
Grumpy replying to a comment from Turd Photog / April 2, 2013 at 02:25 pm
You too dumbass.
mike in parkdale / April 2, 2013 at 02:34 pm
I'm this book's target audience, and for that fact alone, I'm glad it was made.

I deeply believe that "secret spots" need to be discovered by accident, found though exploration, or shared by friends. Seeing a walking tour of hidden locations would take all the fun out of it. I hope this book doesn't try to pull the curtain too far back.

ps. glad to see kwest up there.
tommy / April 2, 2013 at 03:52 pm
Is it just me, or has right-wing astroturfing increased a lot in the past week or so on Toronto-related blogs and newspapers?
Tigger12 / April 2, 2013 at 03:56 pm
Are any of the artists whose graffiti is being published via this book being compensated?
f12 / April 2, 2013 at 04:03 pm
Long Dong / April 2, 2013 at 04:13 pm
I'm out there almost every weekend painting legal graffiti murals in downtown, and none of you little pussies ever have the balls to stop any say anything.
JLD replying to a comment from Tigger12 / April 2, 2013 at 04:16 pm
It's a vanity/print on demand book so I doubt even the author is getting compensated. Given the middling quality of the photography and the weak concept behind it, I doubt any legitimate publisher would put this out.
clarification replying to a comment from tommy / April 2, 2013 at 04:45 pm
Anti-grafitti ≠ right wing, dumba.s.s
Jono / April 2, 2013 at 05:01 pm
Very cool. I knew Kathy was working on this, but had forgotten about it for a little while now. Can't wait to grab a copy.

JoeCarter / April 2, 2013 at 05:54 pm
Kizmet AKA KizzyKiz AKA Oroku Saki in the first pic
Art / April 2, 2013 at 06:49 pm
I love a lot of the art that is out there, there is some real talent that is for sure. But as a adult I also feel for the land owners that did not ask to have their wall on their building painted on. Even though the art in a lot of cases is awesome. The land owner will ended up being billed by the city for the clean up. Unlike Grumpy I can see both sides of the issue and wish there was a compromise, but in all due seriousness there isn't.
Taylor / April 2, 2013 at 08:14 pm
buckee / April 2, 2013 at 09:29 pm
I caught the asshole who kept spraying his art on my garage door. He called the dicks on me. I tied him up with duct tape, put him in the back of my truck and drove him north of Orillia. I also took his wallet, money and shoes. I dont know how he gothome. My door hasnt been a canvas again
Saja / April 2, 2013 at 11:32 pm
Who needs to buy the book when reading the comments had great entertainment value, I 2nd Art"s opini9n!!

Feeling the real
Lefty / April 3, 2013 at 12:03 am
It's startling to see how hot heads get on this site when it comes to graffiti. Its amazing people don't get this upset about more important pinko related issues plaguing the city, other then art in spaces most people can't find. The book has spots shown in it with vague info, and the vast majority of the work is on bridges and drainage channels as well as abandoned buildings...not churches and garage doors. Those who doubt the quality of the production would know better if they saw it in print and actually knew that several professional photographers were consulted on the project(not wanna amateurs with Flickr fame which are a dime a dozen these days).
Andre the art lover / April 3, 2013 at 12:42 am
Remember when the mayor won the election and decided to tackle graffiti in Toronto? Wasn’t that a huge waste of time and money? After he cleaned up a few walls, I recall seeing some street art of Rob looking… well like a big fat blob… and I LOVED IT!

Perhaps if Mayor Ford had actually done something to improve important issues like moving people from point A to B or finding ways to reduce gang activity and gun violence, Torontonians wouldn’t be so embarrassed that he can’t even weigh himself without twisting an ankle.

PS For the record graffiti IS art… just watch Anthony Bourdain’s layover in Sao Paolo or take the Eurorail sometime unless you’re too busy smelling your own farts. Stop wearing your pants nipple high and go enjoy these free outdoor galleries.

Much gratitude to Bacon and this nice young lady for putting together a book and not twittering about something pointless like a thigh gap.
read 1st comment 2nd replying to a comment from Andre the art lover / April 3, 2013 at 01:01 am
Great piece blogTO! I’m glad you touched on the topic of Rob’s war on graffiti :)

I really miss the annual graffiti festival that was in the parking lot on Queen & Portland. Artists, DJs, B-boys and a whole bunch of fun in the sun… now it’s a flippin Loblaws :/
Pedro / April 3, 2013 at 02:42 am
Painting it the wall, many color cok with ball my mother mother wash each day - art good, not good when cok and ball and spunk - not art!
AV replying to a comment from read 1st comment 2nd / April 3, 2013 at 08:34 am
Under Pressure (and later Style in Progress) were excellent events... I agree they're very much missed in the summer these days
gr1 / April 3, 2013 at 09:45 am
I's stupider for reading dis comment section.
Grafiti: Art For Tards replying to a comment from Long Dong / April 3, 2013 at 11:23 am
@Long Dong, "I'm out there almost every weekend painting legal graffiti murals in downtown, and none of you little pussies ever have the balls to stop any say anything."

Your daddy must be very proud of your accomplishments! Do you know who he is?

Next time you are out "expressing yourself," please post a schedule and your exact location, and we will arrange to have police on hand to appraise your vandalizm...excuse me, "art."

Bridge troll coward!
UER Fanclub replying to a comment from Lefty / April 3, 2013 at 12:13 pm
Those who doubt the quality of the production would know better if they saw it in print and actually knew that several professional photographers were consulted on the project(not wanna amateurs with Flickr fame which are a dime a dozen these days).

Funny I would not consider Kathy a professional photographer did you mean she was one of the dime a dozen from flickr? Hidden Toronto no such thing? Do not share our locations.
JLD replying to a comment from Lefty / April 3, 2013 at 01:52 pm
Kathy: I'm not sure what the professional photographers you mentioned helped you with, but it seems like it's a case of garbage in/garbage out. The source material just isn't all that good. I saw the book. It's monotonous to get through, poorly designed and typeset using Arial-- ugh. It basically has vanity press written all over it. Maybe a bit of research into photobook design would have helped, but even the best looking publication won't work if the photography is underwhelming to begin with. Kudos on having the energy to DIY, but that's as far as my compliments will go.
Kathy / April 3, 2013 at 08:13 pm
Feedback is always appreciated, and you can't please everyone but I would have appreciated hearing it in person. It is meant to be a photobook and not to be heavy in design, but the subject matter doesn't interest everyone. Thanks to everyone who came out.
david / April 20, 2013 at 07:18 am
Kathy- I believe there is some talent thats going undiscovered out there. Yes its considered illegal and a waste of time by most, but the areas you cover are seldom seen and help to minimize "tagging" in the places that can be seen. I have been doing the same thing here in San Diego. The history is rich here. I appreciate what your doing. God bless you.
astroturf attacks! replying to a comment from tommy / April 20, 2013 at 09:17 am
"Is it just me, or has right-wing astroturfing increased a lot in the past week or so on Toronto-related blogs and newspapers?"

yeah, i have to agree. i think now that Trudeau is the Libs new leader and Ford can see the starting line for the next election, the far right realizes their time is NOW.

kinda shitty too because the sheer number of them means that legitimate comment/debate is getting seriously watered down or sidetracked altogether. they hit the comments section so fast (or first) and set the tone for the rest of the day
Daddy Sucrose replying to a comment from Grafitti is Garbage / December 5, 2014 at 04:18 pm
Do it. It will be the most expensive and most painful toilet paper you've ever wiped your ass with. Hah!
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