Urban Spaces: Graffiti Alley

Toronto has amazing street art. Much of it is understated and wry and forces you to peer into corners and scan walls that you’d normally pass your eyes over if you want to find it. Graffiti alley is not one of these places.

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This alley runs from Portland St. to Spadina Avenue, just south of Queen St. West. You’ve probably seen the place in one of Rick Mercer’s eloquent rants:

This rant about Rob Ford seems timely. And unfortunately, he is inescapable in this city:

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I’ve always been a sucker for bright colours. Hell, I used to take pictures of the same wall in my Pointe Ste. Charles neighbourhood in Montreal every couple of months because it would inevitably be filled with entirely new – and entirely brilliant, beautiful, and meticulously executed – art pieces. And then these pieces would be covered over again in a month. The sheer temporality of street art, and knowing I might never see one of those layers of beauty if I didn’t make a point of making a detour every couple of weeks, is kind of mind-boggling.

I’m not sure if graffiti alley in Toronto gets such a drastic facelift on a monthly basis, but I’m sure I would see new pieces if I went now, just a few weeks after taking these photos.

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Graffiti gets a bad rap in general, and street art maybe slightly less so. But why would anyone, walking down a busy city street, ever prefer looking at a blank concrete wall to chancing upon something like this?

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To me, whitewashing works of art that people have spent hours creating on a wall is akin to willfully turning your eyes to the sky or the sidewalk rather than looking at the people you pass in the street. We’re mostly strangers, sure, but we all have to co-exist in this space we call a city. We can choose to tune out, or we can choose to engage with people. Venture into the great unknown with a smile, a hello, some eye contact once in a while. It can be the same with the buildings we pass as well.

I mean, how do you not smile at the detail in this giant wall piece?

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Art has the ability to engage us, to force us to interact, to make us come alive. With our faces planted firmly into our smart phones any time we’re compelled to enter into public spaces, we need all the help we can get to emerge from the technology swamp for a moment to get a whiff of the real.

Street art remains a physical reminder that we exist as flesh and bone, in a tangible world that changes our perceptions when we interact with it – and even interact with others, if we have the courage.

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Street art is a call to look up once in a while.

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