Ten murals. Ten artists. Ten stories. A look into the art that is breathing life into Toronto

For ten years, StreetARToronto has breathed life into Toronto’s streets.

With the goal of reducing graffiti vandalism and replacing it with “vibrant, colourful, community-engaged street art,” the municipal initiative has helped to fund more than 1,000 murals since the program began in 2012.

To commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the program, here are the stories of ten murals and ten groups of artists that are breathing life into the city.

“Enemy of Justice is Ignorance”

Created by Elicser Elliott in 2020. Located at 975 Danforth Ave.

“In the middle of painting another mural on an adjacent wall, the verdict for Breonna Taylor was released. I felt the door got more justice than Breonna Taylor. So I thought we, my friends and I, should illustrate how we felt.

“So right behind the main mural that we were commissioned to create, there is this wall, which we painted around the same time, just talking about how similar things still are to 1955, when Emmett Till’s mother decided to leave his casket open, so everyone could see the atrocities these men did to him. And then in 2020, kind of the same things happen. There’s no justice for the family.

“The mural is a sombre piece and it illustrates the facts right in front of the audience. So I think that provokes a great deal of conversation. I feel it’s my duty as a Black artist to shine a light on some of these ideas. Then a conversation can happen.”

“Matt Kirby — But Still Alive”

Matt Kirby But Still Alive: Created by Matthew Del Degan, founder of Lovebot, in 2015. Located at 43 Triller Ave.

Created by Matthew Del Degan, founder of Lovebot, in 2015. Located at 43 Triller Ave.

“I’m not a political artist. I’m more of a people artist. I just want more equality, more kindness, more love in the world. Matt Kirby was a fan of Lovebot and he passed away from mental illness. We had never met but it felt very personal and a deep loss for me and my work.

“Matt was just a really dedicated fan. He also had a tattoo sleeve of Keith Haring’s work. I’ve always had a deep love and respect for Keith because of the way he approached public art — how it was always about the people and just wanting people to have more mutual respect for one another.

“I put ‘STILL ALIVE’ in the mural because it was one of the things that Keith wrote on one of his old subway drawings in New York. It was a beautiful way of saying that what Matt believed in, which is a lot of the stuff that my work represents, is still alive within this mural.

“I became close with Matt’s family after painting a different mural for him. I think I’ve done three or four at this point for him. I became close with his family.”

“Park Lawn Underpass Mural”

Park Lawn Underpass Mural: Created by Cindy Scaife in 2016. Located on Park Lawn Road, just south of the Gardiner Expressway.

Created by Cindy Scaife in 2016. Located on Park Lawn Road, just south of the Gardiner Expressway.

“I wanted to keep it upbeat and joyful because traditionally underpasses are dimly lit spots and also very often neglected. I wanted to give something to the community that was uplifting, and that resonates with the history of the surrounding area. The big strawberry is a nod to the food terminal, which is nearby. Doing my research, I also found there used to be strawberry fields around the area that were quite plentiful.

“I remember from my childhood, when my family went to Exhibition Place, you could see the Seahorse Motel from the highway. I always liked that kind of vintage sign, so I wanted to include it.

“A really cool thing that resulted from working on the mural is that one day, a woman stopped her car, got out and started talking to me. She was very excited. She told me her parents owned that motel, and she grew up there. So, the mural meant a lot to them because the motel was no longer there. When the mural was unveiled, the woman addressed the crowd and talked about the history of the motel. That was lovely.”

“Iron Workers Tribute Mural”

Iron Workers Tribute Mural: Created by Allan Bender in 2020. Commissioned by Iron Workers Local 721, with support from StART Toronto. Located at 909 Kipling Ave.

Created by Allan Bender in 2020. Commissioned by Iron Workers Local 721, with support from StART Toronto. Located at 909 Kipling Ave.

“I come from the Belleville area which is near the Tyendinaga First Nations community. A lot of my friends from there became iron workers. So essentially, I put a lot of my friends in this mural. One of the first women who become an iron worker is my friend. She’s now retired and in her 60s — she is probably going to beat me up saying how old she is — and I got her in my mural and her husband, who was also an iron worker. So it’s kind of cool to put some of my peeps in the mural.

“The local’s union building is right opposite the mural. I’ve been there several times and I love to get razzed by these guys. They go, ‘Whoa, hey, you’re the artist. You realize you screwed up the badges on those helmets.’ They’re always kind of giving me stink because I didn’t do something perfectly — which I love. It’s nice knowing that these guys are spending a lot of time looking at this mural.

“We Rise Above”

We Rise Above: Created by Jasnine Designs in 2022. Located at 464 Parliament St.

Created by Jasnine Designs in 2022. Located at 464 Parliament St.

“This mural is supposed to give strength and empowerment to the Indigenous people in the community. Kara is just such a symbol of resilience and strength, and someone I really admire. She takes care of her husband and her two kids. She has to work and she does her music on the side. She does so much. Just seeing other women doing awesome things gives you hope.

“Her stance in the mural is a very traditional hip-hop pose. It’s a confident stance and evokes a sense of ‘I’m coming,’ and ‘I’m gonna crush this.’ Hip-hop culture is really about putting yourself out there and being authentic. There’s a lot of fake stuff in hip-hop culture — like those posh Lamborghinis and all that — but the pure essence of it is being original. There are different hip-hop styles and you just kind of add your own original style to it.

“And Kara has the best style of all Toronto girls. She puts so much effort into what she does and it’s just very authentic to her, which I admire.”

“Greetings From Parkdale”

Greetings From Parkdale: Created by William Emerson Gaydos in 2015. Located at 207 Cowan Ave.

Created by William Emerson Gaydos in 2015. Located at 207 Cowan Ave.

“I’ve always loved streetcars. I grew up in Parkdale and being a preteen and teen going downtown, the streetcar was the way to go. It’s a fun way to traverse the city instead of riding a subway through a dark tunnel for the most part. Instead, you get to sit and stare out the windows and see what’s going on the street. When I started painting this mural, they had already started replacing the streetcars with the new ones. But I grew up with the CLRVs and I love them — like just the fact you can open a window. So, streetcars play a pretty big role in life in the neighbourhood.

“I’ve lived in Parkdale since 1997. Obviously, things are very different now than they used to be. But it always has been a major first-stop neighbourhood for a lot of immigrants. I went to Parkdale Collegiate and when you look at the graduating classes, you can see the waves of immigration from different parts of the world represented in those classes. Growing up as a young white kid, being exposed to different groups of people and other ways of living life — multiculturalism — was such as valuable thing.

“And the streetcar is kind of representative of that shared universal experience in the neighbourhood. Everyone used the streetcar.”

The Original People Leading to the Eighth Fire

The Original People Leading to the Eighth Fire: Created by Philip Cote and Jim Thierry Bravo in 2018. Located at 149 Roncesvalles Ave.

Created by Philip Cote and Jim Thierry Bravo in 2018. Located at 149 Roncesvalles Ave.

“In our cosmology, everything in the universe is made of light and dark. When our elders do public speaking, at the end of their talk, they usually say, ‘All my relations.’ That’s what they’re referring to — that we are all related. And we’re not just talking about humans. We’re talking about all the life that’s all around us because even the trees, the birds and the animals are all made of light and dark.

“In the mural, the black lines seem to connect everything. Those black lines represent the beginning of the universe and how we’re all related. The piece also represents this merging between the settler nation and the Indigenous nations. The prophecy of the eighth fire is how this merging was going to bring about a great change because these two wisdoms that come from these two different ways of looking at the world are going to create a third that’s going to lead all of our new people into the future.

“This work is part of a decolonization process, where we are finally getting to tell our story in public spaces, because these last 500 years, we haven’t been able to tell our stories. It’s been settlers’ visions of our stories. When I began these works, I realized that I had a chance to transform that missing element for Indigenous people by showing a reflection of them and their stories, and giving them a place where they can have a sense of pride and acknowledgment that we’re part of the lands.”

“Dallington Pollinators”

Dallington Pollinators: Created by Nick Sweetman in 2020, with the support of the David Suzuki Foundation. Located at Dallington Public School, at 18 Dallington Dr.

Created by Nick Sweetman in 2020, with the support of the David Suzuki Foundation. Located at Dallington Public School, at 18 Dallington Dr.

“I’m always most inspired by the natural world. When I learn about different environmental issues, I like to paint a mural about it because that, to me, feels like a direct way of talking to people about it. I have a responsibility to talk about things that are important in the world.

“I used to make more work that was kind of gallery based. I don’t do a lot of that anymore because I started to feel cut off from average people. But everyone has to walk on the street. So putting that art in people’s lives in ways that they’re not expecting really has the potential to inspire.

“What I’m always trying to do with these bee and butterfly paintings is create that sense of awe that you might feel when you look at a painting of a lion or a big strong horse or these animals that are painted frequently because they’re seen as majestic. I want to do that for butterflies and bees — to make sure that people know pollinators are just as amazing.”

“Landscraped Infrastructure”

Landscraped Infrastructure: Created by Dan Bergeron, with Gabriel Specter, in 2018. Located on Lawrence Avenue E., just west of Victoria Park Avenue.

Created by Dan Bergeron, with Gabriel Specter, in 2018. Located on Lawrence Avenue E., just west of Victoria Park Avenue.

“I painted that mural with my friend Gabriel Specter. We like to paint murals that are site-specific, meaning we want to think about the location where the mural is going to exist, the history of the site and its possible future uses. We looked at the site, but we realized there wasn’t necessarily a lot there. It’s an overpass train bridge. There are a lot of businesses, some more industrial-type businesses with warehouses.

“So, we did some more research and we found this house, the Senator Frank O’Connor House. The area where the mural exists, all of that land was owned by Senator Frank O’Connor, who was born in 1885 and died in 1939. His house is still there.

“We’re really interested in painting things that are not necessarily obvious right off the bat. We want the viewer to have to look at it to figure out what’s going on. So we used these geometric shapes to break the image up. It’s kind of two different puzzles that we put together.”

“Intersections”

Intersections: Created by Meera Sethi in 2013 as part of the Church Street Mural Project. Located at 552 Church St.

Created by Meera Sethi in 2013 as part of the Church Street Mural Project. Located at 552 Church St.

“The piece is a celebration and commemoration of the queer and trans South Asian LGBTQ community. The fact that the mural was at an intersection made me think about intersecting identities. The patterns and slew of bright colours that are crossing each other symbolize textile patterns from South Asia.

“This is the first mural I’ve ever done, so it was a daunting challenge. But for me, the Gay Village was very significant for me in my process of coming out. It was an area where I would go to understand myself, meet people and make friends. It’s typically a very white, cis, gay male space, so bringing in these other voices and having it marked in such a bold way is beautiful.

“In 2013, there was a protest in front of the mural against the adoption of section 377 of the Indian penal code, which criminalized homosexual sex. I was so thrilled that the organizers chose this space because it brought the mural to life; it brought the community in and the mural became a living artwork because people in the queer and trans community claimed it for themselves.”

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