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A young woman with pink hair stomps her combat boots in a puddle on Queen Street. As she walks along, she heads her past boutique shops and moderately-priced restaurants serving ethnic cuisines and cheap comfort foods. This is Queen Street, Toronto’s artsy neighborhood.
As we visited, we were feeling adventurous and rounded the corner and turned into Rush Lane, known to locals as the Graffiti Alley in Toronto. Nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to experience.
We found ourselves dodging dumpsters, and pools of water with the shimmer of oil floating on the surface. Rush Lane is gritty. It’s edgy. And it’s absolutely beautiful.
Urban artists (these folks have evolved way past “graffiti taggers”) craft huge murals welcoming locals and visitors to Toronto. We encountered a mural of a woman next to a pile of hamburgers, giving us clues to the business that was located on the other side of the brick wall.
In less enlightened cities, graffiti would be quickly painted over in the name of urban renewal. The warriors of gentrification would call it blight and tax dollars would be allocated to “fix the problem.”
In Toronto, the weirdness is embraced – or at least it is in this 1 kilometer long alley. Instead of repainting it to cover up the work, artists get the chance to showcase their new art each August when the alley is refreshed with new images.
We easily spent an hour exploring and taking photos. At one point, a balding man with ill-fitting clothes showed up and demanded $5 for us to take pictures of the murals in the alley, but we ignored his attempts to scam us. Public art is for the public.
In the nearby Chinatown graffiti alley, the street art is treated with equal respect. We were in Toronto for a travel writer’s conference and met some wonderful people, including Toronto native Helen of Not Without My Passport.
In Chinatown, she took us to their version of Graffiti Alley Toronto – a section of alleyway with two opposing murals featuring Chinese symbols and imagery – a giant dragon, a peasant and a giant Koi fish. In many ways, this was even more beautiful than the more popular Rush Lane.
Many people come to a city like Toronto and head for the Hockey Hall of Fame or the CN Tower (and we did a little of that). But we found an honest beauty and satisfaction in exploring the underbelly of the street art scene in the graffiti alley.