Not long ago I came home to a story, “The Queen and The Rat,” chalked on the sidewalk by my sister and daughter. It remained for days, until the rain came, and I was impressed by how many people actually stopped and read it. I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to escape from my messy, hot little office and go spreading stories around the way a graffiti artist spreads paint, or a guerrilla gardener spreads seeds? Both of those things are happening a lot in my neighbourhood — sunflowers sprouting up along a new path laid by the railroad tracks, and graffiti raccoons climbing up the posts of the bridge.
There is good graffiti, and bad, in more ways than one. Recently my husband helped out on a friend’s documentary of graffiti art, and learned about a police officer who acts as a “Legal Graffiti Art Coordinator.” There’s a concerted effort, it seems, not just to eradicate graffiti, but to redirect it. The Toronto Police website states that “numerous studies have concluded that ‘murals’ reduce continued vandal graffiti on a surface by as much as 77%.” Of course, there are good murals, and bad. And even mediocre, which is perhaps worst of all.
Luckily for me, one of the loveliest I’ve seen is right in my neighbourhood. It stretches along both sides of an otherwise lackluster strip of Bloor Street, and was painted by Toronto artist Richard Mongiat. The beautiful cones, trees, and branches, painted in stark blacks and whites and muted greys, are laid right on to the bare concrete. I was struck by this right away — by how gorgeous the concrete was, with all its nicks and scars, and how smart it was to make the wall an integral part of the piece, rather than just a surface to paint on. I think Richard Mongiat should paint the whole city of Toronto.
But perhaps not, because then there wouldn’t be room for other great mural projects, one of which appeared along Dupont Street, as part of the Art Starts Program.
Entitled “Strength in Numbers,” the mural declares that “only together can we forge a strong, safe and proud place to live.” It was funded through the City of Toronto’s Graffiti Transformation Investment Program, and features cyclists in all their variety — the speedy ones pressing into the wind and the slow-moving dress-wearing riders with baskets tied on to their “oma-fiets”. (In Holland, that’s what the old-fashioned upright bikes are called — “grandma-bikes”.) There’s a Canada goose too — this is one of my favourite parts of the mural, because the goose and its “HONK!” appeared not long before work on the mural began, and the group liked it so much they decided to incorporate it into the piece.
The kids who put the mural together, under the guidance of artists, chose a bicycle theme, appropriate for several reasons. Artist Galen Kuellmer was killed while cycling along this stretch several years ago. The wall runs alongside a new, much-needed bike path and also beneath the West Toronto Railpath, which has quickly become a popular spot for cyclists and pedestrians alike.
It was a treat watching the images come together, and to see some of the kids sitting on the wall across from their work, taking a break and looking at it all from the perspective of a passerby. Days later, someone vandalized the images, but they were quickly repaired, and not a trace of the vandalism remains. (For more about the story behind the Dupont mural, visit spacingtoronto.)
But back to the appealing notion of spreading stories. Here is “The Queen and The Rat,” originally written in vulnerable chalk but safe, now, from the elements:
Once upon a time in a little village in the big city there lived a queen who was having a problem with a rat. The queen demanded the rat wipe its feet to keep the palace clean! The rat said, Only if I can use the golden towel, and the queen said, I am using the golden one to polish my lovely lips. The rat thought this was a silly waste of time as the only thing the queen used her lips for was to eat and to order people around.
The rat and the queen could not agree so they decided to meet in the garden outside the palace. After a while of chatting they could see that what was more important than clean clean floors and polished lips was a smile and a chat in a garden or on a street or in a house.
So they threw away the golden towel and kept chatting.