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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Art up your alley

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It's a standard issue narrative: in the shadow of a more outgoing, attractive older sibling, the younger, homelier sibling, feeling neglected, turns to the time-honoured refuge of the introvert — art.

This relationship can hold true metaphorically as well, as evidenced by the two secondary arteries of Toronto — its ravines and laneways. Older sibling Ravine — its natural beauty strikingly handsome amidst the concrete it inhabits — has long been the city's darling. Meanwhile, the Laneway — the "ugly duckling" younger kin — starved of attention and encouragement and left to its own devices, has been nurturing creative inclinations.

According to City records, there are 3,537 public laneways (commonly referred to as alleys) in Toronto, with a cumulative length of around 288 kilometres. Long the setting for pop media's sordid affairs — fights, muggings, dope deals, chases, clandestine meetings — alleys also serve as concrete yards for their bordering homeowners (venues for pick-up basketball games, training-wheel bike practice) and inner-city pathways for their cyclists and walkers (a demographic notably including artist-types). In defiance of shortcutting cars and those who use alleys as a dumpster, these latter two lane-using communities have been dolling up their beloved back alleys in recent years with art projects both organized and personal.

Once you start noticing the artwork adorning garage doors, rear walls, and back fences, alley travel can evolve into an exploration obsession of sorts, prodding you to take new routes in order to find another folk art gem. Lane cruisers might come across a Group of Seven-like sunset and pine tree scene, a dual portrait of boxers Mohammed Ali and George Chuvalo, or a stretch of eye-popping graffiti.

In addition to sprucing things up, art can counteract the shady goings-on of alleys by making the space safer, says Jenna Van Hoof, founder of local urban art-promoting organization Style In Progress. The group's flagship project is its yearly Graffiti Jam, in which an alleyway south of Queen running from Spadina to Portland is transformed into a lengthy showcase for the burgeoning art form. "It decreases crime because people are walking back behind the alley as an art gallery," she says. A smaller Jam was done behind the hipster-haven Drake Hotel on Queen West with similar results. "The amount of traffic they get behind The Drake, they totally love it. They feel like it's not a seedy space anymore. It's very vibrant — people [become] proud of their alleys."

Along with traditional elaborate graffiti tags, there are myriad styles and content on display in Graffiti Alley (commonly known as Rush Lane within the graffiti community), all meticulously applied to anti-canvases like metal garage doors, brick and concrete walls, and wooden fences. The unconventional surfaces are part of the art's appeal says Van Hoof. "Most graffiti artists can size up a wall… how much paint it's going to soak up, if it's even versus uneven, if there are pipes going through it…. A lot of them roll with the punches and try to incorporate things like that into their pieces."

The mid-July two-day Jam attracted thousands this summer. When I visited two months later it was still drawing patrons: in addition to an art student with iPod in ear and sketchbook in arm, a middle-aged couple were slowly walking down the strip, appearing no different than if they were going through the AGO, hands clasped behind their backs as they stopped to peruse each artwork and discuss.

Another notable alley art hot spot is nestled just below Bloor running north-south, squeezed between Brunswick and Borden. Beginning at the out-of-the-way entrance of a local bar, many a soused patron stumbling south must have been pleasantly engulfed by the moonlit eye candy ushering him home: ten-plus garages and a house wall are uniformly covered in rich, muted colours topped by Art Nouveau-style patterns.

The Harbourfront Community Centre's Mural Project prettied-up the lane in the summer of 2002 as part of a city-funded endeavour for disadvantaged youth. The project's leader, Michael Brown, was inspired by the 1999 Lanin Street Project of Buenos Aires painter Marino Santa Maria, in which over 50 houses were fancily painted. "We put together a brochure with images from [Lanin] on it that said 'imagine something like this in Toronto.'" The alley was smothered in low-grade graffiti tags, so once a few garage owners signed up, others followed suit. "It doesn't get the visibility of a regular [art] space," admits Brown, "[but] on the other hand, you're creating a unique spot for people to discover."

The joy of such urban discovery is the driving spirit behind Alley Jaunt, a two-day festival in mid-August in which an estimated 3,000 Torontonians picked up a map in Trinity Bellwoods Park and were then guided through scenic Little Italy and Little Portugal alleys by sporadic chalk arrows drawn on the pavement.