Living in an urban core, graffiti becomes a normal sight. The illegible “words” scrawled across the most unusual of places within the urban fabric might be dismissed by some, might be praised my others, and might be criticized by the other few. However what most people don’t know is that these interventions represent a conversation at the scale of the city – a conversation that is invisible to the outside eye, but at the same time, begs for attention.

This past September I met Kit – an actor, rapper, writer, and former graffiti artist under the name, “Knows” – who leads graffiti tours with Tour Guys Toronto. He definitely provided the most memorable insight into the world of graffiti in downtown Toronto, which has changed how I look at graffiti around the city.

Conversations Between Masked Artists

As many of you might know, graffiti artists have “tags” – essentially, their signature that they place on the wall. Almost always, this comes in the form of words, in the form of a name. It’s an identity that one recognizes, but doesn’t actually know. Take Banksy for example – the infamous graffiti artist plasters his detailed illustrations commenting on the specific site all around the world; but who is he really? So one begs to question: what’s the point?

Kit explained that it’s an impulse to own part of the city within the noise. It’s the experience of knowing.

And what I found really interesting was that graffiti becomes a conversation between these artists: layers of visual commentary of a certain stylistic identity that cover the city’s infrastructure – often the forgotten spaces. And there’s a full vocabulary that comes with this conversation.

Graffiti Tour with Tour Guys Toronto

Tags, throws, pieces, burns, toys – all of these are messages to the previous artist, often plastered atop what one had left behind. Might be bad. Might be good. Might be funny. Either way, it’s a conversation worth deciphering.

You’ll notice pieces like the stencilled grenade above – found in an alleyway just off of Spadina and Queen West – that was put up on top of someone else’s work. In plain English, another artist called him out – “STAY OFF REAL GRAF”. A warning? A message? A political root? A hidden conversation that has been stemming across other pieces in the history of this particular graffiti artist? What you will see is the layers of history – an almost urban archaeology that requires study.

So check out some of my favourite graffiti that I saw on my tour with Kit. Look around; look up when you’re walking downtown. Even take a look out of your window at home or at the office – check out the oddest spaces that graffiti might be. Ask yourself, why? How did they do this without getting caught? Was it commissioned? What impact did that have?

The more you stare – or squint to make out the forms – the more this art becomes connected in your mind to various masked artists around the city. Engage with the art as a conversation, and try to decipher the messages layered upon one another.

The infamous Hug Tree is by a very recognizable graffiti artist in Toronto – whose art often paints shifting expressions of extremely detailed human faces. He really uses spray paint to its fullest capabilities as a medium – blending colours to achieve depth and realism. Interpret the smile (or lack of a smile) as you wish.

Graffiti Culture with Tour Guys Toronto

You might recognize the signature bird in this graffiti. I’ve seen it all across the city on my commute! What’s really awesome about Uber is the use of the physical constraints in the urban landscape to better the humour. The image to the right is a commissioned piece that covers the entire building, and has been preserved in this resin, right along Graffiti Alley (which runs east-west just south of Queen Street West, near Spadina Ave).

Graffiti Culture with Tour Guys Toronto

This might look only as an abstract pattern, but it’s actually a tag that spells out Bacon. It’s a really recognizable style that draws influence from stained glass – contrasting colours and using hard lines to hide the letters that spell Bacon’s identity.

Graffiti Culture with Tour Guys Toronto

Have you taken a graffiti tour before? Recognize any of these pieces of graffiti? Do you have a favourite piece in your city?

Toronto Graffiti Tour & Street Art Culture with The Tour Guys
This tour was provided courtesy of Tour Guys Toronto, all opinions are my own. Check out their website for other unique tours around the city and around the world.