15 June 2018




This summer I have been working with the Scarborough-based non-profit, Mural Routes, in documenting mural projects around the Greater Toronto Area into one comprehensive archive. Due to their rather temporal state - and the fact I haven’t lived in Toronto since its earliest commercial murals of the late 19th Century - creating a comprehensive archive of all the city’s murals has been a bit of tricky task. But it has also prompted some interesting reflections on how murals echo both private and public memories. This week’s Flashback Friday will unravel how local history is embedded in our city’s public artwork.

"Bomb Girls" by OMEN in collaboration with StreetARToronto and Mural Routes, near Warden x St. Clair East in Scarborough. 2014. Photo courtesy of Mural Routes. 

In many murals, especially those commissioned by the city or in partnerships with local BIA (Business Improvement Area), the themes and content of murals explicitly relay “heritage moments” or local legacies. A clear example of this can be found from the 1990s, when Mural Routes commenced their first series of murals along Kingston Road in Scarborough known as the Heritage Trail. Another example would be the several murals done by John Kuna for the Village of Islington BIA in Etobicoke from 2005 to 2014. These murals feature a range of characters and activities from Islington’s past, from families tobogganing to The Guelph Radial Line to local church communities. Such murals serve as tributes to the past, becoming a visual representation of collective community memories.

However, many of Toronto’s murals were not meant to be historical in nature, yet, their memory in the minds of local residents exist as landmarks of the city’s past. This is particularly evident amongst some of Toronto’s commercial murals. Until a few years ago, when the Church Street Mural Project added several new murals to the Church and Wellesley community, a large Molson Canadian advertisement was featured on Church Street as a mural known colloquially as The Gay Cowboys. Despite its obvious commercial purposes, the mural was recognized as a landmark in a generation of Toronto’s gay community. Recently, when Mural Routes’ held their archive exhibit at 389 Yonge St., several residents of the Church-Wellesley area shared their memories of the Gay Cowboys, revealing that in spite of its loss, the mural lingers in memory as part of the neighbourhood’s historical character.

Alternatively, many contemporary murals which aim to capture the diversity of Toronto’s communities (and perhaps, also tackle the lack of representation in Toronto’s public art) remind us of the multitude of intersecting communities that contribute to its vibrancy. For example, In July 2017, Parkdale held the event Women Paint, organized by Bareket Kezwer and StreetARToronto, where muralists came together to paint their unique and contrasting narratives of being womxn.

Concurrently, other muralists, such as Philip Cote have been injecting the mural scene with art representing Indigenous history and culture. Last summer, Cote finished a mural near Old Mill Subway Station which illustrates Indigenous knowledge, that has been preserved through oral histories. Such projects are laced with narratives of the Toronto region, both contemporary and historical, which indeed beautifully draw attention to a multifaceted, complex urban identity that is often lost in the haze of gray buildings and in our hustling commutes.

Then, within the production and life of a mural, lies another source of memory. Some murals have become iconic features to Toronto, recognizable to city dwellers across demographics. The Rainbow Tunnel in the Don Valley Parkway (DVP) is an excellent example of this. Visible from the highway, a pedestrian tunnel is vibrantly painted as a rainbow - ensuring pass-byers of its visibility regardless of the time of year. First painted in the 1970s by Bc Johnson, community members came together to restore the mural in 2012-2013, thus, sharing in a collective effort to preserve its mural memory. This Saturday, June 16th, Mural Routes will be completing touch-ups on Rainbow Tunnel as maintenance.

Rainbow Tunnel undergoing its restoration in 2012-2013. Photos courtesy of Mural Routes' Archive.

While the intentions and longevity of murals differ greatly, they share a common connection to community memory. Murals engage audiences with their surroundings, provoke new ideas to recollect, and stir our consciousness of another time.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting & insightful article on an art form that is ever present in modern life, similar to graffiti art, but not something we always pause to admire or relect upon. It is a part of the background of our lives, in cities & towns around the world, adding colour or commentary to our past & present, its subtle expression leading us into the future by its painter.