Graffiti tour is a walk on Toronto’s wild side

Toronto GraffitiGraffiti in Toronto’s Queen Street West area / Photo by Joe Newman

Let’s play a game of word association. Toronto? Clean. Orderly. Friendly. That’s how a lot of Americans think of the sprawling city north of the border. And the reputation is certainly deserved to a large extent, but spend an afternoon exploring the city’s Queen Street West neighborhood and you might discover a slice of Toronto you didn’t know existed.

Queen Street West is ground zero for Toronto’s flourishing graffiti culture. Graffiti, street art and murals abound. A book published this spring called it “Hidden Toronto.” Author Kathy Toth told blogTO that controversial Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s “war on graffiti” has actually spurred the movement on.

Americans who come here always say it’s amazing how relaxed the city is to work in, and that’s mostly because it’s nowhere near as saturated as NYC, Philly or the Bay area with bombing and tagging. Sure some parts of the city are bombed hard, like Chinatown, but it doesn’t extend like that outward. When the city says they have an epidemic on their hands most people laugh…it’s just a political fabrication. Toronto also has a lively arts scene so [graffiti] writers, who tend to be artists, also do other work in the city.

Toronto GraffitiQueen Street W is a hotbed of graffiti — both the legal and illegal kind / Photo by Joe Newman

I’m not sure I’d go so far as call  the part of Queen Street West that I saw last week gritty, but there is a certain rough-around-the-edges quality to the area that sets it apart from the polished high-rises near the downtown convention center and sports arenas. (In our first five minutes there, we crossed paths with a topless “reporter” who was doing street interviews for Naked News.)

I was in Toronto for TBEX 2013, an annual conference of travel bloggers and travel industry pros. The graffiti walking tour was one of several city tours organized for attendees.

Our tour guide, Jason Kucherawy, co-owner of Tour Guys, said it is easy to tell the difference between the walls where street art is legal and those where graffiti writers have to take their chances in the middle of the night. On the legal walls, the art is big, colorful and intricate. On the walls were graffiti isn’t allowed, the tags are hastily drawn.

Toronto GraffitiOur tour guide, Jason Kucherawy, co-owner of Tour Guys / Photo by Joe Newman

Kucherawy, who knows several of Toronto’s graffiti writers, fills his tours with a mix of historical perspectives, current events and interesting cultural tid-bits. Besides being extremely knowledgeable about the Toronto street art scene, he’s the kind of guy you’d want to share a beer with.

In fact, you can get a good sense of his personality from the specialty tours his company offers. He also offers a “Beer makes history better” tour and a “When pigs fry” food tour that includes a visit to one of “Toronto’s best butcher shops to learn about quality pork and where it comes from.”

Beer and bacon. What else do you need, really?

Five years ago, Kucherawy was out of a job and almost out of options. Like a lot of folks in his situation, he found himself holding up a cardboard sign looking for work.

Except, instead of asking for food or money, Kucherawy offered tourists free city tours. He knew the city well and was an experienced tour guide, having worked at a company that provided educational tours for students.

It must have been a great way for him to hone his skills because when you’re working for tips, you damn better make sure you’ve got something interesting to say.

But those free walkabouts eventually led Kucherawy and his friend Steve Woodall, who had also worked in the tour business, to come up with the idea of starting their own urban tour company.

To this day, the duo still offer some free tours, along with their package of paid tours.

Toronto GraffitiThe “Hug Tree” is the starting spot for the graffiti tour / Photo by Joe Newman

The graffiti tour is a two-hour walk through Queen Street W, starting at the “Hug Tree,” at the corner of Queen St. W and Soho Street. From the Tour Guys website:

This tour encourages debate and discussion – it’s more than just looking at painted walls. Even “haters” will agree that much of the art on this tour is incredible!

Really, though, I didn’t see too much to hate.

One of the city’s top street artists, Uber5000, is as more of a local celebrity than underground graffiti writer. He’s even got his own website, where you can check out his collection of yellow chickens. There are several walls on the tour showcasing Uber5000’s work.

Another tag you’ll see in a few places belongs to “Sight,” a graffiti writer who, according to the book “Human Behind the Wall,” names Salvador Dali as one of his influences.

Toronto still seems more clean and friendly than a lot of places its size, but wander down an alley in Queen Street W and you’ll see that the city also has its colorful, wild side, as well.

 All photos by Joe Newman. See more on my flickr page.

Joe Newman

I'm Joe Newman, multi-media story teller, non-profit do-gooder, international street photographer, serious poker player, intrepid traveler. Bourbon drinker.

  • Courtenay Strickland

    June 5, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    I really like your photo of the Hug Tree, Joe. Really great.

    • cosmicsmudge

      June 5, 2013 at 7:13 pm

      Thanks, Courtenay! Did you see this one on flickr: ?

      • Courtenay Strickland

        June 6, 2013 at 2:51 pm

        Haha! Too funny! The lady behind me is sort of looking at me with disdain, no? 🙂

        • Joe Newman

          June 11, 2013 at 8:16 pm

          She definitely does not look amused.

  • […] I spent last weekend in Toronto at the Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) conference. I got in Friday afternoon and went on a graffiti walk of the Queen Street West area. The photo above is of a piece of public art called “The Hug Tree.” I wrote about the tour on Cosmic Smudge. […]

  • Jason Kucherawy

    June 11, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Great post! And thanks for coming on the tour Joe! I had a blast with you and the other bloggers.


    • Joe Newman

      June 11, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      It was a great tour! I’m telling anyone who visits Toronto to look you guys up. I know I will next time I’m in town.

  • Jess

    June 14, 2013 at 5:57 am

    I wish I’d taken that tour! I loved seeing the graffiti in Toronto. I was surprised by all the political commentary hidden in the art – including several unflattering portraits of the mayor.

    • Joe Newman

      June 16, 2013 at 3:29 am

      i saw some of those that made of the mayor, too. funny stuff. lampooning political leaders is such a great graffiti tradition.

  • […] in the U.S. for more than 40 years but had never crossed the border into Canada until May when I visited Toronto for the TBEX travel bloggers conference. This is the post card view from Centre […]