- Christine Estima
If you're a lover of gritty street art and risqué Twitter humour, then you've likely already heard of Christine Estima. Christine is a film critic, author and former Reality-TV star whose gained a lot of attention with her worldwide reporting of graffiti art on her popular blog, The Spadina Monologues.
When I first visited her website, I was impressed with her dedication to graffiti (graff) culture. She's scoured the dark alleys and grungy corners of Lima, Peru; London, England; New York, Vancouver, Montreal and, of course, Toronto in search of quintessential street art. Her knowledge of these street creations is remarkable and certainly indicative of her passion for the art form.
So when I wanted to take a tour of Queen Street West's famed Graffiti Alley, who better to guide me than Christine herself.
TorontoVerve: How did you get into graffiti -- when did it all start?
Christine Estima: I got into graff sometime around 2004 after hearing about the secret swing that was erected in graffiti alley. That was my first time venturing into the alley, and taking photos of myself on that swing. I instantly became attracted to the way citizens can interact with each other and share inside jokes and secrets through the medium of street art. It was a truly ephemeral experience, democratic and liveable. It made me excited to check out what other secrets the streets of Toronto were holding.
TV: How does graffiti art inspire you?
CE: I love the political statements that can be embedded within clever sayings and provocative images. I love anything that asks questions, provokes thoughts whilst simultaneously taking the viewer on an emotional journey. Sometimes the work is just aesthetically pleasing as well. As a creative person myself, I am inspired by many different art forms, and street art seems to be less influenced by curators, censorship, editors and therefore more open and honest.
CE: These were drawn by Poser, who is just in his 20's. He's fresh out of OCAD, but he's already bombed a lot of Toronto, and you can find his rabbits all over the city. He's also been commisioned to do murals on schools that promote anti-bullying. I heard rumours that Poser actually considers these rabbits to be bears, but I say they're rabbits! So, these rabbits have been in graff alley for at least a year because I remember photographing them a year ago in the same spot.
TV: Unlike most of the other graffiti art, these rabbits haven't been painted-over (tagged) by other artists.
CE: Poser has a lot of cred in the community and so his pieces probably haven't been tagged because of the 'honour and cred' code. If you have a lot of haters, expect your work to last for a week, tops. But if you can keep the haters at bay, the highest form of respect in the graff community is to have your work untagged.
TV: You obviously have a lot of love for graffiti. Do you have any graff-skills yourself?
CE: I have absolutely no graff-skills. Last year I bought some equipment and tried to make a stencil, but it was a disaster and I never used it. I am not a visual artist at all -- except for my mad photog skillz (laughs).
TV: Walking down this alley, I'm amazed by the amount of creativity in one place, but there are a lot of people who do not share the same appreciation. What do you say to those people who believe that graff-art is vandalism?
CE: I would suggest to those people that instead of getting their back up over graffiti, they should perhaps be more angry about the state-sanctioned visual pollution of advertising. Yonge and Dundas Square is a gawdy monstrosity with distracting adverts that in no way increase the quality of life of Torontonians, but it is tolerated because those spaces were "paid" for. But no one asked me if I liked having 5-storey adverts in my face as I walk through my city. To me, that is BRANDALISM and it affects my life such that I feel bombarded by a capitalistic consuming frenzy. I am not a consumer -- I am a citizen. So if it's a choice between the illegal-but-beautiful graffiti or the legal-but-vomit-ugly advertising, I will take graffiti every time. For more on this issue, i would suggest people research the city of Sao Paolo and their absolute ban on outdoor advertising and how it improved the quality of life for its citizens.
TV: So back to the graffiti. Do you know who painted these sly-looking grenades?
CE: The artist's name is Spud and he's from Toronto. He's one of the longest players in the Toronto graff-scene -- several years. Last fall, he got a lot of attention when he was arrested for street art, which created a huge amount of support in the graff-community to help him out. Ultimately, the fame helped get him his first gallery show, which was a complete success.
TV: What is the significance of the grenades?
CE: In the graff-world, when you paint over a new wall, it's called 'bombing'; hence the grenades. The [smiley] face is his signature. He'll paint this face over Rob Ford's face or a potato -- because his name is spud. This is all done with a stencil, which is a cardboard cut-out of a drawing that you spray over and then add details by hand. Because he's getting more popular, you'll notice that none of his art is tagged-over.
TV: Has his gallery showing brought Spud any international success?
CE: Actually, there's a huge outdoor graffiti yard in Queens, New York called 5 Pointz, which is very prestigious in the graff-world and he was invited to put the same grenades all over it. Also, he put up a lampoon of Mayor Rob Ford in 5 Pointz so everyone in Queens is well-aware of who Rob Ford is.
TV: Speaking of Mayor Rob Ford, he recently intensified an anti-graffiti campaign that would rid the city of graff-art -- many of which are parodies of him; like these two here.
CE: These Rob Ford faces were also done by Spud. The face was done with a stencil and the worm [body] was done by free-hand. They were put up as a reaction to several initiatives and by-laws that he tried to pass; [including] removing graffiti and cutting funding to after-school programs and the TTC. Ford's base is really the affluent parts of society, which leaves people on the lower end feeling disenfranchised and left out. Here, you'll notice that his face has a sinister laugh. This is really lampooning Rob Ford and shows that he's not well-respected amongst Torontonians. You can find these in many different alleyways in Toronto, but the fact that these have been here for over a year shows that people appreciate Spud, his artistry and the political statement [he's making].
TV: Why do you think his art was tagged over?
CE: There's a turf war between graffitists and street-artists. I think Spud would identify himself as a graffitist, but because he uses things like stencilling, it could lump him in with the street-artists. [Consequently], pure graffitists would take their spray cans and tag over [his stencilled work] to show that using stencils is cheating in graff. [Graffitists] may also tag Spud's art because they want their name up there or they think the art is old or they may not respect him, but I think that most people in the graff community have a high regard for Spud.
TV: So there's less respect for stencilling?
CE: Yeah, because stencilling is technically cheating -- the same with wheatpasting. You can get things done a lot quicker and easier with stencilling, and it does provide a higher quality picture. Stencilling and wheatpasting are predominately used by street-artists. Graff-artists are purists at heart and they [paint] free-hand using just spray cans. I find the debate to be really petty because I think street-artists and graff-artists are on the same side, but sometimes turf wars erupt. It's happens in the United States, London, Berlin, San Paolo and it happens here. For whatever reason, graff-artists see themselves as the original vandalists -- they're the bombers...they're the ones who [painted] trains way back in the day. [Graffitists] don't consider stencilling as the original form. That's probably why [Spud's art here] was tagged over by free-hand.
TV: I would think that stencilling would be advantageous because you can quickly spray something and run before getting caught.
CE: Absolutely. Banksy once said in an interview that while he was doing free-hand graff with a spray can, these cops started chasing him. He hid underneath a huge dump-truck and looked up at the gas tank and saw that they had stencilled 'flammable' on it. A light went off in his head and he said 'this is how you do it'. [Put a stencil down, spray and get out of there quickly]. I think that any form of graffiti: free-hand, stencil, wheatpaste or sculpture...I don't care how it's done, if I like the way it looks, I'm going to appreciate it. So I ignore the debate.
TV: Is there a Banksy in Toronto?
CE: Banksy? There's only one Banksy left in Toronto.
TV: Why only one?
CE: He was here in early 2011, but the very next day, half of Toronto's graffitists had tagged and gone over his [work].
TV: That's unfortunate. Where's the only Banksy in town?
CE: Just up the street at the Ocho Hotel.
TV: I see what you mean that his work was tagged over.
CE: This entire wall was completely tagged and when the Ocho Hotel [acquired the building], they wanted to preserve the Banksy that was still here. So they went to great lengths to remove some of the tags over the rat. Banksy's artwork can be worth up to hundreds and hundreds of pounds. This is the very last Banksy that is untouched in Toronto. There is one other Banksy up on Dundas West, but it's been tagged over. You can kinda see it through the tags, but for the most part, it's gone. This is the last one.
[A framed photo of the Banksy rat on the Ocho Hotel wall before it was tagged over]
TV: Do you have any advice for budding graffiti artists who want to make their mark in Toronto or anywhere else?
CE: Budding graff artists should remember that talent is their most important asset. So forget about becoming famous or infamous or trying to start a revolution. Do it because you want people to see your work. Do it for the streets, do it for the city, do it for the love of it.