Selling art at street level
By Philip Sportel
Last summer I sold my art on Queen West in Toronto as part of an informal (and technically illegal) group of street artists. The police never removed us, and no citizens complained. Vendors were out from Peter to Spadina streets, hawking paint splattered illustrations, poetry zines, surrealist photocopies and handcrafted jewelry.
Here’s the difference between street art and gallery art: a gallery is a world of semiotics, where the signifier refers to an outside signified; meaning is manufactured in objects against white walls. On the street, the fact that the art is there is as important as the content of the art itself. Street art means rebellion. Street art means grassroots social structures. Street art is a code some understand and some don’t. It has charm. In the gallery, objects wait to be filled with meaning. On the street, the act of defying institutions carries its own meaning: we will not have our lives defined by any standards but our own. Artists are essential on the sidewalk, that middle ground between the studio and the gallery. For street artists, it’s more important to develop personal relationships than to have institutional support.
That’s what makes hawking your soul on the street unique: community. Frankly, I had no idea what the term meant until I started selling art on Queen. “Your other options for meeting artists are gallery openings and art school,” says Ashley Proctor, street artist, zinester and artist’s representative. “Selling your work on the street is like having an open studio. On the street, artists interact with each other and the public. People get to see and talk with the artist. For Mike [Parsons, a fellow street art vendor], part of art making is the performance. It creates a relationship between him and passers-by.”
In most places, tourist art is cheese and street art is graffiti. In Toronto, the graffiti is tourist art. It’s a brave new world.
Take Charlie Green, for example. A member of the local hip hop collective Rhythmicru, he spent most weekends selling his graffiti for twenty bucks a print, spray painting with stencils right there on the sidewalk. It was a selling point that people recognized his art from the sides of buildings. Buyers often mentioned that they’d seen his tags before.
Mike Parsons, however, is the prime mover among street artists. Almost every day since he started two years ago, he has been outside the 360 with his trademark black and white illustrations of cityscapes and violent transformations.
It was helpful that some of these artists had already put their art on the sides of buildings: the advertisement is the art. The art is the advertisement, and people like Charlie and Mike are quietly branding their own visions on the city’s landscape.
Having been to Quebec, Ottawa and Montreal that same summer, I saw other street “art.” But these cities seemed to provide strictly tourist-friendly fare, and the artists had permits. You could pay 20 bucks for a caricature of yourself or 80 for a print of some historical buildings. From what I saw, Toronto’s street level artists have more street cred than those three cities combined (if you’ll pardon my bias); what I saw on those city streets was expensive and mundane. Safe.
Toronto’s street art, on the other hand, is dangerous, distinctly personal, and comes from the artists themselves instead of simply offering souvenirs of the architecture or history of the city.
It’s important to note, however, that the more conservative street artists in Toronto would still rather sell pictures of celebrities than images of the city. Why? We have a distinctive city hall, but it is so unknown to the rest of the world that it stood in for a zombie-generating corporation’s headquarters in Resident Evil. We have the CN Tower the tallest freestanding structure in the world (as of press time, anyway), but it gets airbrushed out when Toronto plays other cities in movies and tends to linger in the global imagination as a bland, generic place. It’s a sad fact, but it also sustains Toronto’s status as a blank canvas. This way, though our landmarks remain vague, our countless artists can make up their own visions of the city.
There’s an energy downtown that lets us know we’re all still alive. It’s in the kind of art I saw out there last summer. We’re still reaching for a voice, speaking in tongues, making our own language to describe what this place, our city, is about.
Maybe that’s why the cops left us alone.
To see the unsanctioned street art for yourself, visit: