Street art goes Main Street

By 
  • February 20, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - As you peer through the keyhole, the silent memorial begins. More than 400 names of homeless people who have died on Toronto’s streets flash across the screen inside the graffiti-adorned house, one after the other.

This is the work of “Other,” also known as Montreal street artist Derek Mehaffey. It’s part of the first major street art exhibit at a Canadian museum.

In Toronto, street art has come to Main Street, with a spotlight on homelessness and poverty. “Housepaint, Part 2: Shelter ” brings together the artwork of 10 of Canada’s top street artists at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum.

The exhibit’s curator, Devon Ostrom, says Housepaint provides a platform for bringing about more awareness, understanding and empathy about homelessness, although it’s not necessarily a political message. Art isn’t very good at making hard, political messages, he said, because art is subjective and evocative.

“The ROM acts as the collective memory of Ontario and Canada, and so we’re putting that memory of homelessness and of Tent City back into the effective consciousness,” Ostrom said.

In the exhibit, there are 10 canvas houses which vary in size to reflect the different income ratios in Toronto. The houses were first made on the site of Tent City, a former enclave of more than 100 homeless people on property then owned by Home Depot just off of Cherry Street and Lakeshore Boulevard near the waterfront. Its inhabitants were forcibly evicted from the site seven years ago.

Mehaffey said he hopes visitors will think about Tent City and how it remains unused to this day.

For the 37-year-old Mehaffey, a Concordia University graduate, skateboarding and graffiti brought him into a kind of “underworld” where the places he and his friends would frequent at night were also where they met and befriended people living on the streets. Getting to know them dispelled stereotypes about homeless people, he said. Of the homeless people he has met many have a mental illness and haven’t been able to access the medical help they need.

 In Vancouver, Mehaffey also worked with drug addicts and homeless youth who were interested in art.

“They worked so hard. They were just normal people. Most of them just had a sickness and it came up in intervals,” Mehaffey said. “And when it popped up, it wrecked everything for them. They went on a binge or lost their apartment or never showed up to work.”

The acclaimed street artist also got another first-hand look at homelessness when he was living on the streets for four months in Europe in the 1990s.

These kinds of experiences are reflected in Mehaffey’s art. 

“I’m taking it from the perspective of never being able to find a real home because artists are always living in the fringe of new developments,” he said.

For Ottawa-born artist Patrick Thompson, a brief stint of being without a home came when he hopped freight trains six times, from coast to coast.

“I find that these places where transients, hobos, homeless people choose to live in are always the most interesting, rich and layered places in the city,” the 30-year-old Dawson College graduate said.

In contrast, Thompson said he’s not a big fan of the suburbs.

“A lot of urban sprawl looks like really bad graffiti to me,” he said.

Toronto artist Ryan MacKeen also sees public space as open to interpretation. The 31-year-old graduate of Sheridan College’s animation program has directed short films and music videos for recording artists like Eminem and Arcade Fire. At 15, he started tagging hip hop graffiti in abandoned buildings and rundown neighbourhoods.

MacKeen said he has been arrested once for tagging graffiti and was released without jail time. But some of his American friends weren’t so lucky, with some “doing hard time with murderers and rapists” for their artwork, he said.

But MacKeen said artwork in public space shouldn’t be seen as a crime. Graffiti is about reclaiming public property.

MacKeen asked why no one questions corporate ads in public space, adding that it’s money which provides access to that space.

But no matter what the street artist’s message or perspective on their art, the exhibit’s curator said Housepaint provides a forum to get people talking about homelessness.

The exhibit runs until July. In June, the artwork will be auctioned to raise funds for Habitat for Humanity.

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