In most parts of Toronto, an open-eyed walk outside will reveal an outdoor art gallery. On the University of Toronto campus, heritage buildings and memorial statues never leave eyeshot. These freestanding works are usually accompanied by a placard explaining why this particular 100-year-old relic is worthy of respect.


Then there's a second gallery—the one sprayed onto the sides of those heritage buildings. This world, the world of graffiti, turns traditional art on its head. Here, there are no placards, the art has to speak for itself. Respect can’t be asked for, it’s earned.


This week, the newspaper met up with Toronto artist Sleepy Eyes to take an inside look at Toronto graffiti culture.


Right off the top we get into styles, and it's immediately clear that terms like “baroque” don’t apply. On every level, Sleepy describes a culture where styles are colliding, not coinciding.


Artists aren’t looking for a response from critics looking at a one-off piece, they are looking to build a reputation behind the scenes. Speaking from the inside, Sleepy confirms what an onlooker could only guess, “It’s very clique-y.”


For the most part, Sleepy describes a culture that is shaped by two forces. There’s the impulse to build off of people you respect, and there's the urge to reject artists you don’t.


As a newcomer to the Toronto scene from Hamilton, Sleepy finds himself drawing inspiration from graffiti that’s already up, saying, “You get to feel people's styles out, you get to be like ‘this person rocks their 'E' like that,’ you catch onto styles like that.”


Finding inspiration, forming crews, and meeting mentors represents one side of graffiti culture—but it isn't all so positive. On the other side, there are animosities and an undying voice that says, “Fuck the system.”


We pass a piece on Yonge Street and Sleepy’s eyes pin to the wall for a few extra seconds. The piece is in light paint, masking a darker piece underneath it. I ask him how he feels about other artists throwing their graffiti over his.


He shakes it off, saying, “I don’t really care about that shit, and it’s nothing major, this isn’t Los Angeles, but people get beat up, that’s how beefs get started.” Sleepy’s seen it happen, recalling, “You’ll be at a party, and someone will find who’s painting on his shit, and he’ll go after him.”


Before I am able to take any of this too seriously— and perhaps realizing that the situation sounds intense—he steps back for some perspective. “It’s fucking childish though,” he says. Injecting levity, he adds, “You're destroying someone else’s property and you get mad that someone else is writing over you? Get over it!” He pauses as if realizing that he just painted a picture of a world with childish attitudes and not-so-childish confrontation.


“It’s childish,” he takes a breath, and then, “It's just really politicky.”


Sleepy claims to stay neutral on the politics, but from what he says, that's not entirely true. He makes one major exception. He admits, “I’ve written over murals, but I don't give a fuck, especially when people paint a mural over your piece.”  From what he says, this attitude is common in graffiti circles, “When you have someone paint a mural people are like ‘fuck that,’  people don't give a fuck.”


Sleepy’s manner had otherwise matched his name, but here I’d struck a nerve.


I prodded a little further for his thoughts on murals. He was quick to expand.


“There's two demographics that people fall into, and it's ‘artists’ and ‘vandals,’, … you can tell the difference, … and [that] they don’t like each other.” As he speaks, his leanings seem obvious.


But the moment I begin to think this is a matter of him being on a high horse—branding murals as “vandals” and distinguishing himself as an “artist”—he flips it all on its head.


“People hate street artists. I hate street art. Fuck street art,” he says, talking about murals, “This is all about vandalism, it's organized crime.”


I catch on, the group he looks down on are “artists,” and he’s a “vandal.”  We stand on Dundas just off Spadina, and Sleepy gestures to a commissioned mural—the scenic kind you see in newly gentrified neighbourhoods. “That's not real graffiti,” he says, and turns to point across the street at a tag sprawled across a third-story rooftop, “that is.”


I ask the obvious—why is the rooftop tag “real graffiti” and the other isn’t?


Sleepy shoots back without pause. To him the answer is clear, “Cause [one] involves destruction of property. Nothing says ‘fuck you’like destroying someone else's shit.”


My own AGO-going assumptions—which I thought I was free of—finally died away and it all clicked. For Sleepy, graffiti wasn’t just about art, it was about vandalism to its core.


We begin to walk back up Spadina to the place we met, and I start to notice the graffiti in a different light. Before meeting Sleepy I would have looked at graffiti like any other form of outdoor art, assessing whether or not I liked the way it looked on its face. But with Sleepy’s emphasis on vandalism, focusing only on the visuals alone seemed as reductive as summarizing a work of literature with the number “27.”


Ultimately, at least to Sleepy, graffiti isn't just about being an artist, it's about being subversive. It's about doing the exact thing that commissioned statues and zoned architecture can’t do—rejecting it all.


As I looked up across both sides of Spadina, each piece became less important. Instead, the wall-to-wall tags carried a powerful message about how a completely invisible community can subvert the law to cover the city in artwork. The very existence of each peice sends a message about authority, infinitely more powerful than any 10-foot statue of Winston Churchill ever can.


As I walk away, Sleepy reiterates a point he already made, “Believe me every graffiti artist knows that it's childish.” I say nothing, but it all fits. If graffiti is meant as an affront to authority, nothing could be more effective than its antithesis, childish as it may be.

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