A Summer with Mural Routes

This summer Mural Routes hired Samaa Ahmed to undertake the large project of assessing and documenting the condition of over 40 murals in East Toronto. In this post, Samaa looks back on her time with Mural Routes and her continuing interest in public art.

Visit our Mural Conservation page to read Samaa’s East Toronto Condition Reports.

My Summer at Mural Routes

By: Samaa Ahmed

This summer I undertook a 16-week long research project at Mural Routes to document all of our current murals, report on their conditions, and offer suggestions to preserve and update our collection.

“A Sense of Place,” Kennedy Subway Station

Before even starting this project, I was very excited about it. Firstly, I LOVE murals. Every time I travel to a new place I make an effort to visit street art and graffiti in the same way that most people plan to visit national landmarks and museums. My most enjoyable mural viewing experiences (outside of this job of course) have been in Philadelphia. It is clear to see how much murals are a part of Philadelphia’s identity. Murals document Philadelphia’s rich history, highlight its unique culture, and also promote and showcase the abundance of local artistic talent in the city. Going into this experience as a site research associate, I was interested in seeing how Toronto’s murals and street art shape and reflect its own culture.

Secondly, I wanted to learn more about the ways that the City of Toronto, community arts groups, non-profits, and individual stakeholders fund mural projects. Do we have a comprehensive strategy that outlines where we want murals, how many we want, and what themes we would like them to explore? Can we design an entire festival around mural creation, like Washington DC has done?

Finally, I wanted to interview Torontonians to ask them how they feel about mural art. Do they love murals? Do they even notice them? Do they think the city needs more? Who do they think should pay for them? Who can and should be a representative for our city vis a vis their art? Should Toronto preserve older paintings and murals as a way to honor its artistic heritage? Who do murals belong to? Do we need murals, or are they luxuries?

“Tudor Birch Grove,” Kingston Rd.

In the process of researching the history of murals in Toronto, I was able to answer some of these questions. For example, before it became part of the City of Toronto (in 1997) it seemed as though there were more murals being produced in Scarborough. That does make sense, of course, because the City of Scarborough would only be concerned with funding murals within Scarborough, whereas the City of Toronto needs to divide its resources across different neighborhoods. Through mapping the Scarborough/East Toronto murals, and my familiarity with this area, I can see that most of Mural Routes’ murals are located along Kingston Road. It would be nice to see more murals in other parts of Scarborough as well, especially in community housing areas or industrial areas.

Mural Routes East Toronto Mural Map

Another thing I learned while undertaking this project was the difference between mural art and graffiti. When discussing this project with friends, I have been asked many times what constitutes a ‘mural’ vs. street art, or even graffiti. Graffiti art is part of an entirely unique artistic subculture – with its own rules and norms – whereas murals are commissioned works, often by the City. Although there are some murals in the Mural Routes collection that use spray paint, the majority of our pieces were created using acrylic or latex paint and brushes. I think this is what makes murals so unique – because they are created in the same way as ‘traditional’ paintings, except the canvas is an exterior concrete wall. These walls are often part of buildings, or underpasses, and because they are outdoors, face the elements directly. The scale of the pieces are also impressive, and I have immense appreciation for the effort it must have taken to complete these works, especially the larger ones, or ones that are directly on the road.

“Sustenance,” Kingston Rd.

It is also very impressive to me that some of these murals are older than I am (at the time of writing, 25 years old) and they have held up so well! This is a testament to the quality of paints/primers, technique, skill and talent of the artists. Painting on concrete is incredibly challenging, because it is brittle, rough, and porous, yet, most of these murals look smooth and flawless. I think that latex paint (which is more prevalent in the newer murals) allows for more of a polished and lustrous finish. Latex painted murals also seem to crack and chip less, but this might also be because they are newer. Time will tell.

“Creekside,” Highland Creek

Another remarkable thing about these murals is the lack of vandalism. Tagging and intentional damage to the murals was rare. This is a strong affirmation of the idea that murals can act as deterrents for illegal graffiti, especially if there is community input in the planning/design and execution of a mural. A lot of our murals were created with youth or community participation, and it is clear to see that those murals have a lot of significance to their respective communities, and are considered with pride.

One mural that exemplifies this is the Reflections mural, which was created by three youth artists. One of the artists, Tessa Rina Sunnasy, passed away shortly after completing the mural. Her family put up a plaque next to her self portrait to commemorate her. To me, that is a really profound gesture, and shows how much these murals mean to people – in this case, it acts as a permanent homage to her from her loved ones and community. For this reason, and others, the Reflections mural is actually one of my favorites. It is in the parking lot of an LCBO, and is a bit hidden away, but it has lots of detail and complexity.

Tessa Rina Sunnasy self portrait and plaque, “Reflections”

One thing that I was very cognizant of while completing the Condition Reports was that the photographs and reports that I was compiling were not enough to get the full feel of a mural. Oftentimes there would not be enough space for me to take a full wideshot of the mural, so some of the photos are at an angle. Also, because I was taking these photos in the height of summer, there would often be a glare reflected on the mural or in the lens of the camera. I was not able to capture the realistic feel of the murals through photographs, and I would recommend that people try to visit the pieces first hand to get the full, immersive experience.

Overall, I really enjoyed this project and working with Mural Routes. The challenge of collecting all of this information in less than 16 weeks was the fact that some pieces were not very accessible by transit, and required me to take multiple trains and buses in order to reach them. And then, once there, the photos would only take a few minutes, but I would have to wait for up to an hour to get back. This was very difficult in the summer months, as the temperature went up to 40′C and there was intense humidity and sunlight. (I did get sunburnt a few times.)

Program Coordinator Natalie, Samaa, and summer Program Assistant Olivia at the DVP Rainbow Tunnel

Also, through shadowing Mural Routes staff to meetings and attending a few mural launches, I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of the process of designing, approving, and creating murals. I have realized that it is a lot more difficult than simply having a design in mind, and trying to find a wall to paint it; you need lots of approval, lots of funding (!), supplies, permits, equipment, and a team.

Although my work is done with Mural Routes (for now at least) I have a renewed interest in murals and a passion for public arts, and I hope to participate in more mural projects in the future!

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