Point of view

Finding art in everything: 6 things I discovered while visiting Toronto graffiti legend Elicser

Amanda Parris shares the best outtakes from our recent studio tour with Elicser. (And you can watch that video here, too!)

Amanda Parris shares the best outtakes from our recent studio tour with Elicser

Elicser and Amanda Parris. (CBC Arts)

Elicser recently invited CBC Arts: Exhibitionists to do a video tour of his Toronto studio, and as someone who's worked for years in and around the city's hip hop industry, his name has always had an almost mythical quality.

I became familiar with Elicser's work long before meeting him, discovering his stylized portraits in alleyways, his distorted figures covering telephone boxes and in one case, even adorning a tree.

When I finally started recognizing him around town — and put a face to the famous name — his legendary status only grew. He always seemed like a man on a mission. I think I introduced myself to him once or twice, but those brief encounters only served to heighten his reputation. He always appeared uneager to bask in praise, his mind seemingly preoccupied with something more pressing. For someone who creates such public work, Elicser himself was, at least in my mind, an elusive mystery.

So standing outside his studio, waiting for him to open the door, I anxiously wondered if I was betraying some sort of unspoken Toronto hip hop code by exposing the private creative space of one of our most enigmatic and prolific talents.

You can watch what happened on our studio tour below.

"I don't see it as political. People see it differently, they take away their different ideas from it. I'm happy it's happening, but I feel bad that I'm the last leg of gentrification sometimes." 4:44

As for what was happening behind the scenes...

Ascending the stairs of his studio, I realized that Elicser was battling his own nerves. He fidgeted uncomfortably in front of the camera, so I immediately began talking about a topic I knew would instantly break the ice: Black Panther.  

Almost right away, he enthusiastically told me about the masks he and his roommate had constructed especially for the opening night of the film. Elicser's studio is also his home — one that he shares with photographer Jalani Morgan, who also has his own studio in the space. The walls are dominated by their work, and Elicser described his curation as a deliberate "salon-style Tetris-inspired" arrangement.

But the studio isn't his home all 12 months of the year. In winter, when it's too cold to paint outside, he does gallery work, participates in art residencies and makes an effort to travel beyond the city limits. "Toronto's great," he told me. "But I'm supposed to be able to exist anywhere."

Here are a few of the things we talked about while making the video.

On coming to Canada

Growing up in Saint Vincent, obsessed with The Source magazine, when Elicser arrived in Canada as a teenager he thought North America would be an open canvas waiting to be adorned by the tags of an aspiring graffiti writer.

"I just thought that was how it was gonna be — you just write your name anywhere and everywhere," he said.

The truth, in fact, was the opposite. For decades, Toronto criminalized graffiti, labelling it vandalism. For Elicser, it was always about leaving his mark. "It sounds really cliché, but technically that's really what we're doing."

Elicser's stylized portraits are everywhere on Toronto's streets. (CBC Arts)

On corporate gigs

Today, Elicser is often commissioned by private corporations to beautify public spaces — a turn of events that leaves him with mixed feelings.

"The private sector, they're understanding the meaning and gravity of these [street art] pieces...and getting to know the culture through that," he told me.

"I'm happy that it's happening, but I feel bad I'm the last leg of gentrification sometimes."

On the risks and rewards of street art

Since his work is on the streets, the audience gets to to decipher what they see. It's out there without an artist statement or a didactic card. And because of that, Elicser told me he can't be precious with his creations — even though he still describes his work as "little babies."

"People build their ideas of what it is and that's where you just gotta let it go because it's on the street."

He's gotten used to it, he said, but he also acknowledges how much impact the public has on his work.

Elicser mural at the corner of Toronto's Queen and Jones Sts. (CBC Arts)

When your paintings are on the street, there's a constant threat of alteration. That's why he never leaves negative space in his murals."It's like an open spot for cats just to write in it and it freaks you out a bit," he said, shaking his head in exasperation.

"Sometimes it gets hit, sometimes it gets wrote on, or sometimes something happens with it and that's all just about being outside," he said, but there's a silver lining to that. "The city's doing something with it as well. That's a good thing."

On Toronto being the screwface capital of...graffiti?

Toronto has been infamously dubbed the screwface capital of the world, and Elicser said that the city's hard-to-please attitude can also be found in the graffiti community.  "Toronto...we're harsh critics," he said. But in graffiti, that means more than getting a bad review. If someone doesn't like what you're doing, they'll paint over it. "(Graffiti) writers are just like, 'Naw. Don't like that flower on that part,' and they just dub it. You can either have beef with them or you can come back and say, 'OK, cool. He's saying this part is weird? I'll take your advice.' It's like we gotta build with each other even though we don't know each other."

On his new work for the Contact Festival

Elicser's latest work was commissioned for the Contact Photography Festival as part of an exhibit exploring the history of hip hop culture in the city. Elicser took it as an opportunity to take a nostalgic look at old Yonge Street fixtures such Play De Record and Sam the Record Man.

A true romantic at heart, he said he draws a link between these vanished places and lost loves. "A lot of my work deals with love and lack thereof," he told me, confessing that he's eager to try and make something outside of this personal realm in the future.

On finding art, and beauty, everywhere

Driven to discover parts of the city that go unseen by the masses, one of his creative goals is to encourage people to begin seeing art in unconventional places. Although he's a frequent visitor to institutions such as the AGO, he is eager to encourage people to look beyond those hallowed halls.

With Morgan, he launched a hashtag called #dontknowitsart, encouraging others to identify the everyday beauty all around them. It's an idea he brought up in a recent TED talk. In it, he speaks at length about a piece of chipped wall paint that he discovered at a restaurant — something that most people would have ignored, or an interior designer would have immediately wanted to fix. For Elicser, though, it captured his imagination.

"Don't follow the masses, and then maybe you might find this crazy thing that no one knows about," he told me excitedly.

I think this thrill of discovery is the source of Elicser's mystique. "We just have to drop our ideas of what we think things are," he said.

"Before I go into a piece or do a show, I go to the AGO and fixate on Massacre of the Innocents by Rubens. It's a beautiful piece. But...why do I go to that right away? You think this is the pinnacle of art, but no." Art, he said, can be seen in any little thing.

Elicser's latest piece entitled "T Dot Rooftop" can be seen at The McMichael Canadian Art Collection as part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. It's part of the exhibition Everything Remains Raw: Photographing Toronto's Hip Hop Culture from Analogue to Digital (March 3 – Oct. 21).

About the Author

Amanda Parris

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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