Since Toronto Mayor Rob Ford became embroiled in a crack scandal, one of his fiercest critics has been sneaking around late at night and spray-painting the mayor’s face on a smoking crack pipe.
Ford reportedly appears to be smoking crack cocaine in the presence of drug dealers in a video that was being shopped around to media outlets, though the CBC has not seen the video and cannot verify its contents.
That hasn't stopped Spud, one of the city’s most prolific graffiti artists, from incorporating the scandal into his work. Spud, who agreed to be interviewed only if he could remain anonymous and cover his face throughout a meeting in the dark end of a Toronto bar, has created hundreds of images critical of the mayor since Ford took office in 2010 and declared war on graffiti.
"It hit personal, so I took it to another level," the artist told CBC News.
"I’m stabbing him with little needles here and there, little art pieces around the city … I’ll keep doing his face until he’s out of office."
When Ford took on graffiti, he all but guaranteed the city’s artists (many would call them vandals) would put his face on the walls he wanted to keep clean. Even as Ford’s administration vigorously applies its graffiti bylaw to force business to clean up their walls, the city seemingly can’t keep up.
In one end of downtown, artist Deadboy pasted a zany image of Rob Ford and his brother Doug as Tweedledee and Tweedledum; in another alleyway an artist created Fordzilla – a bulbous monster bent on munching streetcars and bicycles; and Eryn Hill created a stencil of the mayor’s face accompanied with the text "Remove me."
Spud has created a fair amount of Ford graffiti. The mayor's image, though he’s somewhat reluctant to admit it, is his thing.
"Guys are looking at me now," Spud said. "There’s not another artist that’s going to come out and capitalize."
Just days after the crack scandal broke, there was Ford’s face on a crack pipe on a pillar near the city hall parking garage, cheekily accompanied by the text: "Spud does not condone the use of crack."
What would Ford think if he saw the piece? "He’d probably be pretty pissed," said Spud.
Documenting the mayhem
Street photographer Martin Reis has documented the explosion of Ford-related graffiti. "What I found interesting was this surge of Ford graffiti that sprung up," Reis said, adding that in over 10 years of photographing urban scenes he’s never once seen a depiction of David Miller, Toronto’s previous mayor.
Reis has seen so many Ford pieces he recently tried to turn his collection into an iPhone app (Apple rejected the app, Reis said, saying it was defamatory.) Because graffiti is temporary – property owners risk fines if they don’t keep their walls clean – photographs are all that’s left of a lot of Spud’s work.
"He’s incredibly prolific, and funny … it’s so in your face," Reis said.
His photographs, the result of a relentless search for new additions to the cityscape, document the range of Spud’s work (or, possibly, modifications other graffiti artists made to Spud’s Ford faces). There’s a giant Ford face covering an entire billboard, Ford as an oozing slime monster, Ford with devil horns, and sometimes there’s just text, reading: "Spud for mayor."
Ford as muse
Prize-winning artist Sean Martindale, who has curated some street art pieces for the Art Gallery of Ontario, isn’t surprised the city’s graffiti artists are taking on Ford’s latest scandal.
"He’s so absurd that he’s a ripe target for satire across the board," said Martindale, pointing out major U.S. shows like Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show have also mocked Ford during the drug scandal.
"Unfortunately for Toronto, it’s at our expense," he said.
Martindale draws a line between graffiti, which is traditionally focused on names and characters, and street art, which responds to current affairs. In many pieces of Ford street art, for example, Ford is seen holding up his middle finger – a link to a 2011 incident where he allegedly flipped off a mother and her daughter, a charge Ford denied.
Martindale says many of the Ford pieces are well done, but overall the mayor’s crackdown on graffiti has resulted in faster, uglier and more aggressive painting.
"If you shut down opportunities to do more developed work, you force people to do the quick, dirty work," Martindale said. "If people can take their time, they’ll do nicer stuff."
So when will it stop?
"I expect there will be more to come, especially if he stays in power," Martindale said. "If he were to step down, I think it will trickle out."
And what would Spud do without his muse, Ford? "I am more than just that face," said Spud, listing off his ambitions: more high-profile work, nicer work, painting even bigger walls in cities around the world. Ironically, Ford may be getting him closer to those goals. "It was meant to happen, I guess," Spud said, laughing at the idea.