After blanketing Toronto with psychedelic murals, street-art duo Clandestinos is moving inside
The artists transformed the look of the city. Now, for the first time, they're holding their own gallery show
Over the last decade, Toronto streets have become more colourful — more psychedelic, even — thanks to Clandestinos, a creative duo (and couple) known separately as Shalak Attack and Bruno Smoky. The underpass titans at King Street and Sumach Avenue? They had a hand in that. The kaleidoscopic patio mural at Richmond and John — 45,000 square feet of floor-to-sky rainbow vibes? That's them too, as is The Awakening mural on Lawrence (the longest of its kind in Canada), the owl-inspired transformation of Wilson Station — plus dozens of other vibrant interventions throughout the city.
But for the first time in their long partnership, Clandestinos is holding their own gallery exhibition in Toronto, the place they've called home since 2013. The show, Sembrando (or "sowing" in English), is on through June 26 at Underscore Projects on Dundas Street West, and it's a showcase of Clandestinos' "indoor" art, so to speak: works on canvas, textile sculptures, even an embroidered CBC Arts logo (previously seen here) — an eclectic body of work that ranges from the earliest days of their collaboration to the present.
Both artists have Latinx roots, a fact that strongly inspires their work: Shalak's a Chilean-Canadian from Montreal; Bruno originally hails from São Paulo. And if there's another common theme driving them — beyond their signature neon palette — it's a love of nature and a reverence for the interconnectedness of all living things.
I reached the artists by phone earlier this week to chat about their journey so far and the way they've changed the look of the city.
CBC Arts: Most of the work in the exhibition is from the last year or so, but you also have some things from back at the beginning of your time together. Could you take me back to those days? When did you first start working together? How did you meet?
Bruno Smoky: Well, we first met in Rio de Janeiro. It was in 2010, right at the beginning of the year.
Shalak already had a little history with Brazil, so she decided to visit there. We met right under the arch in Lapa through a mutual friend, who was also a painter. The next day I invited her to be part of something that I was creating there.
Oh my gosh, by day two you were already working together?
Bruno: Yeah, literally!
What was it about working together? What clicked?
Shalak Attack: We kind of loved each other's style. Part of the huge passion that drew us together was our love for art and our love for street art and murals and graffiti. That really brought us together and forged our path forever — into what we're doing today.
What can you tell me about how you actually work together? Who does what when you're collaborating on a mural project?
Shalak: It's interesting because we both started before we met each other, so we had our strengths.
Colours and big faces is more what I am drawn to do, and Bruno does a lot of the storytelling: the details and the landscapes. We switch back and forth, but I think from the beginning those were our strengths. And then we started growing together and we tried to make it look as if it was just one person, so it's very cohesive.
Bruno: When we work together, it's almost like a symbiosis between the two of us.
It's not easy to work together — plus having our life behind the scenes. You know, we are also a couple. It was a huge process putting all this together and learning how to respect each other's space. At this point I feel like we are very comfortable working with each other.
Shalak: And I'm pretty sure we haven't reached the end of that process. Like, I'm really excited to see what happens in five more years and 10 more years — how our collaboration will be and how much further we can take it. Our artistic voices too, because we like to keep our individuality. I think that part of being an artist, you want to shine. We're shining but in the same light. We are really trying to work to shine together.
You met in Brazil back in 2010, but you've been in Toronto for ages. When did you move to the city?
Shalak: It was 2013? Yeah. I was living in Montreal when I went to Brazil in 2010 — when I met Bruno.
Why Toronto? Montreal has a pretty robust street art community, right? Why was Toronto the place to go?
Bruno: We went to Montreal, actually. We were trying to see which city was the most hospitable for us. Montreal — it's a very small city compared to where we were for three years, São Paulo, which is like the world's mecca of street art. It's massive, right? We had a vision that artists should have a backyard big enough to shine, you know. In Montreal, it was like in every corner there was an artist — a group of people almost fighting to find a spot to paint. So every little job, it was like at least three or four artists were competing. We realized that in Toronto there were a lot of more opportunities, so I think we decided to just come here and try our luck.
When you mention opportunities, are you just talking about just space, like available walls? What was the opportunity that you saw here?
Bruno: Oh, I think it's more like a general sense. Yeah. There's a lot more space to paint here in Toronto, but it's not just space.
Shalak: It was also the opportunity for jobs and support from the city.
Bruno: StART — I don't know if you're familiar with that program — but they were just starting.
Shalak: After we started living here, we started finding opportunities.
In my experience, Montreal is super supportive and there's a great, amazing community of artists there that support each other. But we wanted to have a fresh start.
At this point, how many murals have you done in Toronto? Do you have a sense of numbers?
Shalak: We have lost count. People ask us and I just…. like, we have no idea. In Toronto, for sure there's over 50.
Bruno: I would say more. Like, 60 murals — plus the ones that have been covered, which is not many, thank God.
How do you typically get a project off the ground? The murals you've done around Toronto, are they mostly private commissions, or city projects through programs like StART?
Bruno: We do a lot of freestyles, which is just finding a wall and talking to the owner and getting permission to paint just for fun. And then there's work with the city and also private commissions.
Shalak: There are also projects that get sponsored by the city or government grants.
We work a lot with organizations and communities as well. We do a lot of outreach — consultations and workshops with youth and communities — and that's also been a huge part of our mural creation and process that we've built as Clandestinos.
Each project is super unique and depends on who participates and how we engage with them. We help translate their stories and identities into a visual language.
I think one of the biggest things about community murals is that the community needs to feel proud, so it has to tell a story, but it also has to be beautiful and significant because it's going to be a long-lasting project that's going to have visual impact and create identity for the community as well.
Just speaking from personal experience, I always encounter your murals when I'm moving around downtown. Sometimes it sort of seems like Toronto's becoming one enormous Clandestinos painting. Does it feel like you're changing the look of the city? Is that something you consider when you're working on a project?
Shalak: That responsibility — yeah, we don't take it lightly. I think it's part of our passion. It's part of why we do it.
Our process, it's almost like taking back space — our own spaces.
For myself — a woman, the daughter of immigrants — what kind of spaces in public did I feel connected to? Not many growing up. So how could my voice be important within society? Doing graffiti and doing street art is like reclaiming these spaces for ourselves. Working with the community, it's like reclaiming spaces for other people.
Bruno: We always take the time to do something that section of the city needs in terms of images. It's not just flowers everywhere.
Is that the throughline in your work? What's the story you're telling through your murals?
Bruno: I feel like we try to represent ourselves and our roots. We're always bringing, you know, a little bit of that Latin vibe.
We go from paying homage to Mother Earth and the First Nations from where we are from.
Shalak: And the First Nations of Canada, as well.
Bruno: We love to represent animals in every work that we do because we believe that we are equal.
Doing graffiti and doing street art is like reclaiming these spaces for ourselves. Working with the community, it's like reclaiming spaces for other people.- Shalak Attack, artist
What are some Toronto murals that you're particularly proud of?
Shalak: RendezViews from last year. I think it came at a special time. People were just starting to come out. Even for us to be working with other artists — and seeing people in real life — it was a very powerful project, and I think the people around there were very touched. It touched us so much, too. It was like a celebration, coming out with all these colours and the storytelling.
It was also unique for us, too, because we've done floor murals in the past, but nothing at that scale.
It was [curated by] Collective Arts Brewing. They said, "You know what, this is carte blanche for you. We trust you 100 per cent, and do what you feel would be your passion project." It was like a dream project because we got to do what we wanted to the full extent.
It's portraying where we are within ourselves and how we interpreted the idea of coming out from the pandemic. That was the theme.
Your daughter is featured in it, right? She's one of the portraits?
Bruno: Yes! That's right. And the title is Reflections.
We actually added three more faces to that project. The first one, right after we finished, was Selva.
The Ballroom also hired us this year, so right where Violeta faces — our little daughter — there's a continuation of that wall on Richmond.
Shalak: And this year we also created a space within RendezViews. So if you go inside now, within the space, you'll see all these different wooden blocks that weren't there, like the barriers and the ceiling and stuff.
I made a piece dedicated to Mother Earth and my experience as a mother. So it's like a wooden tree with her baby and they're in this magical universe.
What have you got on the go? Are there any new projects that you're developing at the moment?
Bruno: We're going to be painting a big wall right at the back of the gallery, Underscore Projects, next weekend. So we're going to be there from Friday to Sunday.
Shalak: It's a three-storey mural, which will be really great, and it goes with the whole theme of Sembrando — Sembrando is the name of the exhibit which means sowing in English. And also, we're going to be doing workshops, family-friendly workshops, for the last weekend of the exhibit. And then we have different mural projects all over Ontario coming up this summer.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Sembrando, an exhibition by Clandestinos, is at Underscore Projects in Toronto to June 26. www.underscoreprojects.ca