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Talking to the masses

Iconic Toronto graffiti artist Elicser pulls back the curtain on his famous mural practice.

Elicser Sight Mediah

Mural by Elicser, Sight and Mediah. Image courtesy of Elicser. 

Like all art forms, graffiti was born of the need to communicate. Whether a simple tag on a bathroom stall or a publicly commissioned mural, a message is being left in plain sight—meant to influence all who encounter it. As we continue to explore public art and its many facets, we turn our attention to one of Toronto’s most prolific graffiti artists.    

Elicser is a name that, for many, has become synonymous with Toronto street art over the last decade. The prolific muralist’s signature pieces are unmistakable, accenting neighbourhoods across the GTA with vibrant colour palettes, uniquely emotive characters and thought-provoking concepts. His practice, which also features studio painting and drawing, was recently showcased in the AGO’s Artist Spotlight series.  

We asked Elicser a few questions about graffiti culture and what it means to make public art in trying times.   

AGOinsider: How did you get your start in graffiti? What are some ways you’ve seen the art form/culture of graffiti change over the years?

Elicser: My friends in high school (Etobicoke School of the Arts) showed me graffiti and I started painting with them. One of the major changes in my graffiti lifespan: the material has changed a lot. Back in the day, we used to remove nozzles from Pam cooking oil and put that nozzle on Krylon cans so we could try to get a different tip. Now there are many different options of tips and the spray paint is made by graffiti artists for graffiti artists. Levels the playing field.  

AGOinsider: Your murals are very powerful and carry a lot of meaning—both in who/what they feature and in what they “say”. What is your process for conceptualizing a mural? 

Elicser: If it's a mural for myself, if I have a wall to paint, I use the wall like a diary to try to express what's happening to me, things affecting my life and people around me. I paint the ideas I have in my head or little snapshots of the things in my life. I try to get that on the wall. If it's a commission piece/mural, I take what the client wants and also put my perspective into it. Whatever their chosen topic/theme might be, I try to convey it. I want to instill an intimate meaning but one that still relates to a lot of passersby. With some of these murals, I talk to the people who pass by and try to incorporate their stories into it as well. 

AGOinsider: If you could paint a piece on any surface in the world, where would it be and why?

Elicser: For a while I wanted to paint tanks in Kandahar. There's a tank graveyard there. Another aspect of graffiti is painting on trains, which take your pieces to different provinces and states. I think the ultimate surface would be a tank or a submarine or an airplane that carries the piece along, just like a freight train. 

AGOinsider: The past year has been challenging for everyone, in so many ways. How do you think public art can play a role in helping people cope? 

Elicser: I think it could play a big role in how people cope because we [street/graffiti artists] are the few that can go out and paint things for people. It's good to have pieces, little scribbles or bathroom graffiti about what's happening in our times because it’s basically people on the street talking back to the masses. It's a more urgent way to spread a message to the public that things are going to be okay. Not looking for a new normal. All this art will influence thought. Basically, graffiti on the street, street art, murals etc. are all there so that the community can have a conversation about it. It opens up pathways between people to talk and convey thought. And when that happens you can build on thought, thought builds on each other and hopefully change will happen. One good thing about the pandemic is that it allows people to slow down. When you slow down, you can think and process and read; more time allows us time to read. Think before you speak. Read before you think. Fran Lebowitz.

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