Dundas East between Broadview and Carlaw has always had its troubles deciding exactly what it's about, but now amid the warehouse lofts, smattering of retail and new condo towers, there's a massive wall of whimsy, the gift of two of Europe's most renowned street artists.
The mural at 1135, which towers over the south side of Dundas at a height of 35 feet, is the creation of Herakut, the nom de plume of graffiti artist Hera and her partner, Akut, both from Germany. It forms part of an international art enterprise, The Giant Story Book Project, that connects this drab patch of Dundas to a global narrative.
One brisk day last month, I hang out as the two work their magic on the dark red brick. Hera paints several feet above us in a miniature crane, shivering in her hoodie. "Where are your gloves?" Akut shouts up to her.
This panel is the sixth in the series. The duo, who are financing their graffiti work from the proceeds of their successful gallery shows across Europe, have left huge tableaux in each location they've visited, from a Benedictine monastery in Eresing, Germany, to Montreal, Rochester, San Francisco and Lexington. Eventually, photos of the murals will become illustrations for a children's storybook.
"Usually painters act as individuals," notes the affable Akut in a thick German accent. "Herakut's different because we merge completely together as one entity. Hera does the anatomy, and I add the skin texture later on."
Both make it clear that they are best friends and professional collaborators but not a couple.
Glancing down, Hera navigates the crane toward ground to find a spot in the sunlight. Blowing into her clasped hands, she describes the mural. "This depicts an encounter between the protagonist of our story, Jay, and his creative spirit, which is almost like a darker mirror image of himself. In the moment seen here, he recognizes that there is a friend that he can count on, his creativity.
"Creative spirits can be really helpful, but they can also be really destructive. Eventually," she continues, "what Akut and I have come to realize - and what Jay will realize in this story - is that being part of a group is more important than being creative."
They have allowed the fantasy narrative to evolve from city to city, inviting input from onlookers - graffiti art is often a collaborative and improvisational medium. Sure enough, the energetic child playing beneath the sprawling wall becomes a model for the young sprite character perched above the protagonist's shoulder.
The owner of 1135, Michele Masters-Leung, who converted the former Canada Starch factory into a commercial loft space, is wildly enthusiastic about the project. "When we first moved in, we got hit really badly by graffiti vandalism," she explains.
So when Martin Hawkes, a local filmmaker who befriended Herakut in Europe and is making a video on their work, approached Masters-Leung about adorning the north facade, she was ecstatic.
"Michele was wonderful," notes Hera. "The only restriction she placed on us, which was more of a suggestion, was to do something friendly."
It turns out the city's bylaw enforcement officers were significantly more prohibitive about the mural's content, as Masters-Leung notes: "No nudity, no profanity, no political or religious messages and absolutely no advertisements." In the end, she says the city was supportive of the mural.
Of the artists, she says, "Honestly, I can't believe they can get that kind of detail with a can of spray paint, and it's all freehand."
The mural's had a dramatic impact on this rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. Across the street at the Red Rocket café, supervisor Sean Corcorain has already noticed benefits in the form of increased foot traffic as art-watchers make trips to the area specifically to view the mural.
"An art class came by with a teacher," he notes. "They were critiquing the painting. It gives people a sense of pride to have something so beautiful right in the heart of our little area. People here are pretty stoked about it."
While the two artists of Herakut do well at their gallery shows and hope to reap some financial reward from their children's book, they're very tied to graffiti culture and depend, like many graffiti travellers, upon the hospitality of the like-minded.
"We started using spray cans before street art became a genre that stepped into galleries and museums," says Hera. "I think that's how we found each other; we agreed on the need to find a different kind of life. All our close, close relationships have come from painting walls with people. These are the people you can trust and who you want to be close with.
"For us, public art is about sharing positive thoughts and not using political messages for their shock effect to advance the artists' PR. You have to try to bridge gaps between people, not scare them. I love our job, but we beautify and make art for other people, not just for us."