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Over the last 18 years, the Lee's Palace facade has become an unmistakable part of Toronto's streetscape. Created by street artist Al Runt, the longstanding live music venue's colourful, vibrant mural has held nearly the same legendary status as the bands that have played there. So it was an absolute shock when, back in November, Runt's iconic creatures were discarded in a dumpster out front.
While many initially worried this spelled the end of Lee's Palace, it was actually part of a larger renovation plan, one that saw the installation of a new storefront location of Big Fat Burrito and a brand new mural commissioned to the original artist himself, Al Runt.
Now that it's finally nearing completion ("it actually still needs a coat of urethane, but for all intents and purposes it's finished") we caught up with Runt to discuss the history and future of the Lee's Palace mural.
This is the third time you've painted the Lee's Palace mural?
Yes, I did it in 1986, 1992 and now. I was a waiter here when Mr. Lee first took over in the mid-80's. And then I got fired. But back then I was working as an artist around Queen Street. And things were going really well. I was a living artist. That was my career, for the most part. So when Mr. Lee was doing this the first time, he actually got people from the Cameron House to help him set up. And I was like a total regular at the Cameron, so that worked out in my favour. I was very gung ho back then. I was a total go-getter.
So why did you have to do it again in 1992?
The owner painted it over. I don't know the exact story. Someone told me he was drunk and wanted to change it, so he just painted it over one day. So I did it again.
How did they get in touch with you to redo it this time around?
The owners of Big Fat Burrito looked me up on Google and called me up 6 or 7 months before they tore it down to ask if I had interest in doing it. I said "sure". But when they tore it down in November, it was just too cold to do anything.
Is it true they had to bring you out of retirement for this?
Yeah, I had retired from art for about four or five years. I just wasn't getting any work, so I lost interest in it. But I'm hoping to get some commissions out of this. I've got a show coming up at Jet Fuel in December, so I'm excited about that. Once every ten years or so I like to kick start my art career and see how long I can last.
Were you surprised at the reaction when the mural came down?
The day that it came down, people started Facebooking me. It was all over Facebook and Twitter. People were freaking out. People were going through the dumpsters, taking home pieces of the mural. I saw a thing online about this one guy who came and got a big piece. I don't know if it's true or not, I find it highly doubtful, but he said someone offered him $5,000 on the spot for it. All I can say is come by and give me a piece of that. Maybe 10 or 15 percent and I'll be happy (laughs).
Nobody thought to capture it for posterity?
Actually, I've heard some of the bigger pieces might be installed in Lee's up top or something, like in the Dance Cave. Also there are lots of pictures of it. People take photographs of it all the time.
How long have you been working on the new mural?
I've been doing this since May - drawing, painting, all of the above. Originally I was planning to have this finished June 15. Then my goal was to have it finished in time for my 50th birthday on September 1st. But it's been really enjoyable spending the summer out here painting. People have been coming by to talk to me, some of them people I haven't met in about 20 years. It's great.
Is the process different this time around?
Well I don't drink as much (laughs). Actually, the last time around I had people helping me out, but now because it's so dense it's hard to really give people any responsibility. So I've done the whole thing myself this time.
Did you want to recreate the old mural, or did you want to create something entirely new?
It's the same style, just a different mural. The first one was mainly just monsters. The second one was monsters and buildings. This one is a whole bunch of stuff. It's just a lot denser. The whole idea is that I wanted it to be total eye candy. If you see something you don't like, just turn your head three inches and look at something else. There's an absolute ton going on.