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One of the first places I like to take visitors to my city is Graffiti Alley in Toronto.
More than just an extensive collection of street art, Graffiti Alley serves up local history and breaking news with a sense of discovery and exploration. It’s definitely one of the best free things to do in Toronto, especially if you like art and photography. It’s also one of the best places for Instagram backgrounds in Toronto.
Where is Graffiti Alley in Toronto
Graffiti Alley refers to the laneway just south of Queen Street West between Spadina Avenue and Portland Street that’s covered in murals and street art. The alley itself runs for about 500 metres (or a third of a mile) across several blocks, but the art also spreads out to other side laneways between Queen and Richmond Street West.
To visit Graffiti Alley, start at the Southwest corner of Spadina and Queen, walk south until you see Le Gourmand café (home to Toronto’s best chocolate chip cookie, fyi) and you’ll see the actual street sign for Graffiti Alley. Don’t be discouraged if that particular corner isn’t stunning—the artworks get more colourful and impressive as you walk west through the alleyway.
You can also access Graffiti Alley from the other end, starting at Portland and walking east, or from laneways in between off of Queen or Richmond. Just follow the graffiti!
Some Toronto street art history
Like most big cities, Toronto hasn’t always known what to do with illegal graffiti and street art. Love it or hate it (I happen to love it) it’s part of the urban landscape. In 2011, Toronto City Council designated this particular alley as “an area of municipal significance” as part of its Graffiti Management Plan. This makes it easier for local businesses to allow graffiti on their property without fear that the city is going to force them to wash it off, and has allowed artists to really make this space their home.
Rick Mercer, a beloved Canadian comedian, brought Grafitti Alley to wide attention when he used it was that backdrop for a regular segment on his TV show where he would rant while walking through the alley. Since then, it’s become a popular destination for locals and tourists.
How much time should you spend at Graffiti Alley?
There are hundreds of artworks in Graffiti Alley. How much time you spend there really depends on your interest in art and perhaps the weather. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk the entire space, and some people do come just for one picture then move on. So you can easily duck into it if you’re nearby and don’t have much time.
You can also spend 30 minutes or even an hour examining the different artworks, exploring down the side passageways or—if you’re lucky—watch an artist in action working on something new.
What kind of art will you see there?
It’s right there in the name—graffiti. So you’ll find mostly colourful and elaborate 3-D tags and wildstyles. There are also wheat paste posters, stickers, and some stencil arts.
What stands out the most however are the large murals. The Graffiti Alley murals tell the story of Toronto. You’ll see our unofficial mascot the raccoon, actual sports mascots like the Blue Jays, and plenty of canary yellow birds—the mascot of artist Uber5000. He’s also responsible for the “most Toronto mural ever”, or what he calls Toronto Tribute. Painted in 2017, it’s a “Where’s Waldo” of Toronto characters—Drake, former mayor Rob Ford, music icon Gord Downie, the Ikea Monkey…don’t miss it.
You can see this kind of work in alleys all over the city such as my neighbourhood of Parkdale, but one thing that makes this place extra special is that it’s literally covering every wall for a long distance. And unlike a lot of places, there’s not a lot of shitty tagging —respect is shown by not covering over prime pieces. That said, street art is constantly changing, you never know what will be here when you walk through.
Graffiti Alley can be a rallying place for artists to express the news of the day. In the summer of 2020, artists came together to honour George Floyd, Briana Taylor and prominent Black civil rights figures as part of the growing Black Lives Matter protests, and for a while these gorgeous and thought-provoking black and white portraits took over much of the space. Several still exist at time of writing.
This space is also regularly used as a site of tribute to lost community members, including rappers and artists. If you see a striking portrait, take the time to find and read their name.
Is Graffiti Alley safe for solo women travellers?
Yes, I feel safe in Graffiti Alley. It’s very popular and so most times there will be other people around, sometimes many people.
That said, it is an alleyway. You’ll see garbage from the working businesses who use this as, you know, their back alley. Depending on the time of day, there’s not a lot of sunlight.
If you are travelling alone, and prefer to be around other people, I recommend signing up for a guided tour by Tour Guys. It’s quite affordable and you’ll learn so much about the artists and Toronto history, plus meet other people with similar interests.
What else is there to do and see near Graffiti Alley?
This area is very close Kensington Market and Chinatown, a short walk north. The Spadina streetcar can take you south to the lake for Harbourfront or a water taxi to the Toronto Island.
You’re also right in the middle of the Queen West shopping area if you want to get some new clothes, shoes or a snack.
Note: The intersection of Spadina and Queen is undergoing a big construction project. It’s not super pretty right now, but you should still be able to access Graffiti Alley easily.