José-Gabriel remembers wading out in the sun two summers ago, sweat pouring down his face and a can of spray paint in hand. In front of him, his canvas: a towering concrete wall, 19-feet high and stretching over three football fields long. Behind him, a set of train tracks surrounded by thousands of small black rocks, which reflect the sun back up into his face. The project has been delayed a week by rain, and though it is almost too hot to work, Gabriel rolls up his jeans and puts on a sleeveless neon orange safety vest, guiding his spray can over the bottom lip of a giant cartoon raccoon.
Gabriel is a graffiti artist, albeit an atypical one, who’s comfortable stepping out of the shadows. The 26-year-old Toronto native, born to a Peruvian father and Swiss mother, signs each of his pieces with tags like the raccoon, or tiger faces swimming in exuberant colors, or Studio32 — the moniker of his home studio, which also doubles as his backyard. Most of Gabriel’s art can be found in and around the west end of Toronto, predominantly in “The Junction,” where he resides with his girlfriend, Aria. Despite the rather cloak-and-dagger nature of his profession, Gabriel represents a new breed of street artist because he doesn’t hide behind aliases or graffiti names, and he never rebuffs free publicity. He even lists his full name, something most graffiti artists would not do, on the city’s official street artist directory. “I have friends that don’t agree with a lot of things I do just because I am so open with it,” he says. “I don’t shy away from having my face on television or doing interviews.”
One project in particular has garnered Gabriel a lot of attention. The 1,000-foot wide sound barrier separating the GO train tracks and Joe Shuster Way in Toronto used to be an eyesore. One of its builders, property developer UrbanCorp, tried to cover it with ivy to ward off graffiti artists. Today, it’s better known as “The Reclamation Project,” Canada’s largest graffiti mural. The city-backed effort, which finished in September 2012, incorporated 65 artists, including Gabriel, who was also tasked with organizing and coordinating the entire project. Each section of the mural spells out area neighborhoods: “Parkdale,” “West Queen West,” “Liberty Village,” and “Toronto,” the final “o” in “Toronto” being Gabriel’s giant green raccoon. “When do you ever get the chance to paint a wall that big?” Gabriel says. “When does somebody hand you boxes of spray paint and say, ‘Do whatever you want. Go for it.’?”
Toronto is a special city when it comes to street art. It’s not like Los Angeles or New York, where artists have been known to become violent to protect their work or territory. Or like London, where even notorious artists like Banksy create under the cover of darkness. Gabriel calls Toronto’s art scene progressive, with government grants available to support its artists, the Art Gallery of Ontario (which features street art), and local art schools like the Ontario College of Art and Design, known for turning out impressive graffiti writers.
Pascal Paquette, 40, who goes by the pseudonym “Mon petit Chou,” collaborated on an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto in January 2012 called “Toronto Now”, which used convergent forms of street art and graffiti writing to “expand the understanding of what artistic creativity can be.” During the exhibition, he gave two AGO-sponsored street-art tours, showing off the local graffiti. Combined, the two tours amassed more than 200 people. “I think the biggest misconception is that I’m not out to vandalize or to create more damage to the city, I’m there to beautify,” Paquette, says. “It was nice to bring people out and show them and decode the whole thing.” Paquette has been a street artist in Toronto for the past decade and is familiar with Gabriel’s work, even including a piece or two on the tours. “I like to see originality in work, people who really do their own thing. When you see the work and you know it’s by that artist,” Paquette says. “I think he follows that very well. He’s really doing his own thing, and for me, that’s important.”
Despite not being allowed near the wall because of its proximity to the train tracks, Gabriel goes back often to show it off to friends, throw back a couple beers, and hang out — taking it in without forgetting the anguish it took to finish. “I’m so relieved that it’s over with,” Gabriel says, releasing a rush of air from his chest. Cutting through the red tape of city politics and guidelines is not something a graffiti artist is used to doing. After “The Reclamation Project” mural was finished, UrbanCorp produced a 23-minute film featuring Gabriel and three of the other artists. It’s the ultimate “put your name on it” moment, and it’s safe to say he’s more than made up for any street cred he lost. “I don’t even have to send them my resume, I just send them that video,” Gabriel says. “I haven’t gotten turned down for a single job since.”