As a teenager, Norman Yeung could be found in some of the seedier parts of Toronto, engaging in what the law defines as crime.
He worked in back alleys, under bridges, tunnels, wherever he could remain unseen and undisturbed.
Yeung, a graffiti artist known as Stage, was dedicated to his craft, despite its illegality. Part of the reason he did it was for the rush.
“When I was younger the thrill factor was always a motivating factor, and the respect you get from doing dangerous spots,” Yeung said. “I’ve slowed down a lot on the illegal stuff, but I do miss the rush.”
Today, Yeung works on legal, commissioned murals for a different reason – to show the public that graffiti is a legitimate art form.
“One of the benefits of working on a commissioned piece is the engagement between the graffiti writer and the public,” Yeung said. “The public is often unaware or ignorant about graffiti painting, so this gives us a chance to explain that we’re not vandals, we’re not gangsters, we’re artists who prefer using spray paint and public space.”
At 31, Yeung has been doing graffiti for 17 years. One of the most widely spread commissioned projects he has worked on is the Bell Urban Art Project, also known as the Bellbox Project.
Yeung painted one of the first Bellbox murals, near College and Markham streets, outside the downtown nightclub Andy Poolhall. The pilot project was launched by the city of Toronto, Bell Canada and urban art organization Style In Progress in 2005.
It was originally conceived as a way to deter tagging (a quick spray-painted signature) on Bell phone utility boxes, but it also gave graffiti artists a legal outlet for their work.
Councillor Joe Pantalone (Trinity-Spadina), Toronto’s deputy mayor, said the idea started when he got a call from a constituent living on Halton Street, near Dundas Street West, complaining about obscene words written on a phone box near his home.
Pantalone said he knew that if he simply repainted it, the vandalism would continue. So he thought of a different approach. He contacted Style In Progress, and together they formulated a plan to get well-known graffiti artists to paint murals on the phone boxes to discourage tagging.
They contacted Bell Canada, who in addition to granting permission gave a $20,000 grant to help pay the artists and cover material costs.
While the project started with a humble two phone boxes, it soon spread across the city. In March 2006, Bell agreed to let 40 more boxes get painted, in the Queen Street and Jane and Finch areas. According to Style In Progress, around 53 boxes city-wide were painted in total.
Pantalone, the one who spearheaded the project, has deemed it a success.
“We achieved the goal of fixing the problem of inappropriate words and symbols in a public space,” he said. “At the same time, we’ve provided a space for artists to show off their art.”
He said he thinks that the city of Toronto doesn’t support enough of these initiatives, both on a municipal and community level.
“If the concept spreads and everybody who has a garage door or wall started utilizing the idea, we’d be so much better off,” Pantalone said. “It would beautify the city and give employment and practice to future artists.”
And while the project was granted a Clean and Beautiful City award by the City of Toronto in 2005, not all see it as a complete success.
Janna Van Hoof is co-founder and event co-ordinator for Style In Progress. She played a major role in organizing the project, and said she is disappointed that today many of the former murals have been painted brown by Bell Canada due to degradation and an unwillingness from Bell to continue the project.
“The long-term reaction from Bell wasn’t so great,” Van Hoof said. “I would have said it was more effective if Bell hadn’t painted three quarters of them back brown again.”
Van Hoof said she got a number of calls from members of the community asking why the murals had been painted over.
“People wanted the project to take off more. They wanted Bell to put more money into it,” she said. “It kind of stirred up so much of a community response and such a love for the project that I think it was too much for Bell to handle.”
She came to this conclusion after not getting a clear answer from Bell as to why the project was discontinued.
And although only one fourth of the original murals are in good condition, artists like Yeung still feel the project was effective. He no longer does much illegal work, preferring to work on commissioned pieces that get the public engaged in urban art.
Today, Yeung’s picturesque mural of Little Italy at College and Markham is plastered in posters and barely visible. Despite this, he said the project was still essential in spreading an important message to the public.
“Just because an artist uses aerosol paint on a wall, doesn’t mean it’s graffiti,” He said. “(Spray paint) is sold in art stores. There are many companies who make spray paints specifically for murals or graffiti. It’s a legitimate medium, and I think just now people are starting to open their minds to it.”