Street artists capture life of Canada’s homeless

Published February 1, 2009

Montreal artist Dstrbo’s 5 by 6 foot spraypaint on canvas.

It is unusual, yet timely. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)in Toronto is showcasing the work of internationally known Canadian street artists depicting poverty and homelessness in the country.

With financial uncertainty coming home to roost, and the disparity between rich and poor continuing to grow, the exhibit may be an assault on one’s senses, but it is much-needed.

Ten framed canvas “houses” vie for one’s attention at Housepaint, Phase 2: Shelter, the country’s first major exhibition on street art that runs until July 5. One is grateful, however, that the “houses” each have a story to tell so that one is actually given a reason to pause and reflect.

Having said that, one is easily drawn to the work by Montreal-based artist Other (a.k.a. Derek Shamus Mehaffey) whose house is painted with colourful harlequin-like flying men in toques, and is “graced” by faux Greek columns. One is invited to look through a front-door peephole where one sees a video screen running down a list of homeless people who have died on the streets. Just like the Church of the Holy Trinity’s growing list of the homeless men and women who have died on the streets of Toronto, it is a disconcerting one to view.

Another Montreal artist, Dsturbo (a.k.a. Dan Buller), grabs one with an emotional chokehold with his portraits of homeless men and women on whose weather-beaten faces are written hardscrabble lives. The five-by-six foot spray paint on canvas of a man with piercing eyes is not easily forgotten, as is that of the woman who you are certain you have seen somewhere, sometime. Buller is considered a master of his genre, a “Canadian pioneer of aesthetic and collaborative focused graffiti” who has inspired generations of street artists here and abroad.

In addition to the exhibit, presented by the Institute for Contemporary Culture (ICC) and curated by Devon Ostrom, Housepaint also features a newly-commissioned piece at the ICC’s Roloff Beny Gallery, which is essentially a work-in-progress that allows visitors to watch and interact with five of the 10 artists featured in the exhibit.

The first artist in the series, Evoke (a.k.a. Patrick Thompson) has been hard at work on his installation, Expansion/Contraction, inspired by the Challenger spacecraft disaster. “It was many days figuring out how to put the front of a suburban house on a wall, because I don’t think it’s been done before, especially at a 33-degree angle,” he told reporters at the exhibit’s December launch. The mock-up of a house’s facade is constructed out of the cheap plywood that Evoke calls “beaver vomit;” the kind that is being used to manufacture today’s high-priced condos and houses. With urban sprawl comes the contraction of rural life; expansion comes at the expense “of our core,” he says.

The show, which commemorates Tent City, a shanty town that stood on undeveloped land on Toronto’s Parliament Street before its residents were evicted in 2002, will end with an auction of the canvas houses, with proceeds going to Habitat for Humanity. (The canvas houses were originally erected at Tent City last June, as part of the arts festival, Luminato).

For more information about the exhibit, please visit


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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