As seen in The News-Herald – By Paris Wolfe

Graffiti isn’t random scribble. It’s a culture with jargon and rules. In the 2010s, it’s having a mainstream moment, but true graffiti is still a bit counterculture, a bit subversive.

I learned this and more during a tour of Graffiti Alley Toronto. Graffiti Alley is a half-mile stretch of spray-paint work in Toronto’s Queen Street West neighborhood. While some masterpieces have survived more than five years, other works change on a whim. Varying in graffiti quality and content, the alley can be seen in a music video by Canadian singer Jessica Stuart and in countless YouTube works.

My 90-minute stroll through a color-splashed alley between Spadina Avenue and Portland Street was behind boutiques and businesses, but no matter — the alley is populated with art and tourists, it still has random parking, plentiful (and smelly) garbage totes, evidence of street dwellers and the occasional whiff of urine.

I was one of several gawkers holding up a mobile device to immortalize the momentary. Luckily for me, my stroll was narrated by Jason Kucherawy of Tour Guys, a pay-what-you-feel-like tour company. Kucherawy and business partner Steve Woodall started Tour Guys in 2009. Kucherawy draws his professionalism from a bachelor of arts degree in anthropology with a focus on fine arts cultural studies from York University in Toronto. That and his connection with “writers” — jargon for graffiti artists — amply qualify him to explain the eccentric expression. One of the first things he explains is the three kinds of writing.

— Tag is a smallish name or a mark that can be done quickly.

— Throw is a large signature, usually bubble letters that can be seen from further away.

— Piece is a “masterpiece,” perhaps an elaborate stylistic name or a complicated mural.

For the record, stencils have no place in legit graffiti culture.

While humans have been writing on walls at least since the Timpuseng cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia, more than 35,400 years ago, today’s writing culture is rooted in 1960-70s New York City. Kucherawy tells the story of Taki 183 — a Greek teenager named Demetrius who lived on 183rd Street and was eventually identified by The New York Times as the father of contemporary graffiti.

Legend has it that Demetrius, who kept his last name secret from the Times, took a subway through Manhattan to his midtown high school each weekday. During those rides, he tagged the train with his nickname and his street: “Taki 183.” Then, he started tagging light poles. Eventually, other young people started marker-ing their nom-de-plumes, as well.

Competition crept in, and tags turned to throws, which turned to pieces. Instead of black Sharpie, writers used spray-paint cans with special caps for different effects. Over time these forms of graffiti began to appear in cities throughout the United States and the world.

Today, graffiti runs the gamut from vandalism to legitimate pop art. The city of Toronto has legitimized limited locations, but continues to fight graffiti elsewhere. Graffiti Alley has become a meaningful place to track serious pieces including several by well-known artists who have crossed over from graffiti writer to commercial muralists.