On a hot, sunny day at the corner of Kipling Ave. and Westhumber Blvd. in Rexdale, Leyland Adams walks around the intersection’s anonymous traffic light box and, with gesturing gestures, shows how he plans to turn it into a luminous work of art in three dimensions: front, back and sides.
These boxes are at every traffic light. Most are dull gray. But the city of Toronto’s Outside the Box program is changing that by paying local artists like Adams to bring them to life.
(Read about other artists who left their mark, such as Emily May Rose’s raccoon-themed murals and Kensington Market Garden’s car.)
Adams has already painted the pastel background with splashes of color. On the street side, he plans a portrait of the former Governor General Michaëlle Jean. He says he wants the box to “talk to the people who are going to be interacting with it.” To prepare himself, he has spent time exploring the neighborhood. Its modest suburban homes, mix of nature and city and diversity remind it of where it grew up in Scarborough. He recalls how much it meant to him as a young man of color to see “an important and inspiring black figure” like Jean in a position of authority.
A Central American Monstera leaf will feature on the side of the sidewalk to bring what he calls “a tropical vibe in this Canadian climate.”
“I want to have bright, colorful, happy colors,” he says, “things that inspire people. It can be so bleak just looking at a gray box.”
The vibrant palette is also a way to make the art stand out for those with visual impairments, and Adams will include a QR code so people who are totally blind can hear him describe the piece. Adams has been interested in accessibility since he created a mural titled Smashing Barriers for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, which used a QR code for the first time. In 2020, on the side of a building north of Yonge and St. Clair, he pioneered Toronto’s first tactile mural—a view of Toronto Island at sunset conveyed through both texture and color.
Outside the Box is part of Street Art Toronto (StART), which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. StART hires artists to paint everything from bike lane barriers to floor-to-ceiling walls. Launched in 2012 as part of the city’s anti-graffiti strategy, the initiative has grown into 10 separate programs. Catherine Campbell, project manager at StART, describes it as an “ecosystem” that offers artists both courses and commissions, often in partnership with nonprofits like Mural Routes.
This particular program was created in 2013 in response to complaints about downtown traffic crates covered in graffiti. That year, more than 600 boxes—nearly a quarter of Toronto’s 2,467—were painted.
Artists propose designs each spring, and those selected by an advisory board are assigned to a box chosen by the StART team. Painting will take place during the allotted weeks during the summer, with the city pre-priming the boxes and applying an anti-graffiti coating once work is complete.
Campbell prides itself on StART’s “career ladder” approach: artists can start with a small commission like Outside the Box and work their way up to larger commissions like garage doors or murals as they gain experience. Part of the ecosystem is mixing newcomers with experienced artists to mentor them.
Adams climbed that ladder himself. Like many teenagers, he first experienced street art through graffiti. A high school art class got him thinking about art as a career and prompted him to earn a degree in visual and creative arts from Sheridan College.
Getting involved with StART, he says, “helped educate me, gave me a platform. I was just a kid doing graffiti and now I’m a professional muralist.” He started out blocking bike lanes and assisting with murals before becoming a mentor, leading projects and working as an Outside the Box coordinator.
“I’ve probably walked the whole ladder by now,” he says, “but not always in the order you think in.” After working on huge murals, this year was the first year he applied for a modest Outside the box piece. He loves how the boxes bring art to where people walk every day. To him, that pop of color added to a common crossbreed can make a community feel valued.
For Adams, there is nothing better than the immediacy of working in public space. “Anyone who lives in Toronto knows what life is like in Toronto — the sounds, the smells, the people,” he says. “With public art, you become a part of it, you’re in that ether. I find it adds something to your artwork. That’s what you feed on.”