Rocky Dobey's Street Art: A Counter-Map

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During the 1980s and 1990s, Toronto’s streets were home to a remarkable series of unauthorized public artworks. They began appearing in the 1970s and mushroomed in the 80s, after scores of warehouses and storefronts shuttered in the wake of deindustrialization. These buildings became exhibition sites but also living and work spaces for underground artists, one of whom went on to produce a breathtakingly large body of work, hundreds of pieces in all. At the time, most Torontonians had no idea who he was.

Rocky Dobey came of age in the West Toronto Junction and worked as a builder, and he used the materials and skills he acquired on construction sites to bolt rugged agit-prop installations to the surfaces of the city. Viewed in aggregate, the pieces are a mosaic of Toronto’s radical movements of the period, touching on local struggles against poverty, police brutality and white supremacy, feminist resistance to heteropatriarchy, Indigenous solidarity and prison abolition, as well as global uprisings like the South African anti-apartheid movement and the fall of European State Communism.

They also mark the places that Dobey frequented and which this project has started to document: the performance spaces of Queen Street West, the booze cans of Kensington Market, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and Rape Crisis Centre, the queer anarchist houses Kathedral A and B, and, north of the city’s borders, the intentional community Dragonfly, which was founded by Dobey’s friend and co-conspirator Jim Campbell.

Campbell’s life is one of many that Dobey’s works memorialize, and it is memory as much as politics that fuels them. Dozens of plaques pay tribute to fallen friends and revolutionaries, and Dobey remembers those who died homeless on the city’s streets with the same reverence and respect he accords to public figures. The plaques anticipate his later contributions to the COUNTERfit Drug Users’ Memorial Project, which insists: "You are loved and will never be forgotten."

More than anything, Dobey’s pieces are about public space and the way it has changed since he began work as a street artist almost forty years ago. Everywhere, towers loom as apocalyptic symbols of capitalist power, and as often, they are weakened and toppled by community-based resistance. As Toronto’s historical streetscape gives way to a voracious glut of condominium developments, the subversive character of Dobey’s interventionist art feels more forward-looking than nostalgic, and resonates strongly with current activist struggles. If you look carefully, you’ll find traces of it in the city still.

We’re grateful to Dobey and his daughter Sofia Lopez for documenting his work on social media, and for their generosity in sharing photographs and commentary with Alternative Toronto. As a living archive we’ll be adding to this exhibit in the months ahead, and we encourage visitors to share their own images and experiences of his work and the city it represents. The interactive map is best viewed in fullscreen mode on a laptop or desktop computer.

Dobey's recent exhibitions include Counter-Architecture: Drawings From the Future Past at yumart gallery and Etchings: Intaglio Prints at the Art Gallery of Bancroft.

To learn more about the Alternative Toronto digital archive and how to contribute to it, visit the project's About page.

Credits: Lilian Radovac, Rocky Dobey, Sofia Lopez

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