It was in the early 90s that Kathy Toth first became interested in learning how to do graffiti. “With murals I liked that they were public,” she says. “I was really concerned with being seen – like all these artists are. You ask them [why they do it] and they might say a whole bunch of things, but they really just want to be seen,” Kathy says. However, without much guidance in how to create graffiti, she instead picked up a camera and started photographing murals across the city that she found interesting.
When it came time to attend university, Kathy chose York because she liked the variety of courses that were offered and the flexibility and opportunity to try different things in order to discover what she wanted to focus on. At the time, with everyone telling her there was no future in art, she was interested in becoming a bioethicist or getting into law. So, despite her love of photography, Kathy decided to pursue a degree in philosophy with a specialization in ethics. But even while studying she continued to photograph and explore various form of art – including painting (realism and abstract), metal work, and wood working. And despite not being an Arts major, it was York where she had one of her first solo art shows featuring some of her sculptures. “They allowed non-fine art students to have shows which I thought was pretty cool,” she remembers.
Since her time at York, Kathy has gone on to have a successful career in the arts field – primarily focusing on photography. To date, she has taken over 45,000 photos documenting Toronto’s changing landscape from the early 90s until today. In 2013, Kathy published her first photography book, Hidden Toronto, showcasing over 1,000 pictures of graffiti across the city. As you look through her photos – most of pieces that are long gone – Kathy reflects on one particular piece that has been around since the 90s.
“As soon as you come out from the Lawrence East stop the huge mural is right there. I always remember that wall because everything else has disappeared and that wall is still there. It says, ‘East Side’ in old English letters and people love that mural,” she says.
Kathy believes in capturing the infrastructure, art, and spaces around us. And while she started out shooting graffiti, she also regularly captures images of communities – particularly communities and industries that make up Ontario’s “Rust Belt.” “It doesn't interact directly with graffiti and street art,” Kathy says thoughtfully. “However, they are both tied together by being fragments of the social fabric that are neglected and only celebrated by those who are a part of it. Much like a family slide show.” She continues by saying, "I think that people look down on both graffiti and industrial buildings. There are people that really like it and everybody else wants to get rid of it. I don’t think people appreciate it, but they might later.”
And with that in mind, Kathy admits to noticing the changing attitude towards urban art – particularly over the past five years. “I believe this is connected to artists doing more commissions and the city funding large infrastructure murals. The arts been around for a long time, but now it seems to be a career option for many artists – it's way more mainstream.”
Today, Kathy continues to work in the arts industry but has transitioned into arts appraisal. “I probably won’t be shooting it [graffiti] much longer unless I come across it,” she shares. “I used to dedicate a lot of time to going out and photographing, but I feel like I’ve been doing it for far too long and it takes away from the other stuff I work on,” she says. “And it’s changed so much with Instagram,” she adds. “You go on there and you’re like ‘I’m not the first person who took a photo of that,’” she says with a laugh. She adds, “I really only do fine arts photography now and no events/commercial stuff anymore, mostly because of this shifting landscape.”
Kathy is currently finishing up work on her second book, a follow up to 2013’s Hidden Toronto which she hopes to publish in 2023 and will feature some of her newer photos. You can see more of Kathy's photography work here.