Living in the Past – An Interview With Kathy Toth

How did you first become interested in photographing graffiti? You were a painter yourself? Were you trying to learn about painting or save work you admired? Did photography become more important to you than painting as time went on?

I was! I was trying to get into graffiti, but I did not have a connection anywhere. There was no internet yet (although when I did get access to a computer that’s what I looked for first – and came across Art Crimes where I met Susan Farrell and saw what she was doing and realized the power of how images, even prints, can travel anywhere). I basically had to go around and look at places where I assumed it would be and I didn’t have much luck for 2-3 years. I first saw graffiti in skate magazines and a teacher who showed us a production she was trying to save back in ’92. Eventually when I was in a special art program in high school one of the teachers happened to live across from the Keele Wall, which was the spot to check out quality work. Finally a lead! This wouldn’t have taken so long if I lived in Scarborough or the West of Toronto. When I found out about it, I went between the Xmas holidays and took some shots with a disposable camera. My friend’s SLR didn’t work because of the -40c temps. I kept going back and I started to meet people and get connected to others who told me about spots more and more. I started painting in 1996. Some writers I met impressed me with their portfolios and how they had large photos and panorama connectors–this was important since you ended up promoting your own work. Writers who took what they were doing seriously had SLRs and video cameras with them all the time, and some of them photographed other people’s work. That really impressed me. 

Back then no one was doing it for anyone else but I started getting my hands on zines from all over the world which only use photos as well and all of sudden the importance of pushing and documenting a cultural narrative seemed possible.

  After being around the scene for a few years, I learned that documentation is more important as time goes on. Back then no one was doing it for anyone else but I started getting my hands on zines from all over the world which only use photos as well and all of sudden the importance of pushing and documenting a cultural narrative seemed possible. There wasn’t a huge selection of books on the subject like today with mail orders everywhere. Those who took great photos and had great work could still fall behind someone who was better at sending their photos everywhere, which is no different than someone with generic work and a large social media presence today. I had an affinity for images from a young age. I was given National Geographic magazines and Time-Life books by my mother and I could look at them for hours. I’d never get bored and I enjoyed it more than TV and video games. All those things coalesced in me picking up a camera from a young age and connecting it with my other interests. I documented my work but also everything else I could find graffiti-wise, then the spaces where it always seemed to appear started piquing my interest.  I used to be a realist painter in high school and in my early 20s and I got extremely bored of painting perfect paintings. So I stopped and never picked it up again – and I also stopped painting graffiti around the same time, 20 years ago. I can’t stand the idea of being inside and spending 100 hours on something when I could be out working on a project instead. I think if I was more sedentary I would have stuck with it, and of course, you just don’t have the time and energy for everything as you get older. Photography appealed to me as a medium and also to my personality because you always ended up somewhere interesting and had to interact with people in a different manner than socializing or going through life. The urban exploration scene was very similar this way, except at the point I joined people were no longer trading 4×6 prints and there were no magazines you had on web forums. You couldn’t know about every place that you wanted to visit, so exploring ended up being a more social activity as well with a very similar cast of characters. Because graffiti writing comes with more risk, the community is tighter and they are more discrete.

You were part of the underground scene when you started photographing graffiti around the city. What did this entail? Did you have or form relationships with painters? Did that help to build up trust within the community? I would imagine that the fact that graffiti is illegal might have raised some questions about why you were photographing the work.

People don’t take you seriously at first, or you don’t get introduced. so you just keep going. I had almost everyone trying to tell me it was a fad, it was a bad thing to do, etc. So your inner circle is telling you not to get involved, then you show up and most people don’t take you seriously in that game because you are new, you’re a woman, you’re from a certain part of town, etc.

I think there was one other person who was doing it fully at the time. I know that person was painting before me, but it was a small network. The east and west seemed leery of each other, or rather a few people were. Most just liked painting. There was only one person in the 80s and I’d say a solid 20 in the 90s. Everyone seemed to get really good after 95 when we had a huge show that brought others here to paint and the scene took off from the exchange of ideas. Not many traveled then, because of age, most of the newer writers being in high school or early college at the time. Some people traveled on their own and collected books, caps, and contacts. People don’t take you seriously at first, or you don’t get introduced. so you just keep going. I had almost everyone trying to tell me it was a fad, it was a bad thing to do, etc. So your inner circle is telling you not to get involved, then you show up and most people don’t take you seriously in that game because you are new, you’re a woman, you’re from a certain part of town, etc. This issue exists everywhere, but those who were helpful to me and kind are still like that today. There’s something about any illegal activity that attracts the extremes in people, and those people tend to cause problems. I’ve never had issues photographing people’s work in almost 30 years because I gave people prints, as well as traded for prints as well, books, and magazines –  but once someone tried to insinuate I was making money with their work – because how important they thought they were. Ignorance is bliss, even if a small group of people loves the art form, the graffiti photos on my stream have the lowest views, with only 2 of them being in my top 10. The truth is no one else is interested in looking at, it except those doing it, those who have done it, and people trying to do it. It’s very insular. I’d say writers judge people faster and much more accurately than explorers and photographers do, so it doesn’t take long – or at least it didn’t for me. By 1997 I was hanging out with more of them because they knew I was doing it too. Everyone knows who the snitches are, the shady, etc. When I started there was a big bang of new people on the scene, of course, that threatens some people, but others just wanted to meet new people and exchange ideas. 25 years later I can say that those who were assholes then, still are today.

Graffiti is by nature temporally-challenged. The work is never really meant to last, and you’ll find layers upon layers of other work playing off or commentating on the art of others. Do you see photography as a way of recording the work before it disappears? Of capturing time, in a way? How did the painters feel about you saving their work in that way? I would imagine it was something that they welcomed.

I think it depends on who you ask.  I think it’s really important to save things before they disappear especially in some sort of organized fashion. You can’t organize or start an archival project without being somewhat neutral. Up until 1998, I remember only documenting people’s work I liked, afterwords I started shooting everything. Tags, rooftops, freights, stuff I didn’t even like. Toronto was still a really interesting city in the 90s because you had all these layers, the industry, the old buildings, yet they were just sitting there undeveloped, or you had these ‘ugly’ industrial areas that people tolerated because they provided people with good paying jobs. Toronto’s portlands are like that. Over the past 20 years, so much has been demolished there, after 40-60 years of no major development, to now see roads realigned, and the channels being dredged, is something I never would have expected to see happen.  When you see something changing in front of you – something that has been constant for more than 100 years, you do have different motivations for wanting to document it. Graffiti and architecture have that in common. In my city, things vanish incredibly fast, and over the past 5 years, I’ve been amazed to find entire blocks razed for condos a few months after I had been there and they were not even boarded up before. Graffiti, for the most part, is temporal, based in the now. It doesn’t have a continuous line of history since things get painted, and ruined occasionally by other people in the scene. The only way you can talk about it is by showing the phases, development, etc. I think most writers’ motivations in documenting their own work was to have a portfolio of work they can show to others of what they had done and are capable of doing. I painted a few commercial jobs and everyone wanted to see my portfolio. Buildings appear to be more stable than say painted walls, but we still have one production from 1995 up! Toronto’s pace of development isn’t comparable to many places though. The reason I’ve done it for so long is that I kept seeing changes, and I felt motivated to continue the process. It’s addictive and keeps you on your toes and one thing leads to another.

Over the years photography itself has become somehow less permanent as well. With people able to take photos with their phone there’s a constant stream of images, and they lack the substantiality of a printed photograph. Did your attitude towards documenting graffiti change as the world of photography changed?

You have democratized access, but there is no curation or guidance so literally everything gets lost in the online world in sheer volume.

That’s a very interesting point. You would think that with all the pictures being taken, shared, and seen that they would have gotten better over time, which they have not. People who don’t have a good eye for images think that they can take the same quality images as a seasoned photographer, but they cannot. So the medium isn’t the issue. You have democratized access, but there is no curation or guidance so literally everything gets lost in the online world in sheer volume. You would think the top Instagrammer would be a photographer, but he’s actually a soccer player. An increase in the volume of anything doesn’t make anything better – in fact, it drowns out everything else of value that now has to compete with commercial content, celebs, or whatever nonsense is hot that day, so it’s not really about talent or style, but rather how you can market yourself (just like those who sent photos to every zine and book in the world). Now we have the issue of being seen, you need ads, influencers, and other channels. The big three platforms also want to move people away from photos to video shorts. They don’t even care about the medium that birthed this new beast. I think the prints are more tangible, they don’t vanish into a timeline and they are curated in some way by the photographer, so they have been worked over more which I think is what I like about them and what I think other photographers like as well.

Do you think the nature of graffiti itself changed? Maybe the work became more selfie-friendly and less rebellious? Do you see more of a trend towards mural-like art rather than something quick and rough, as attitudes towards street art have changed?

 I’m not sure what to say about this. Graffiti did get more commercial and many graffiti artists became street artists and made a living spraying, a good example of that is Bacon (see pic). This city actually had a great mural program until covid, however, their recent shift to inexperienced artists being awarded huge project contracts with no experience for demographic reasons has led artists to do more of their work elsewhere – and on their terms. Another issue in the city is space. Lots of walls have been lost recently including the Keele Wall and it’s become harder to get legal spaces like laneways unless it’s a city project I already mentioned. So there is much more illegal and hidden work, which is what I explored with my book a decade ago, called Hidden Toronto. You always had illegal work, under bridges, behind buildings on train tracks, etc, but there was much less in the 90s than now and it seems like new artists really took to both aspects. You can find graffiti in the strangest places outside the city. The city had a lot of success with its programming before, but now it’s very obvious it’s not just about promoting graffiti and street art as a viable artform for its own sake, but it’s become more politized and PC and commercially watered down. It’s odd because it’s not like street art wasn’t about these things. Another thing to consider is people’s motivations. Some of these artists are approaching 50, and are really, really good at what they do, but they don’t want to paint as much as in their 20s because of their status and life responsibilities. I do think society’s attitudes that have also changed. When I used to work on mural jobs, I always had the police called me on me at least once just because I was using spray cans. People don’t even notice it anymore. Also, when I was in high school everyone tried to turn me away from it, implying it was a crime worse than robbery or rape, now there are multiple books to teach you how to develop a style, how to paint commercial murals, etc. The best example I have seen of a mural festival was in Detroit in the Eastern Market (which happens to be one of my favorite places to visit), and Murals in the Market covered many of the commercial buildings in street art. Diversity in artists, local and international, and concentrated so you can walk it as a tourist, not knowing a think about it and appreciate it.

I love the layers in your work…layers of paint, but layers of light and structure as well. Through windows and doors and down alleyways. Do you look for locations that provide this rich texture? What times of day are your favorite to take photographs?

I have two schools of thought about this. I try to shoot the work directly in diffused light, which is easy in Toronto because it’s overcast most of the time. No shadows, but well-lit walls make for great connectors. Sometimes I happen to be around and will drop what I’m doing to re-shoot an alleyway, etc when the light is right. I love fall and late winter light the best. It’s harsh and it’s much better light since the angle of the sun is just right. I like it with landscapes and graffiti and I do go out of my way to plan subjects at a certain time of day (afternoons). You get way more texture and more extreme light and shadow play and it’s more of what I like to use with the non-documentary type work I do. My photography might seem spontaneous, but it’s not, because I can’t do it all the time, and I want certain light too. Nonphotographers don’t get this at all and some of my friends have been annoyed that I will randomly stop and just start taking images and also pointing out things they have no interest in.

Most people have a connection to photography, through personal family images and the like, but I remember just being fascinated by buildings, trains, industrial fixtures, signs, etc. …I have been interested in industrial spaces and infrastructure since I was a kid, so I don’t think that will fade.

I sense that you’re undergoing a turning point in your career as a photographer. What sort of questions are you asking yourself? What sort of answers are you arriving at?

Photography has been a part of my life for a very long time. I have photos going back to childhood when I was 6 or 7 years old and I already had an interest in industrial structures I would capture with a 110 camera. Most people have a connection to photography, through personal family images and the like, but I remember just being fascinated by buildings, trains, industrial fixtures, signs, etc. I took photos of people, like family and friends but  I was never driven to do that type of work. I’ve done commercial work and shot portraits but that was for $$ and not love. I have been interested in industrial spaces and infrastructure since I was a kid, so I don’t think that will fade.

It’s interesting to me that you mention guides who will tell you about or show you interesting places to photograph graffiti or vacant buildings. How do you form these relationships? Has the nature of them changed over the years? 

Yes, I was pretty persistent poking around certain areas, like the Keele Wall but I never met anyone actually painting until I walked down a main street in the city one afternoon and found a guy painting. He told me of a few places, like breadcrumbs, and I followed that to other spots and met more people. Some people were good about sharing but others just want to block you from knowing what they know. Eventually, you hear enough that you can fill in the gaps. I remember finding a clothing shop that I had been sent to by a local and the owner refused to show us his magazine stash. When I told him who sent us he gave in. This was before the internet when you couldn’t google your way to products, and the massive mail-order companies we now have, so you needed finesse and patience and people relied upon each other much more. This went for people buying books, magazines, and caps and paint to sharing spots and other advice. People also had more accountability for style and style development and it seems more hands-on than now. Now you have good quality paint in hundreds of colors, new caps being developed every year, books being published everywhere and even very illegal work being shared online on Instagram and you can order everything you need online from one store. It makes style development much easier and faster, but regardless of the ease of using tools developed for this purpose, I haven’t seen the same explosion of creative work.  The explosion of books is incredible. Mostly from the US and Europe, I own well over 300, not including hundreds of magazines I collected in the 90s. In the late 90s I wanted to put together a worldwide compendium of graffiti and literally not one publishing house wanted to touch it. They said no one would buy it, it’s not interesting and they didn’t want to glorify vandalism. This is why zines were such a big deal in the 90s. Imagine these publishers had no problems publishing books on warfare, disasters, and photo work by sexual predators, but graffiti style and the birth of an artistic genre just didn’t fit into their business model. The movement was still below the radar as a subculture. About a decade later it became more prevalent and people like Roger Gastman got into publishing so many books and organizing large traveling shows like Beyond The Streets.

I never met anyone actually painting until I walked down a main street in the city one afternoon and found a guy painting. He told me of a few places, like breadcrumbs, and I followed that to other spots and met more people.

The ways in which you find info for anything have changed radically. Most “scenes” are filled with people who don’t contribute a thing wanting handouts so they can monetize it on a shitty youtube channel or Instagram. So when ‘secrets’ get posted about specific places, and even more, basic things like thrifting get overrun by people who are not even wearing the same clothes they buy! When I first got on the internet I met people from all around the world who just wanted to meet other people, network, trade ideas, and whatnot. It was borderline wholesome in a way because it was new and people still valued their connections. Access had to be earned and people abided by unspoken rules that existed to ensure they were not excluded. Now it seems like you can just buy most things, pay to get featured on certain blogs and newspapers, and then turn around and call yourself an expert. It’s evolved into me hardly trusting any claims at all, LOL. A big paper in my city wrote an article about a cutting-edge graffiti and street art photographer. I had never heard of the guy, or anyone I asked…he had been around 5-6 years. Another expert.

I love your photos of alleyways and walk-throughs. It’s kind of a secret within a secret. Can you tell us more about that body of work?

I started shooting alleyways around 15 years ago in a more determined way. At first, I just shot the graffiti, yet when I showed non-writers the work, they always wanted more contextual shots as to where this type of work was. So I started looking at alleyways and non-spaces more thoughtfully to show what the environment looked like as well. Once I started doing projects it became part of my work, especially with exploring. I was drawn to details and interior spaces, but I wanted to show a location as a whole story and that’s how I ended up becoming interested in communities outside of industrial spaces as well. I was more interested in telling a whole story vs. getting “the money shot” whenever I went. I also happen to walk a lot and got more into that during Covid and I’ve gotten to know many of the laneways in the city where you can actually walk and have some peace!

You’re working on a new series of work with multiple exposures, and you say that it describes how you feel about your city. Can you explain what that means?

I like to combine the ravines, industrial areas, and infrastructure right on top of the cityscapes. They feel very compressed and are anxiety provoking and it’s kind of how I feel about the city.

I’ve been doing double exposures for a long time, just experimenting and getting to see what would happen. There is always a surprise with it, and sometimes you end up with an image you didn’t consciously intend. Everything with photography is predetermined in a sense. You plan to take images of something, you select the lighting, the mood, etc and you go and do it. With this, you have some randomness. I had a set of images where I (by accident) ended up imposing graffiti photos on some city images and liked it, but I ended up recently combining images from the city together more intentionally. Toronto has lost a lot of its unique character, which for me is not totally tied up in the new skyline, the CN Tower, etc. I like to combine the ravines, industrial areas, and infrastructure right on top of the cityscapes. They feel very compressed and are anxiety provoking and it’s kind of how I feel about the city. It’s stressful to drive because of the sheer number of people, the transit system has a lot of sketchy and scary incidents and the people definitely are not as friendly as they used to be. No matter how politicians want to proclaim the city is great and vibrant and has low crime, there is now a pervasive disdain I feel from many different people who say they don’t like living here, they don’t feel safe or welcome and it’s happening more often. Someone stopped me the other day when I was out photographing a street corner and they ranted about many of the things I had been feeling for a solid 15 minutes. There is a vibe in the air of agitation and people just being miserable and this anxiety is something I have been looking to show visually for a while. Of course, these issues are not only in this city, but everything is more polarized here. This format seems the perfect way to illustrate this. While most of what I have done is on film, I also have done this digitally as well.

I tend to think of the world of urban photography and nighttime photography, and even the world of graffiti artists as a bit of a “boys club.” Have you found this to be the case? Did you ever feel like an outsider, as a woman?

You are always an outsider. With graff, it’s almost implied you are someone’s girlfriend, with photography it was different, you were just usually around men but it really depended on who you are around. Sometimes you get shitty attitudes, but with photography, a real barrier is access to gear. No one needs to have an xpan, but it’s nice, you know.  Psychologically I think these ‘genres’ so to speak have mental barriers for most men, and obviously women. There are not a lot of people who want to stand around and take pictures in the rain, late at night, or to crawl into a tunnel and walk for 10km in the dark, never mind sneak into an abandoned or guarded complex but I think that comes down to your personality and your mental constitution more than anything else. I found people either did it, or they did not. There was no half-stepping about it. 

You mention your book Hidden Toronto. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration, process, and reception of the book? Do you have any plans to publish further editions?

Hidden Toronto came about after another project I was working on with someone got carbon copied by a local opportunist for concept, layout, and artist features.  I learned a lot from that experience, namely to work with people you trust and to keep a close eye on those you work with. That project was very large in scope and really just kept growing in retrospect because the person I was working with really did not want to finish it – just to perpetually work on it, talk about it,  socialize about it, etc. Making a book is not a social matter. It requires editing skills and making hard choices about what you show and exclude. I think more photographers should actually do this type of exercise because it’s effective in honing your storytelling skills as well as basic editing. A few months later I had it printed and only then showed it to other photographers, my editor, and friends and it was a much more rewarding and fulfilling experience, not to have all these roadblocks established by others.  Most of the promotion was done between graffiti artists and photographers with only a few outlets running stories about it. Toronto no matter how world-class it still claims to be is filled with provincially minded gatekeepers who refuse to support something that isn’t status quo. I was snubbed by a local publisher of Toronto-centric books, which I find funny today – I keep getting requests every few months from Toronto-specific stores for it, even now a decade later, but they didn’t seem to think that an entire art movement that developed in the city was worth exploring.

 I took a break from that first encyclopedic concept for about a year and later decided to work on a project myself that interested me on a few different levels, one being the interesting places where illegal graffiti was popping up which I was more interested in, as well as producing my own concepts, in private and relying upon myself to finish the whole project. Toronto at the time had the “Crack Mayor” who had all these shady connections yet was obsessed with eradicating graffiti. As I had been enlightened so many times before, Graffiti is the worst type of crime one can commit.  Graffiti had been painted illegally since the 80s, but there was not a lot, to be honest even in the early 2000s. Writers started going further and further out to paint in tunnels, on bridges, and soon after and more and more places had to be found and documented.  There were also more and more people into it every decade, and when Instagram showed up you could literally see all of it. There are a few legal walls in the original book, but most were spaces as I had mentioned were illegal, and for obvious reasons I did not disclose where they were – which is also useful when it comes to exploring locations as well. I  was looking to print a new edition about 4 years later, but the printer I used went under. I didn’t like the other printers I tried, so that kept me back from doing it. I’m thinking of making some zines as a run-up to a 10th-year anniversary book I’d like to print this year. I’m on year 29 of doing this, so I might wait until the end of the year to make it a 30th-anniversary book – self-published again because there’s not enough love for this amazing artform.

Kathy Toth is a photographer currently based in Toronto dreaming of other places. She is a visual artist and prefers to work with metal and wood in 3D vs. painting on canvas anymore. She has been Interested in Industry, the built environment, and graffiti going back to the early 90s and has photographed graffiti since 1994. She published a book called Hidden Toronto in 2013 (out of print) which featured a selection of hidden graffiti on infrastructure around the Toronto area, including bridges, drains, and rooftops where graffiti started and still lives today. You can see her 21,000+ graffiti archive on her Flickr and also on Instagram at which has more organized selection of other documentary projects she has worked on, not related to graffiti at all.

2 replies »

  1. Thanks Marc. I’ve been digging into your site more and more, it’s refreshing being introduced to work that isn’t an algo pushing content. 😀


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