Canada

Outside the Box program transformed boring traffic light boxes into vibrant paint jobs

On a warm sunny day on the corner of Kipling Ave. and Westhumber Blvd. in Rexdale, Leyland Adams circles the anonymous traffic lights of the intersection, gesturing to demonstrate how he intends to transform it into a stunning 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 give them life.

(Read about other artists who left their mark, such as Emily May Rose’s raccoon-themed murals and Kensington Market Garden’s car.)

The City of Toronto "Out of the box" program pays local artists to transform these boxes, a background presence at each city's traffic light.

Adams has already painted the pastel background with swirls of color. On the street side, he plants a portrait of former governor-general Michaëlle Jean. He says he wants the box to “talk to the people who handle it.” In preparation, he spent time exploring the neighborhood. The modest suburban houses, the mix of nature with the city and diversity remind him of where he grew up in Scarborough. He recalls how much it meant to him as a young person of color to see “an important and inspiring black figure,” such as Jean, in a position of authority.

The sidewalk side will feature a Central American Monstera leaf to bring what he calls “a tropical vibe to this Canadian climate.”

“I want to have bright, colorful, happy colors,” he says, “things that inspire people. It can be so boring to look at a gray box.”

The vibrant palette is also a way to make the art stand out for those with low vision, and Adams will include a QR code that will allow people who are completely blind to hear him describe the piece. Adams has been interested in accessibility ever since he created a mural entitled “Smashing Barriers” for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, for which he first used a QR code. In 2020, on the side of a building just north of Yonge and St. Clair, he pioneered Toronto’s first tactile mural – a view of the sunset from Toronto Island conveyed by both texture and color.

Outside the Box is part of Street Art Toronto (StART), which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. StART involves artists in painting everything from bike paths to floor-to-ceiling walls. Started in 2012 as part of the city’s anti-graffiti strategy, the initiative has evolved into 10 separate programs. Catherine Campbell, project manager at StART, describes it as an “ecosystem” that offers artists both classes and assignments, often in partnership with non-profit organizations such as Mural Routes.

This particular program began in 2013 in response to complaints about downtown traffic boxes being tagged with graffiti. More than 600 boxes—nearly a quarter of Toronto’s 2,467—have been painted since this year.

Each spring, artists propose designs and the designs selected by an advisory board are assigned to a box chosen by the StART team. The painting will take place during allotted weeks in the summer, with the city prepping the boxes in advance and adding an anti-graffiti coating once the work is done.

Campbell is proud of StART’s ‘career ladder’ approach: artists can start with a small assignment, such as Outside the Box, and as they gain experience, progress to larger jobs such as garage doors or murals. Part of the ecosystem is mixing newcomers with experienced artists who can guide them.

Adams climbed this ladder himself. Like many teenagers, he was first introduced to street art through graffiti. An art class in high school got him thinking about art as a career and led him to earn a degree in fine 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 on bike trails and assisted with murals before becoming a mentor, leading projects and working as Outside the Box coordinators.

“I’ve probably done the whole ladder,” he says, “but not always in the order you’d think.” After working on huge murals, this is his first year signing up for a modest Outside the Box piece. He loves how the boxes bring art to where people walk every day. For him, that pop of color added to an ordinary intersection can make a community feel valued.

For Adams, nothing beats the immediacy of working in a public space. “Anyone who lives in Toronto knows what life in Toronto is like: the sounds, the smells, the people,” he says. “With public art you become part of that, you are in that ether. I think it adds something to your artwork. You educate yourself on that.”

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