Wonder walls

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Photos courtesy of ALEXA HATANAKA

Art in order of appearance: Feesh, with Logan Miller and Kellen Hatanaka, 10 x 12′; Bowhead, with Patrick Thompson and Jonathan Cruz, Iqaluit, Nunavut, 30 x 160′; String Games, with Patrick Thompson, Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik, 10 x 30′; Happy 20th Anniversary, with Patrick Thompson, for World Pride,  Church St. and Wellesley, Toronto; IOU; Pauloosie, with Patrick Thompson for Kinguliit Studios, (makers of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), Igloolik, Nunavut; Qikkitani Hospital, with Patrick Thompson and Jonathan Cruz and Traveller, with Patrick Thompson, XingPing, Chinam 15 x 30′

Japanese-Canadian artist Alexa Hatanaka reflects on the value of street art, her deep affinity with Inuit culture and her pursuit of artisanal crafts at risk of dying in our digital age. 

Alexa Hatanaka

Alexa Hatanaka with Patrick Thompson, Jeff Garcia and Alexandra Mackenzie


His neighbours have moved out and changed addresses, but the boy with a golden brown fish, immortalized in an eye-catching mural, has been an enduring tenant of sorts at 1042 Queen St. West, in what used to be a print shop.

Intrigued pedestrians often have a mouthful to say about the boy’s origins and his pose; they wonder if he’s biting into a fish fated to be sushi or if his presence commemorates a celebration of Aboriginal culture.

The real story behind the mural, Feesh, said one of its creators, Alexa Hatanaka, is that it’s an old photo of her father proudly holding his prized catch.

Hatanaka— whose murals enliven many forgotten or untended spaces in Toronto and elsewhere – mined her visual heritage of black and white photographs pressed inside her paternal grandmother’s albums to bring this archival memory to life. She collaborated on the project with her brother, Kellan, and friend, Logan Miller, and it marked one of her earliest works as a muralist.

Given the turnover that that strip has seen, from upscale boutiques to a number of murals that preceded it, the boy with the fish has been a fixture in the area. “It was supposed to only be up for a month, but it ended up lasting more than a year,” said Hatanaka.

She first jumped into the fray of street art as an illustration student at Sheridan College. Feeling limited by the scale of a store-bought canvas and bored with the monotony of life in the isolating suburbs of Oakville, she and a friend learned to use spray paint because it allowed for larger than life displays of their art. As most unauthorized, surreptitious creations allow for, they worked at night.

Hatanaka has since abandoned her clandestine pursuits for commissioned neighbourhood beautification projects and to the study of artisanal crafts such as printmaking and papermaking that are losing their heirs to the digital age.

Chinese Workers' Shoes, Alexa Hatanaka, The Origami

Chinese workers’ shoes, woodcuts. Hatanaka spent some time in Nanjing, China to study printmaking. While there, she noticed many construction workers working in these canvas shoes with thin rubber soles, which cost about $2. After their shifts, she would find them in a pile outside of their workhouses, laid out to dry.


“I just don’t have a particular drive to do [illegal street art], not any sort of ethical reason,” she explained. “It’s not something that became a focus.”

Once in a while, the urge to paint outside the sanctioned lines will strike, but mostly she finds fulfillment in adding more character to the area.

“You walk past the same building every day, and you don’t notice it, and all of sudden, there’s a big colourful thing on it,” she said about the value of street art. “You see the world differently, it’s a little bit of magic, I suppose.”

A jaunt around the city’s distinctive neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Little India, and the Church-Wellesley Village will lead to the discovery of more of Hatanaka’s site-specific murals. Her wondrous, lively and minutely detailed, tactile creations have become the envy of other neighbourhoods.

Map of some of Hatanaka’s Toronto murals

The Chinatown mural, a collaboration with fellow artist Aaron Li-Hill, is a colourful, immersive portrait of the cast of characters that populate the downtown spot. There’s the aging fruit seller tending to her produce, a little girl claiming the sidewalk as her playground and an old man on his bike.

“We walked around Chinatown with a camera, sneaking photos of people we found interesting, or to us, spoke a story about the area,” she explained. “I kind of like to have a lot of reference photos to choose from that inspire me.”

One of the latest additions to hit Toronto’s streets is a mural in Little India she collaborated with her regular co-conspirator and boyfriend, Patrick Thompson. They’ve reinterpreted India’s dome-shaped, majestic architecture and infused it with colourful textile designs  definitive of the country.

If you fix your gaze up on the rooftop of Novack’s Pharmacy, on Church Street and Wellesley, you’ll find a happy mess of colours and a message that reads “Happy 20th Anniversary Pat, Love Alex.”

As part of the revitalization of Church Street, and in time for World Pride 2014, they were tapped to create an image that spoke to the neighbourhood. Inspiration came from an advertisement in an old Body Politic magazine about a love proclamation that read “Happy 10th anniversary Joe, Love Dave.” This time, though, the message has a gender-neutral ring to it.

Hatanaka and Thompson have worked on countless projects together, which have taken them all over the world, from Canada’s Arctic to a stint in Egypt.

The itinerant couple is now in South Asia, where Hatanaka, whose repertoire includes textile-based artwork, is hoping to learn batik dyeing and weaving techniques while in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

If there’s one place that keeps pulling her back into its orbit, it’s the Arctic. She “caught the bug,” as she put it, when she got the opportunity to paint several murals in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

“When you go up there, you’re an outsider. It’s a very sensitive position and a great privilege to put work in a small community, a culture that isn’t your own,” she mused. “But you go there and people don’t ask you, what are you going to paint? There’s amazing trust.”

Kangiqsujuaq,Matta Tunik, Alexa Hatanaka, The Origami

Matta Tunik, work by Alexa Hatanaka and Patrick Thompson. Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik, Northern Quebec.

Toronto, comparably, not for its landscape, is a tougher terrain to work in, with different interests at play, said Hatanaka.  They have set parameters for what best serves the city’s image, usually involving murals that “speak to a specific theme or a particular neighbourhood.”

Notably, the city embraces street art with a purpose, murals that help mark a neighbourhood as a destination.

“I think there’s not enough space for [artists] to have their distinct vision and to be trusted to do something,” she added. “There’s definitely opportunities if you’re thinking of making a living off being an artist and painting murals,” she added.

Her affinity with the place and people of Iqaluit comes from a place of deep respect for a culture that has remained strong despite the federal government’s historical policy of assimilation.

In her own upbringing, Hatanaka lamented that her exposure to Japanese culture was limited. Neither she nor her father ever learned to speak Japanese, something she attributes to the desire of many Japanese-Canadians to integrate and assimilate following their internment during the Second World War. Anti-Asian sentiments intensified after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and gave British Columbians justification to seize their properties and force them to live in internment camps in the North, the Prairies and the Interior B.C. Hatanaka’s grandparents were among those sent to an internment camp in New Denver, B.C.

“In my own desire for tradition, ritual, meaningful connection to one’s heritage, I find the Inuit culture incredibly fascinating, as it is still alive and well in a large degree,” she said. “There is still a great effort to preserve the culture.”

Alexa Hatanaka and Patrick Thompson are currently raising funds to run mural workshops to engage youth in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. To learn more about their crowdfunding campaign, visit: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/cape-dorset-nunavut-mural-project

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1 Comment

  • December 29, 2013

    Isabelle Paez

    There has been an explosion and greater appreciation for street art in the last few years. I have never seen anything as specific as something influenced by Inuit culture. The photos and accompanying article show just how far and how diverse this vital art form can go. And how the medium can communicate various cultures visually in an exciting way. Much maligned in the past as mere graffiti, it has re-energized some very grim spots and desolate neighborhoods around the world. Long live street artists!