A fantastical 12-metre-long sculpture made of 700 pieces of cold-rolled steel and carved butternut soars through the two-storey atrium of a Bayview Village home, its angular, illuminated shapes swooping like a flock of birds. A fluid melding of graffiti and fine woodworking, the piece testifies to the remarkable journey of locally and internationally revered graffiti artist Kwest.
Kwest spent his teen years building skateboard ramps and spray-painting walls and trains. In 1999, at the age of 21, he took to riding boxcars across North America with his dog, Diego, painting as he went (she’d twitch her ears to alert him to approaching yard security). His hobo travels cemented his reputation and led to some spectacular wall art: a frenetic amalgam of three-dimensional abstractionism and technical wild style, an early technique born in NYC.
Though his graffiti continues to pop up around Toronto – see MacDougall Lane downtown or the back wall of a west-end auto repair shop, which you can spot on the Bloor subway line between Keele and Dundas West stations – he felt the medium’s limitations in a gallery setting sink in while at an exhibition in 1998. The canvas pieces were flat, and he wanted dimension. He decided to work with wood, beginning humbly (“I think I had a chop saw”) and experimenting from there. Using hardwoods, exotic woods and automotive paint, he has created sinuous, man-sized birds of prey (Thunder Birds) and canvas works that protrude with abstract wooden forms.
Whatever his medium, Kwest believes that graffiti is ripe for reinterpretation, as long as the fundamentals remain true. “I can weld, I use wood, I can do stone work… When you combine all those things together with graffiti, that’s the attraction,” he says. That and story. He understands that his medium is about bravado and social cachet: “I’ve done many crazy things, but never for the endgame. I was just living and taking paths presented to me. All those stories reinforce what I do.”