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A look at Toronto street artist Al Runt

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Al Runt – Photo by: Daniela Gitto

His faded blue jeans are disguised by colourful splotches of paint; the tears in which are stretched far beyond fashionable.

This is the uniform of a man who has restlessly battled the blank canvas since the mid ’80s and regardless of how the paint got there, or how the excessively large tears occurred, this uniform confirms three things: Alex Currie is beyond a shadow of a doubt a dedicated artist, he could care less about fashion, and getting slightly (or very) dirty is simply part of the artistic process.

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A pile of Runt’s work – Photo by: Daniela Gitto

Currie, also known as Al Runt, is a 56-year-old Toronto street artist who is renown for having painted Lee’s Palace on Bloor West. Most millennials recognize this mural as the ideal spot for an Instagram photo-op. Luckily, this city is the perfect canvas for Runt’s signature style which can provoke anyone walking by his murals to stop in their tracks. Using surrealistic and colourful creatures inspired by the Dr. Seuss children’s books, Runt introduced a new aesthetic to downtown communities.

“There’s a certain energy that comes from his work, in terms of colour and design,” said StreetARToronto manager, Lilie Zendel. “I think there’s a human spirit to his work.”

At 24 years old, Runt had his eyes set on filmmaking. That dream was spoiled however, when he discovered the pricey production fees of the film industry and Runt settled on living with the cheap production costs of paints and brushes. What started as silly doodles transformed into the stepping stone that launched him into his long term career.

“I knew nothing about being an artist, but I think maybe that was a good thing,” Runt said. “I like to remain dumb when it comes to my technique. It means I don’t know anything further.”

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Al Runt – Photo by: Daniela Gitto

Runt’s career as an artist dates back to the ‘80s after his handmade posters were recognized in a  Queen Street bar/gallery called Cameron House. After painting the side of the popular ‘80s nightclub, BamBoo, and the famous rock venue, Lee’s Palace, his reputation as a street artist began to prosper.

“In regards to Lee’s Palace, the reason it’s become so iconic is because it really speaks to the location and the façade it welcomes people into,” Zedel said.

Runt's mural at Lee's Palace

Runt’s mural at Lee’s Palace – By: Melissa Smith

In the ‘90s, his career came to an abrupt halt due to a lack of demand. Runt said he and other ex-artists went on a total bender. This meant relying heavily on welfare checks and bootleg wine sellers who filled 2-litre pop bottles with wine for half the price. Runt eventually raked in enough cash from some questionable employment opportunities and bought a studio. After this rough patch, his redemption was sweet. His eccentric yet vibrant style expanded as he began to paint the streets of Toronto.

“I find that Runt’s work seeks to disrupt and decontextualize spaces within the city, and perhaps break traditional conceptions of what may constitute art,” said York University visual arts student, Eszter Rosta.

A few of Runt’s accomplishments include painting Lee’s Palace a total of three times, hosting his own gallery shows, creating a special edition can for Pabst Blue Ribbon, and even recreating the 2015 Toronto TTC ride guide.

Runt created a special edition can for Pabst Blue Ribbon - Photo by Daniela Gitto

Runt created a special edition can for Pabst Blue Ribbon – Photo by Daniela Gitto

“What’s happened since the third version of Lee’s Palace to now is extraordinary and more has happened to me in the last six years than my entire career,” Runt said.

Apart from his blooming business, Runt’s twisted artistic techniques has collected a fandom. His murals and its mischievous caricatures have turned into a sightseer’s destination. Torontonians can find his work while strolling through Kensington, Bloor, Little India, and many other streets in the city.

Perhaps one of the reasons why passers-by are intrigued by Runt’s work is because it seems like the longer you stare at his work, the more hidden meaning you tend to find. Take for example, the mural stamped on the other walls of Electric Mud BBQ. At the owner’s request, Runt painted a controversial piece containing anti-Christian references hidden by his colourful and happy imagery.

Electric Mud Mural - Photo by: Augusto Monk

Electric Mud Mural – Photo by: Augusto Monk

“I have hidden jokes in most of my work that most people won’t get or even notice unless they look deeply,” Runt said.

During the process of Electric Mud’s mural – musician and film-maker, Augusto Monk decided to film the progression from start to finish. After Monk observed Runt’s technique up close, he quickly became a fan and decided that Runt deserved his own documentary (which is now out on VIMEO titled RUNT).

“His work always spoke to me very emotionally, and every time I see his work it puts a smile on my face,” Monk said. “His work was worth discussing, showing and elaborating upon.”

When it comes to the monsters he often paints, his most valuable inspiration comes from newspapers. Runt will look through the ink stained pages in search for an eye-capturing photo. Once found, he will doodle a similar version in his notebook. Then, he’ll flip through the newspaper once more until he finds another photograph that inspires him. Once all sketches are complete, he will someone combine aspects of each new character to finally create a Frankenstein-esque monster.

Runt's mural at Lee's Palace

Runt’s mural at Lee’s Palace – Melissa Smith

“It’s a great way to keep current, especially because they’re images circulating through the public’s minds,” Runt said.  “It’s how I learn different body positions. I like to pick and choose what I like about certain things then make them one.”

Although his initial filmmaking dream was never realized, the movement and action in his murals trace back to his love for cinema. He is influenced by Ray Harryhausen and Jim Danforth, two worldly-renowned innovators of the cinematic field.

“What I find most intriguing is that rare way to compose a piece, that is in action and is active, [which] I refer to as the cause and effect composition,” said Monk.

However, Runt’s relationship with painting, as he described it, is a “love-hate relationship”.

There are times Runt experiences week-long creative blocks, then other nights he’ll spend five hours or more steeped into a creative stupor.

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Runt enjoys a beverage – Photo by Daniela Gitto

“I love it, but with anything I love, I usually have a bad relationship with it,” he said. “I hate doing it but I can’t stop it.”

Runt’s talents are not limited to walls, but any unconventional canvas that sparks his imagination and comes with a hefty paycheck.

In the light of his recent success, Runt is venturing into another medium – children’s books. In January of the new year, he is collaborating with HITSU, a company dedicated to socks designed by street artists, to create a book for children and parents alike to enjoy.

The book will be about a little girl searching for her happy dragon through the streets of Toronto. Rather than adding tourism attractions such as the CN Tower, Runt plans to include things only Toronto citizens will recognize, like the hug tree on Queen Street or Honest Ed’s thrift shop.

Runt’s art has become more than aesthetically pleasing, but also provides a sense of nostalgia for Torontonians growing up in the downtown core.

“I think what it says to me is the vivacity of the city the eclectic nature of the streetscape,” said Zendel.

With no shortage of new artwork being produced in 2017,  the ‘RUNT-naissance’ as dubbed by many  isn’t slowing down anytime soon.