When they appear in public, which is still rare, people snag Annaliza Toledo and Trevor Peters like minor celebrities. On this January morning, as the couple weaves through the tables at Lock Stock downtown, a man stops them, then a woman. When the couple finally gets to me, many minutes later, Peters is overtaken with nostalgia. “This entire area was covered,” he says, motioning outside at the blank concrete stairwell. “All along the LRT was covered, too. And then one day it got too much, and it got buffed, and it never came back.”
Covered in graffiti, that is. Peters, who tags as “Curly YIA,” has been graffiti royalty in Edmonton for his 25-year career (thus his use of “buffed,” which is lingo for erased).
In 2007, he met Toledo through friends, they fell in love, and she joined in the tagging. Their anonymity around their street art grew with the necessities of adulthood. In 2008, they both left full-time jobs to pursue an art business, Fresh Canvas, with Peters painting murals and both of them hand-painting clothing. Then, in 2012, cops caught Peters working on a mural in an industrial park. They cuffed him. And worse. “The police let the city know,” he says. “They were supporting me on a few [other] murals. They basically red me. I lost an estimated $60,000 of work that year. That was a tough year as an artist.”
This would have been a good reason to leave Edmonton. Peters had already lived in Taiwan, which accepts graffiti, from 2000 to 2007, while Toledo and he now traveled, o en, to places where they could still “play.” As street artists age, they tend to get caught, earn criminal records and quit, he says. “ at wasn’t an option for me.” Instead, the duo avoided trouble through travel, while an idea to provide a more legal canvas for artists took root. On one of those trips, in 2016, the two saw how the idea might work. They walked about in Auckland, New Zealand, where they found street-art filled with storytelling. A switch flipped. “We really noticed how art can change an environment and a city,” Toledo says. On the flight home, the idea gelled. Maybe Edmonton could learn to embrace street art and host a festival?
Four years later, after they first reached out to artists, organized walls, stocked paint, sourced cranes and funded it mostly with their own savings, Toledo and Peters’ undeclared goal to paint themselves and other local artists a home in their city has created breathtaking results. Walls now host a Dedos, a John James, a Kram, an Okuda and a PichiAvo. Big-city stuff. But they also host Jill Stanton’s first street mural in her own hometown, as well as feature work from local breakout talent, AJ Lowden.
Given the handcuff history, you get the sense transitioning from graffiti anonymity to spotlight is a bit difficult for Peters. “The whole thing with graffiti is always being anonymous,” he says. “We really have that in our spirit. It’s like something that we have to break free from, for sure, especially doing the festival. We have to be public figures, so we have to kind of lose the whole allure and approach the culture from a different perspective.”
When graffiti artists grow up, they can either leave a city or create something special. Toledo and Peters elected to stay. Wane One, an original subway-car painter in New York who now consults for Nike and Sean John, was on the phone with questions. It was 2016 and Toledo and Peters wanted “older cats” like Wane One for their embryonic festival. “We got on the phone and he literally gave us like an interview that lasted three hours,” Peters says, grinning.
“What was our festival about? What did we want to do? Why did we reach out to him specifically?”
That call crystalized how they approached Rust Magic (named as an homage to the “rust magic” ingredient in Krylon, a spray-bomb brand). Wane One, who Toledo says remains the festival’s “biggest cheerleader,” suggested it needed artist talks to link with the history of street art. Beyond this, the couple decided painters would get full creative control.
In 2016, and then again in 2017, the two say they worked endlessly while artists often volunteered time in exchange for a plane ticket. They slept little. They struggled to keep their own business alive. After year two, when Rust Magic added 39 murals to the cityscape, an explosion of creativity that should have been a huge lift, they felt spent.
“We didn’t want to talk about it, we didn’t want to think about it,” Toledo says.
“It killed us,” Peters adds. Last year was a recovery, with Rust Magic adding eight murals. The couple crowdfunded larger profile projects to take a bit of the burden, too. That’s how the Okuda and the PichiAvo came together.
Controversy followed, too. A friend of mine calls the Okuda mural “wolf boobs,” while many others think it’s a bit too cheeky. Still others see in it a kind of Indigenous inspired artwork in a city that has whitewashed a lot of its own Indigenous history, a definite no-no.
Peters is sanguine, noting the offense was not intentional. “Whether it’s negative or positive, it’s the city talking” through art, he says. “We’ve never had that.”
What you might not expect is that finding street artists to paint in Edmonton is the easy part for Rust Magic. We have big, empty walls. “They’re very keen to come,” Peters says. Instead, the barrier is simple. Cash. “It’s about the funding.”
The Rust Magic collection now spans more than 40 murals. But the duo say there is still an expectation that artists should work for free, which other cities have moved beyond. From 2016 to 2017, for example, the City of Vancouver gave its mural festival a $300,000 grant. Meanwhile, art throughout Edmonton is often created as a result of a one-per-cent formula tied to new developments. Artworks pop up, reliably, but don’t always resonate. Peters, who’s now 43, says he feels the “burden” of educating the arts industry about why a mural festival matters, when, economically, it can be easier to just put up X amount of dollars and get a sculpture. He looks at Vancouver with a bit of envy. “If we had $300,000 for our festival we could make more of an impact.” Rust Magic will continue in 2019 in a scaled-down form, funded through personal money, crowdfunding and money raised at an upcoming gala.
Toledo says the growing pains are tough, but part of the process. “It’s obviously a very modern, young city that’s growing. There’s so much room for growth and innovation. The murals are in part celebrating that.”
And, as she opens up, it’s clear Rust Magic has created a foothold for the couple in a city that once treated their art as unwanted. “It’s given us a good reason to stay in Edmonton,” she says. “We talk about moving, all the time, because of the weather. The general consensus is that everyone wants us to continue and do more in Edmonton. I know we’ve added a lot to the city.”