Where have Toronto’s caricature artists gone?

Pat James prepares his materials before drawing a caricature. PHOTO: Lara O'Keefe

At one time, Danforth resident Pat James operated a flourishing business in downtown Toronto, putting smiles on the faces of tourists and residents alike as he drew a cartoon likeness of them while onlookers watched.

But that was more than 20 years ago. In 2017, it’s a different story for street caricature artists, a group James laments is “near extinction.”

One could take his statement as one of resignation, but from this man still so passionate about his work, it carries heat.

“The unique style I have has not been noticed in a grand popular stage to make me obscenely wealthy,” said the 25-year veteran artist. “But [I love] what I do and the joy it brings others.”

James, who was originally trained in portraiture, began his career as a street artist in the early 1990’s, establishing himself first in Toronto at Yonge and Dundas square where he worked alongside at least 30 other artists. After spending 10 years at the famously tourist-filled intersection, he and the other resident portrait artists were removed from the area among fears from the city that the redevelopment of Yonge Street near the Eaton Centre would cause an influx of tourists, leading to an increase in pedestrian traffic and congestion.

It was that lack of assurance from the city that helped James make the decision to move to Old Montreal. But 15 years later, he is back in Toronto where the landscape looks much different than he had hoped with the sidewalks now largely void of street artists.

“This summer season I was the only artist drawing outdoors,” he said. “I can now definitively state with much regret that except for me, every other portraitist and caricaturist no longer draws anymore in downtown Toronto.”

In fact, according to city staff, there were two permits issued in 2016.

James believes there are a number of reasons for this new reality including higher permit and insurance fees, and poorly designated locations such as Bay and Front Street, York and Front Street,

Laracaricature
A caricature of Beach Metro reporter, Lara O’Keefe drawn by Pat James

and Queen Street West near Spadina and Peter Street – he says these areas are often windy, polluted, dangerous at times, and lack the tourists required to achieve success. “The current system is biased against street artist improvements and progress,” he said. “It is impossible for many artists to function and earn a reasonable income.”

Portrait and caricature artist James Gain, who studied Fine Arts at OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) after graduating from Malvern Collegiate began his career drawing on the streets of Italy.

He said it was shortly after returning home to Canada that he decided he would not be pursuing a career as a street artist.

“I decided to do caricatures because that’s where the money was at that time,” he said. “But to just set up in the streets, it would be very difficult. In Italy, people are very respectful, very understanding with their appreciation…[in Toronto] you have situations where people are coming and asking you for money.”

It’s issues like these that also cause problems for someone like Pat James, who relies largely on the money he makes from his portrait art to maintain a living.

“Seasonal workers like me, we depend on the income from the spring, summer, fall to get by. Different artists have different amounts of commitment … but for me, it’s like a good bulk of my annual income,” he explained.

James, like many of the caricature artists for hire in the city, has found some financial comfort in advertising his services online via his website, ono2funny.com and his Facebook page Toronto Caricature Guy, which are both routinely mentioned when people search online for caricature artists for parties. But that doesn’t stop him from wanting to right what he perceives as wrongs in his industry and the dwindling opportunities for street artists specifically.

“This isn’t just for me,” he said, explaining that he hopes changes to the system will allow new talent to try their hand at making a profit as an artist as well.

Under the current system, busker entertainers pay around $45 for their yearly entertainment permits, while a caricature street artist must pay around $500 for their permit, along with $2-million liability insurance annually.

In addition to this, an online search for insurance policies showed that the liability insurance would cost between $800 to $1,000. These can be steep startup costs for an artist who doesn’t necessarily have a full-time income to fall back on, or a full four seasons worth of income on which to depend.

Yet, because caricature artists fall under a category that is more similar to street vendors – anyone who sells what is defined as “foodstuffs” – they are required to pay higher fees, more in line with those selling consumable goods but who also fall under city food inspection bylaws.

This isn’t his only problem with the city’s bylaw enforcement agency. He says “the current system of bylaw enforcement patrols is negligent in not being consistent and vigilant,” and has noticed many cases of people getting away with operating without permits or operating outside of the guidelines for entire seasons, while other street artists and entertainers are hit with tickets and warnings in the same areas almost immediately.

According to Tracey Cook, executive director with the city’s municipal licensing and standards division, in 2016 the city received 100 complaints related to buskers (no complaints were received regarding portrait artists) and each one was investigated with notices or charges issued if the accused was found to be operating without a permit.

More than a year has passed since James returned to Toronto and began to question the current system. In his opinion, it’s worse than it was when he left 15 years ago to try his luck in Montreal. He has tried to get answers – first, by contacting every one of the 44 councillors in the city in a desperate plea for help – and believes he can provide needed input to city staff. But after numerous emails, phone calls and visits to city hall, he says his requests have gone mostly unanswered.

According to Ward 32 councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon it’s an issue of bureaucracy. “He wanted to depute last year on November 30, but you can’t depute something that’s not on the agenda. So you have to wait until it’s on the agenda and it comes to committee.”

The municipal licensing and standards office said there will be a review of the busking bylaws and permits in 2017/2018.

But unfortunately, McMahon said, no specific date has been provided to her office as to when this review will take place because the agendas are only sent out “a few weeks in advance.”

That 2017/2018 timeline for review, which James is eager to participate so he can share his story with officials, means James is likely out of luck for 2017. New permits are issued March 31, which means if changes are not made by that time he is in for another year of high costs and low earnings.

These difficulties are the reason he said most of the other artists have “given up.”

“This is embarrassing for the much-celebrated music and film industry cultivated in the City of Toronto,” he said. “Most other civilized arts-loving cities love visual artists in the public domain and have sectors of their popular visited locations dedicated to allowing dozens and scores of portrait and caricature artists to draw locals and visitors.”

This post has been updated.


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14 comments

Yeah I’m a caricaturist living in Toronto and I definitely don’t do retail (street art) here because of the higher fees. Occasionally I’ve drawn at Festivals, Farmers markets and City events but I mostly get hired to draw-by-the-hour at events (gigs) and take commissions. It would be awesome if we could have something similar to other european and even american cities. Many cities do not require you to pay any vendors fee’s so long as you only work for tips. Its a great work around because when explained to tourists what you do and when they see how long it takes they usually tip fairly, some more then expected, some lower, so it all averages out.

hi Sam,
Keep in touch with me through my website at ono2funny.com since I’m looking to build up a network of caricature/portrait artists who are dedicated artists seeking to raise their stature and respect as professionals in working in a public domain. The benefits of a non-busking permit is preferable as an artist would get what their efforts are worth and raise the status of the artist as their own separate entity. Buskers can thrive with tips if they perform admirably and have large crowds tipping them. People will pay artists what they’re worth properly; all that’s required are good artists, inexpensive affordable permits, and expertly selected assigned locations, and a proper set of policies attached.

The mayor and council ought to be fired. Caricature artists are mini magnates for residents and tourists alike. I’ve had one done before and reading about I will go downtown again with friends and family. Come on Toronto!

I agree, but some councillors are Mavericks and do stand up for the good fight as did the 9 who voted against Tory’s recent money-grab plot in the road-toll fiasco which has now been sunk. This will cost him and his band of supporters in the 2018 election. Keep in touch with me through the website contact at http://www.ono2funny.com and I’ll gladly keep you updated and arrange to draw your family caricatures 😀 Spread this story with your friends and online. Beach Metro has done a great introduction story on this issue and sparks an insight at what is corrupting the City Hall system.

I’m going downtown and get it done. I’ve had it done before and it’s a memorable piece. My kids will want it once I’m outa site. Come on Toronto.

Hello, this is Pat James, the featured artist of this excellent story by Lara O’ Keefe which robustly covers the debacle which has largely gone unnoticed – wherein dozens of artists who once brought joy to locals and visitors in downtown Toronto’s public domain have been driven away by the deplorable conditions and dismissive structures of the newer current permit system for public domain caricature/ portrait artists – established after the renovations at Yonge/Dundas necessitated their relocation.

I’ve entertained across Canada drawing caricatures and portraits for over 25 years – starting in downtown Toronto by the Eaton center at a time when 30+ artists could be found drawing there in the early 1990s. I drew caricatures in Old Montreal for 14 years and then recently returned to Toronto where I found the current permit system was now a shambles and the last of the few remaining artists gave up entirely.

In the past year I’ve made many efforts to connect with the MLSD ( Toronto’s permits/ policies/ enforcement system ) to vigorously correct this broken-down artist permit fiasco – I presented them with my own expert solutions – having the experience of knowing the most public-space friendly/workable areas in downtown Toronto and knowledge of superior efficient outdoor entertainment systems existing in Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec City.

Despite what they may claim or how they may try to redirect from the specific agenda, in what I believed was their…

Worst part is they really have no idea why they say ‘No’ or why they don’t properly structure workable policies. In this case Toronto City Hall loses money having driven off 20+ artists who used to get permits each year!!!. In my dispute so far I was amazed that the Toronto Integrity Commissioner actually declared that it was beyond their scope to investigate 2 councillors offices who I showed proof acted unethical in ignoring my urgent contacts to them with important City Hall related issues! That’s something I’ll be exposing to the public as I pursue my case further….. nonsense is prevalent where councils form oligarchies that are anti-citizen interests; Mayor Tory and those councillors who supported him on the road toll debacle got caught with their pants down trying to impose more financial burdens on citizens. Likely going to cost him in any future re-election – all because they conspired to satisfy themselves that they could get away with nonsense. They can’t if the people speak up loudly.

Hi Pat: I am planning to explore Montreal as a street caricaturist artist. I wonder why you moved back Toronto. I’ve read positive stories of the art community in Montreal. Please, send me you feed back. Thank you

Hi Hector, the situation for artists and buskers in Old Montreal is very confusing and not so glamarous. The City Hall ‘Cultural Division’ is a running the situation but are messing things up there as they’ve done for decades. The worst suffering are the buskers and also the painters/photographers have been hard hit after being lured into a disingenuous gentrification scheme which its leaders rather idiotically agreed to. The caricaturists and crafts artists remain the strongest groups there being more intelligently led and independently determined to oppose the many Cultural Division and local SDC ( BIA guild ) attempts to try and reduce their presence. Gentrification is a big sad spectacle ruining Montreal at the moment.. Despite a number of issues there you’ll find much local and tourist support for them far better than in Toronto which is not appreciative of artists as most first-class cities worldwide. I moved back because English as my first language here is stronger for me to expand and apply the superior more professional caricature activities I learned from my friends in Montreal. Also, as a nominated leader of the artist’s there I got fed up constantly confronting Montreal City Hall’s oppressive hassling of Old Montreal’s public domain entertainers. You can contact me via facebook at page; ‘ Toronto Caricature Guy’ or send your own contact info too there. I’m not here in this thread much so better to not reply through here again – use the mentioned option…

Pat….are you going to kingston/Belleville area at all. You did our family at playdium in Kingston but we need a new one….or .. I’ll find you in T.O. I suppose

Hi Scott; contact me through the contact details/options you will find at the website, “ONO2FUNNY” . Search for it online and you’ll find it easily

As a follow-up to this story. It is conclusive that certain top officials in the MLS&D policy-making section engaged in misconduct and sabotage activities; in the end, the repeated proclamations they made to everyone acting on my behalf in the mainstream news media, other City Staff members, councillors and the Mayor were all lied to with intent regarding the hoax and false idea given regarding a Fall 2017 Chapter 740/permits Preview.

In fact, the Fall 2017 Preview never happened, and when the MLSD Tracy Cook’s office was contacted, they glibly gave no reason why they lied and created the hoax.

As I had predicted and advised all my potential helpers for the past 2 years, the MLS&D officials involved were disingenuous all along – for which they will be held accountable through the system and in public exposure/ media. The Toronto Integrity Commissioner Office ‘internal watchdog’ actions in this matter has been nothing less than a discreditable farce too – proven so.

The lax and callous Ward 32 Councillor McMahon’s office will also be held accountable likewise since their dithering actions failed to represent me properly as a constituent in dutifully representing this disgraceful issue which has prejudiced against artists, cost the City thousands of dollars of lost revenue, and revealed the incredibly inept and dismissive attitude of most councillors and the Mayor in not representing the public or even the simple task of proper communications which in most…

2 years on – here’s the latest update to this story; In 2017 certain few City Hall officials sabotaged my own and many of their City Staff colleagues and Councillors efforts in helping me to to have City Council officially put in place a temporary remedy in the form of a light-weight version of a street portrait/caricature artist permit.

That roadblock was upended in April/May 2018 when the same coalition of myself and the same multiple Public Servant allies at City Hall repeated the action and there was careful monitoring the former saboteurs involved in 2017’s defiance of their required duties. This time the same mandate was officially sanctioned by Toronto Council.

Sadly, in the process of attempting to hold the one councillor’s office and the 2 City Officials accountable for wasting my time and that of their fellow City Staffers helping me, a stark unsettling reality revealed itself. The accountability processes at the Toronto Integrity Commissioner’s Office and Toronto Ombudsman’s Office were utterly inept and even tried to falsely dismiss my valid cases of unaccountability I brought to their attention.

The effort is still ongoing as I currently work with pro-Public agenda City Hall officials to achieve a proper set-up of a highly beneficial street artist program.

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