Raccoons have been known to take up residence in window wells, hang out in backyards and, of course, feast on garbage cans. But have you ever seen one rob a bank, steal a van, smoke weed, or brandish a spray paint can? If you’ve walked past one of Emily May Rose’s dozens of large-scale murals, chances are you did.
The Toronto artist’s iconic raccoons can be seen doing mischief all over the city, in Queen and Broadview alleys, at West End breweries, on downtown bike lane dividers and in garages of Roncesvalles.
(Check out another Toronto artist painting the beating heart of the city.)
Rose, 28, says one of the purposes of her job is to poke fun at the town’s unofficial mascot – and people’s reactions to them. “They are stupid animals,” she said. “We have little bears running around the city stealing donuts from cafes.” His work takes their hijinks one step further, since no one has yet seen real raccoons steal a bike.
Rose grew up in Grimsby, about 85 kilometers south of Toronto. “Nobody at Grimsby was an artist,” she says. “I no longer had a practical career choice in mind. Before wanting to be an artist, I wanted to be a movie star. I went a little rock star. And then I decided that this famous artist was more practical and I went for it.
She moved to Toronto to study illustration at OCAD, and in her third year began making large-scale pieces. “It’s all your body painting,” she says. This led to his first transportation-themed mural with fellow student Heidi Berton at the University Triangle (University Avenue, Front Street and York Street) in 2015, commissioned by the Toronto Entertainment District Business Improvement Area and the Toronto Financial District BIA. “There’s something really satisfying about putting paint on a wall and making it bigger,” she says. “When someone sees your wall outside, it’s like a billboard for you.”
Now, Rose’s murals are a mix of city-funded projects and private commissions for residential spaces (like garages and sides of homes) and businesses.
Eventually, his murals lead him to another challenge: spray painting. “When I first started making them, I was just using household paint,” she says. “And I had friends who did more graffiti and murals.” Rose also didn’t want the spray paint look she thought the technique would bring, but friends insisted that spray painting could give a clean, crisp job – it was just plain bad.
Her competitive nature forced her to improve. She decided that her 12ft by 48ft mural – of train tracks, beer bottles, a rabbit, a raccoon and a locomotive – at the Halo Brewery on Wallace Avenue would be the one. that would help him conquer spray paint. “I think I cried three times,” she says of the 2016 commission. “Spray paint is actually really hard to master. But it was a good design to feel comfortable with. For some later murals, she hired assistants experienced in spray painting so she could get advice.
Rose and her raccoons have ventured a long way from Toronto. She had artist residencies in South Africa and Kosovo and participated in a graffiti festival in Bangkok. At first, she wasn’t sure her creatures would translate. “I was worried when I went to South Africa: ‘Are they going to get it?’ “, she says. “Then I realized that was a silly thing to think because I know what a lion is. When people asked me, I could tell them that Toronto was swimming with raccoons.
For the artist, raccoons are also a kind of self-portrait. “Taking my raccoons to other cities is like I’m the raccoon that goes to other cities,” she says.
Rose’s art is not limited to murals. Her work includes editorial illustrations for the TTC’s 2020 Driving Guide, clothing, installations commissioned by Lululemon and Grolsch, and even tattoos — she designs them and her boyfriend Spenny Watts, of The Blind Tiger Tattoo, ink them. She also runs an online gallery, Northern Contemporary, featuring fine art prints by Rose and others.
Now that it’s mural time, Rose is taking orders and gearing up for another busy season all over town.
“I try to do things that relate to people,” she says. “If I paint and someone walks by, and they laugh or smile, it’s a successful mural.” And no matter what people think of them, “no one in Toronto is indifferent to raccoons,” she laughs.
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