When Al Runt’s mural got smashed off Lee’s Palace to make way for a burrito joint, the pieces spread all over Toronto.
People fished deep in a dumpster by Lee’s to salvage chunks of Runt’s best-known work – a huge collage of cartoon creatures.
That was 2009, a year before the East End artist redid the face of the Bloor and Bathurst concert hall for a third, maybe final time.
It got bigger, grew more monsters, and this time Runt painted it on metal panels, not plaster.
“It’s an iconic piece of Toronto,” he says.
“Whether I like it or not.”
At 54, Runt, aka Alex Currie, is busier than ever. And his art is going to some strange new places.
This summer, Pabst Brewing will roll out Runt’s first beer can – an octopus strangling the Blue Ribbon logo. By fall, Huely will sell his first pair of socks.
On hundreds of buses, streetcars and subway trains rolling through Toronto, people can already find Runt’s creatures commuting across the front of the latest TTC Ride Guide.
“I was surprised they even hired me,” said Currie. “I thought they’d go for something a bit more boring.”
As a young punk growing up in East York, Currie did not cope well with boredom.
“I left here in 1980 vowing I’d never come back,” he said with a grin. “There was nothing here – it was just a bunch of hosers.”
At the time, Currie said the East End art scene had nothing on the galleries and punk shows sprouting up in the cheap real-estate left by the exodus of manufacturing along Queen Street West.
The rents changed quickly, but not before Currie got his start.
Currie was already 24 and working at a bar called The Cameron House when he started drawing cartoons.
He had two years of film school, but no formal art training when he started making side money by lettering sandwichboard signs for local businesses.
He did his first mural for a friend’s clothing shop in Kensington Market. It led to several more, from Lee’s Palace to Bamboo, another popular West End concert venue that has since closed down.
Like Iggy Pop, or his favourite Toronto punk bands The Ugly and The Viletones, Currie went for a simple style – one he cribbed from the pages of Dr. Seuss, Robert Crumb, and How to Draw Cartoons.
“It looked easy,” he said. “My style hasn’t really changed – I picked one thing and I liked it.”
Currie shrugs off the flak he sometimes gets from people who find his work too simple, or too repetitive.
“You can’t please everybody all the time,” he once told a Toronto fashion magazine.
“Well, I guess you could sell water – everybody likes water.”
As for anyone who calls his work “juvenile,” Currie is only too happy to agree.
While his Ride Guide cover shows cheerful monsters playing with subway trains and the letters “A to B,” much of Runt’s work is less family-friendly.
When Beach Metro News dropped by his Main Street studio, he was finishing a painting due to hang the next day at a 12,000 square foot King Street ping-pong bar.
It shows a fight between a giant blue robot and a red dinosaur swinging a TV on a chain. The robot is peeing all over the floor.
“I just think it’s funny,” Currie said. “It’s like poo-poo humour, fart jokes – I still find fart jokes funny.”
When Currie finally returned to the East End in 2001, he came for the un-funniest of reasons.
His mom was sick, and needed help at home. Currie moved in and looked after her as best he could. She passed away three years ago.
“She lived to 90, so she had a good run,” he said. “She did everything she wanted to do.”
With his Ride Guide flying around Toronto and a full-length documentary film coming out, Currie is hoping he’ll be able to say the same thing.
His mom left him the house, and it’s become a great place to work.
“We’ll see how long this lasts,” he said, waving at a small chalkboard by his front door. Right now, it’s filled with the names of people who have commissioned pieces.
Things haven’t always gone so well.
Currie quit art altogether for a few years in the early 2000s, and he went through a similar dry spell about a decade before.
The first time, Currie had just designed wrappers for a doomed candy line called Smiles and Chuckles.
“That bombed,” he said. “I think the next year I saw all my art work in Dollaramas.”
Right now, though, things are looking up, and the East End might even get a signature Runt mural of its own.
It’s not settled yet, but Currie said he hopes to paint one in the Gerrard India Bazaar. If he can find the time, Runt’s creatures could also be crawling all over the front of his Main Street house.
“Well, it’s my house,” he said, smiling. “I love being a homeowner.”
Correction: Al Runt’s real name is Alex Currie. This story has been edited to correct a misspelling of Currie’s last name.