With her dozens of raccoon-themed murals, Emily May Rose is on a mission to make Toronto laugh

Raccoons have been known to take up residence in window wells, lounging in backyards and, of course, partying in trash cans. But have you ever seen one rob a bank, steal a van, smoke weed, or handle an aerosol can of paint? If you’ve walked past one of Emily May Rose’s dozen large-scale murals, chances are you have.

The Toronto artist’s signature raccoons can wreak havoc all over the city, in alleyways at Queen and Broadview, at breweries on the west side, on downtown bike paths and garages at Roncesvalles.

(Read about another Toronto artist who paints the beating heart of the city.)

Rose, 28, says one of the goals of her job is to make fun of the town’s unofficial mascot — and people’s reactions to it. “They’re silly animals,” she says. “We have little bears running around town stealing donuts from coffee shops.” Her work goes one step further, as no one has yet seen real raccoons steal a bicycle.

Rose grew up in Grimsby, about 85 kilometers south of Toronto. “No one in Grimsby was an artist,” she says. “I no longer had practical career choices in mind. Before I wanted to be an artist, I wanted to be a movie star. I just switched to rockstar. And then I decided the famous artist was more practical and went for it.”

She moved to Toronto to study illustration at OCAD and in her third year began creating large-scale pieces. “It’s your whole body painting,” she says. That led to her first transportation-themed mural with fellow student Heidi Berton in 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 going big,” she says. “If 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 living spaces (such as garages and the sides of houses) and businesses.

Ultimately, her murals lead her to another challenge: spray paint. “When I started using it, I just used house paint,” she says. “And I had friends who did more graffiti and murals.” Rose also didn’t want the aerosol look she thought the technique would produce, but friends insisted that spray paint could result in bright, clean work — she was just bad at it.

Detail photo of raccoon themed muralist Emily May Rose.

Her competitive nature forced her to get better. She decided that her 12-by-48-foot mural — depicting train tracks, beer bottles, a rabbit, a raccoon, and a locomotive — in the Halo Brewery, on Wallace Avenue, would be the one to help her overcome 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 get familiar with.” For some later murals, she hired assistants with painting experience so she could pick up tips.

Rose and her raccoons have ventured far beyond Toronto. She had artist residencies in South Africa and Kosovo and participated in a graffiti festival in Bangkok. At first she wasn’t sure if her critters would translate. “When I went to South Africa, I was worried, ‘Are they going to make it?’” she says. “Then I realized that’s a stupid thing to think, because I know what a lion is. When people asked about it, I could tell them Toronto swims with raccoons.”

For the artist, the raccoons also serve as a kind of self-portrait. “When I take my raccoons to other cities, it’s like I’m the raccoon who goes to other cities,” she says.

Rose’s art is not limited to murals. Her work includes editorial illustrations for the TTC’s 2020 Ride Guide, clothing, commissioned installations by the likes of Lululemon and Grolsch, and even tattoos — she draws them and her friend Spenny Watts, of The Blind Tiger Tattoo, inks them. She also runs an online gallery, Northern Contemporary, featuring fine art prints by Rose and others.

Now that it’s murals again, Rose is taking jobs and gearing up for another busy season across the city.

“I try to make things that are recognizable to people,” she says. “If I’m painting and someone walks by, and they laugh or they smile — that’s a successful mural.” And no matter how people feel about them, “no one in Toronto is indifferent to raccoons,” she says with a laugh.

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