The tofu-graffiti mystery
August 15, 2009 | Ryan Bigge | Toronto Star
I first noticed the strange four-letter word written in black spray paint in Liberty Village, during last year's Nuit Blanche. On the shins of three concrete plinths near the south end of the Lamport Stadium parking lot, in uppercase letters, was the word TOFU. It was simultaneously funny (what sort of miscreant selects soybean protein as their semiotic weapon?) and enigmatic (how best to respond to such a non-sequitur?) Still, it held my interest, despite having viewed an evening's worth of competitively creative contemporary art, so I took a quick photograph and forgot about it.
But it turned out that TOFU was not a one-off conceptual prank without a punchline. The word has appeared frequently on walls throughout the city during the last few months. The lettering might be small – polite by the standards of graffiti, though no less illegal – but the tagger has been persistent, depositing little blocks of TOFU throughout the west end: the Brock Street railway underpass, a street sign near Dundas and Brock, a storefront near Bloor and Ossington, a green pole in Trinity-Bellwoods. An occasional variation in colour (white and pink) and altitude (the tagger enjoys both horizontal and vertical lettering) is the only thing that separates the tags.
Then came the TOFU tipping point, when this curiosity went big. The rear brick wall of the public washroom in Fred Hamilton Park, adjacent to the bocce pit, was struck with a half-metre tall version of the word.
No longer ignorable, the outsized headline was a provocation that forced anyone who passed to try to wring meaning from a word that seems chosen for its ability to deflect any deeper meaning. As Toronto novelist Lilian Nattel wrote on her blog in late May, "what kind of streetwise graffiti-ist inscribes TOFU on the walls of park buildings?"
Perhaps the best way to analyze TOFU is to determine what it is not. It does not seem to be a street-level marketing campaign. Many advertisers use teaser campaigns that blend street art and advertising into something that is both and neither.
But it's impossible to believe someone would try to infuse this milquetoast substance with underground cachet and give the product some edge. (As a lapsed vegetarian, I've earned the right to speak insultingly about my bland white frenemy). And one word, repeated ad nauseam, is not likely to convince anyone to buy a block of herb tofu anytime soon.
As pure artistry, TOFU also fails – even if the paint is, as I hope, vegetable-based. Stylistically, it refuses to echo the curved, bubbly letterings of high-style graffiti. Being so unadorned, it cannot carry itself on style. And with but one simple word, it is lacking in substance as well. The decision to be vegan or vegetarian is often informed by political or ethical leanings. Surely a few more words are required to make a coherent argument.
Or perhaps not. Michael Portnoy set the low bar for vegan civil disobedience back in 1998, when he snuck onto the stage and danced shirtless beside Bob Dylan. Scrawled on Portnoy's chest, in black greasepaint, was the phrase SOY BOMB. Over a decade later, it's safe to say his plant-based protein bomb has yet to detonate.
While neither advertising nor art nor coherent political protest, TOFU has managed to cut through the textual clutter of urban life. The irony, of course, is that tofu absorbs the flavour of whatever it comes in contact with, blending into food like vodka in
Documented and puzzled over on Toronto blogs and Flickr accounts, the TOFU mystery has earned our attention, even as it frustrates an explanation.
Is it an acronym? The latest bit of slang? Yet another visible secret of urban life, like shoes draped over a powerline?
Through repetition and prominence, TOFU speaks silently to anyone willing to listen.