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Local Artist Behind Toronto's Iconic Raccoon Murals Says They Are A 'Self Portrait'

"I relate to the raccoons, and I think a lot of people do."

Toronto Staff Writer
Emily May Rose painting. Right: An Emily May Rose mural.

Emily May Rose painting. Right: An Emily May Rose mural.

If you've wandered through Toronto recently, you may have spotted one of Emily May Rose's murals tucked away in an alleyway or front and centre by Yonge-Dundas Square.

The 28-year-old local artist has been papering the city since 2015 with over 100 murals, many of which feature her signature mischievous raccoons – a beacon and well-loved mascot of Toronto.

Raccoons plague Toronto with their curious antics and almost human-like proclivity for getting into trouble. Still, city dwellers seem to find them lovable, and maybe that's why May Rose takes inspiration from her teenage years.

"A lot of the themes in my work are kind of like getting up to no good," May Rose told Narcity. "A lot of them [her murals] are kind of just based off of like me and my friends as teenagers."

In May Rose's art, she leans into the animal's playful personality and often features them misbehaving with a bottle of spray paint in hand as they tag a wall or smoking under a streetlight.

"It's funny like we have these weird little brown bears running around the city, getting up to no good. That's hilarious! So I just like to emphasize that and exaggerate it in my work, and I mean, I'm just trying to make images that are funny and make people smile."

Raccoons have become May Rose's calling card, and she says she views them as a "self-portrait" of sorts.

"I relate to the raccoons, and I think a lot of people do. I think that's the reason a lot of people connect with my work."

"They're having a ball, running around in alleyways staying up all night. Dark circles around their eyes – we're very alike," she laughed.

How raccoons became all the rage

In her third year of illustration at OCAD University, May Rose drew a group of animals riding a tandem bike for an assignment. She included a small burgundy raccoon in her art, and the little creature slowly became a staple in her work.

An assignment May Rose made during her time at OCAD: various animals ride a tandem bike.An assignment May Rose made during her time at OCAD: various animals ride a tandem bike.Emily May Rose

"As I kept doing illustrations and stuff, my work got more personal with more like kind of urban themed because I'm living in Toronto. So the raccoon started making like a few more appearances, and then it kind of stuck."

Rose's art struck a chord with people, and she was able to work as an artist full-time before even graduating from OCAD University in 2015.

"I was just doing everything. I was putting my art on as many things as I could," she said. The artist made her own products like stickers and t-shirts and sold them in markets.

May Rose said that she "responded to every call for submissions that existed. I would just sit at my computer googling calls for submissions in Toronto or Canada."

"I got a lot of rejections, but every once and a while, I got a bunch of yesses, and it just sort of snowballed after a while," she added.

These days most people reach out to Rose for her work which can be found all over Toronto on garage doors, in backyards, on the side of buildings and in commissions for companies like Tim Hortons and Guinness.

Although being a recognized artist wasn't always her plan. "My first choice career was a movie star. I fell back on a famous artist," she concluded.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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