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Deep Dives

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

The exterior of the art squat 888 Dupont
A view of the exterior of the art squat 888 Dupont, with windows covered in grafitti

WHERE THE WILD THINGS WERE

At 888 Dupont, the rent was dirt cheap, the rules were nonexistent and the parties were legendary. Now, with demolition underway, former tenants share their wildest memories of the city’s most storied art squat

photography by nathan cyprys

The interior of 888 Dupont before it was demolished

Once demolition is complete, TAS will begin construction on a 155-unit apartment building

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

DUPONT STREET has had more lives than an alley cat. The site’s first building, a yarn factory, opened in 1921. Next came a print-and-paper company. Then, during the Second World War, the British enlisted the space to build a wood-framed bomber dubbed the “Timber Terror.”

Over the next several decades, 888 took on multiple forms, variously manufacturing brooms, furniture and boats. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when a retired mechanic named Karl Nodel bought the building, that 888 began to take on a mythical status among the city’s artists.

According to former tenants, Nodel appreciated eccentricity and primarily rented to creative types. Officially, tenants were allowed to work, but not live, at 888—but almost everybody ignored that rule. Also: rules in general. That and the dirt-cheap rent are what made 888 so appealing. Painters, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, outlaws and outcasts piled in. They made art, and in between, they partied.

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That era began lurching to its end in 2017, when Toronto developer TAS bought the dilapidated site with eventual plans to build a live-work apartment complex in its place. As demolition nears completion, we reached out to dozens of former tenants and asked them to tell their stories. In the pages ahead, their eulogies—sometimes outrageous, often hilarious, always cinematic—for the city’s last affordable art haven.

Danny Almeida

COMMERCIAL FURNITURE SALES

Years: 1995–1997

Units: 300 and 303

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Rent: $700 (unit 300),

$850 (unit 303)

Rosa Halpern

FASHION DESIGNER, BY THE NAMESAKE

Years: 2016–2020

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Unit: 207

Rent: $1,400

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“MY BROTHER CHARLIE and I moved into 888 Dupont together in 1995, just before my 19th birthday. The whole third floor had previously been a printing house, and it had a very thick concrete floor so they could run a forklift back and forth. The owner, Karl, gave us a few months of free rent in return for sealing up the big doors, which were basically holes in the wall for driving the forklift through. Our unit had a service panel for power, hot and cold water, and one drain—that’s it. The rest of our space was just the remnants of the factory.

We decided to make money throwing parties. We both had good networks, and Charlie had run club nights and promoted parties before. To leave as much floor space as possible for partying, we built loft rooms up on stilts. Our living room was a stage that was 14 feet wide and 11 feet deep. I had my DJ equipment in my loft, and underneath the stage were subwoofers and speakers. It was incredible.

One night about six months after moving in, we threw a party with three bands—including Hevs Duties and Fast Molasses. A university-radio DJ announced on air that, after his set, he was going to a party at 888 Dupont. I had gone out to make a liquor run, and when I returned, there was a lineup from the third floor, down the stairs, outside and around the corner into the parking lot of an IGA. We had 450 people in the warehouse that night, probably in violation of every fire code imaginable. We charged a $5 cover. That was a good night.

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We threw parties all the time, almost every weekend. The DJs were whoever wanted to bring their records—so sometimes there was dance hall and sometimes goth industrial music. It was a real mix. We made a lot of trips to Kinko’s to print flyers. Sometimes 200 people would show up and the party would go all night long. If the crowd was smaller, we’d head out to find an after-hours to go to. The early ’90s were huge for the whole after-party scene, and 888 was part of that.

We weren’t allowed to sell alcohol, but we had a workaround. A cousin of mine worked at Planned Parenthood, and she would bring us shopping bags full of condoms. People would buy them and then trade them for alcohol at the bar. And if you happened to meet someone at the party, guess what, you were prepared.

The fourth floor, above us, was quiet. Several artists lived and worked up there. The landlord was playing fast and loose with the zoning, so people had been living there for quite a long time. There was also a clothing factory where they made T-shirts and sweatshirts.

On the main floor, connected to a backyard, was Ron’s Bike Shop, which was a very popular courier hang-out. There was also definitely drug-dealing on that floor, which was really a subfloor. You could get pretty much anything you wanted there, but people in the building were mostly just smoking pot and doing some coke here and there. And there was one summer of LSD, when everybody was doing acid.”

Rosa Halpern

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FASHION DESIGNER, BY THE NAMESAKE

Years: 2016–2020

Unit: 207

Rent: $1,400

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“I HAD MOVED back to Toronto from New York a year and a half before moving into 888, and when I first stepped inside, it felt more like an old building in Brooklyn than somewhere in Toronto. It represented freedom to me.

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When my now-husband and I moved in, we were living the artist’s dream. We were both creatives in a new relationship, with this blank canvas of an apartment to build whatever we wanted. My husband, a carpenter and contractor, drew up technical building plans for the loft he wanted to construct in the space, and when he showed them to Karl, our landlord, Karl said, ‘Well, you would know better than me whether this will stand.’

We were frequently visited by mice and bugs. Every single unit was very DIY because there was no real infrastructure. Each floor had a communal bathroom. Some people built their own bathrooms in their units, but they all had to be elevated—water needs to drain down. In ours, you walked up these little stairs and there were wooden saloon doors leading to the toilet. In other units, you had to climb a ladder to go to the toilet.

People were partying, making art, making music, every hour of the day and night. The price of rent allowed people to live and work as creatives. People ask me all the time why I didn’t stay in New York, and the answer is because I could never have afforded a place like 888 Dupont there. That was the kind of space I needed to breathe life into my brand: a place where I could have industrial sewing machines running throughout the day, hammering on leather, and nobody would ever say anything. It was a huge space with few rules, and if you’re a creator, that’s exactly what you want.”

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat
The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat
The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

Lindsay Duncan

PHOTOGRAPHER

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Years: 2018–2021

Unit: 401

Rent: $2,200

“When I rented my studio at 888 Dupont, it felt like the last opportunity to be a part of this incredible community of artists. The building had already been earmarked for condos, and the lease had a demolition clause in it, but you could still feel a really special energy in there. When I moved in, the floors were covered in layers and layers of paint, in every colour you could imagine, and had pieces of exacto knives cemented in them. I ended up painting the whole thing—floors and walls—white. The natural light that streamed into my unit was famous. It was a fourth-floor space with west-facing windows. I still remember the first time I set foot in the place, for the viewing. It was 6 p.m.; the sun was setting; and I had never seen anything like it. The old factory windows would cast these checkerboard patterns across the floor. It was beautiful.

I hosted an Easter dinner for 30 people there in 2019, because no one had a dining room big enough to host that many people. It was the first time my boyfriend, now fiancé, met all my friends. One person carried a turkey up four flights of stairs because the elevator didn’t work. During the pandemic, I wasn’t shooting, so I gave my friend Matt Mays the keys, and he wrote an entire album in that space. But, by the end, it really wasn’t safe. There were exposed wires in the bathroom, and I got electrocuted once. Another time, someone plugged in too many things and the outlet melted down the wall. Still, that studio legitimized my life as an artist. Coincidentally, I recently lost another studio because the owners were jacking up the rent by 90 per cent.”

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Owen Pallett

MUSICIAN

Years: 2007–2012

Unit: 103

Rent: $1,200

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Joel Richardson

ARTIST AND FILMMAKER

Years: 1991–1997

Units: 102 and 302

Rent: $560 downstairs, $800 upstairs

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The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“I LEARNED about 888 Dupont through Will Munro, the Toronto artist and queer activist who founded the Beaver. I would go visit him when he was living there. It would be a lot of fruity gays trying on Will’s clothes, listening to records and getting high. At the time, I had been living with my then-boyfriend, Patrick, in the tiniest apartment imaginable at the Tip Top Lofts. So, when Lauchie Reid of Team Macho, the artist collective, vacated his place, we moved in.

Our unit was in the basement. We had a row of windows at shoulder level. Our bedroom was dimly lit, and I had a studio that was entirely in the dark. The whole floor had been painted to look like cheesy fake medieval stone, and the colours were brown and puke. It was almost like a creative jail. At the time, the neighbourhood felt like a wasteland. We had to bike to go anywhere because it was a 15-minute walk from the subway.

There was a local bar called the Gem where I would go and have pints, but other­wise there was nothing to do in the neighbourhood, so it created a certain single-minded focus on work. It was the first time I had enough square footage to be able to use my living area as my workspace. I put out an album in 2010 and was able to do much of the recording at home. I had an entire room filled with my instruments and kept my piano in the main area. Team Macho lived down the hall, so I’d go over and take smoke breaks there and watch them play the video game Dark Souls.

Because I had so much space, I would often host bands coming through town. Max Tundra came and stayed with me before he went on tour doing support for Junior Boys. I put him up in my studio, and he really vibed with the space in the same way I did. He just stayed in that room working and sleeping the whole time he was there. Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound stayed at my place when he was in town. Whenever anyone stayed over, they’d ask what we do for breakfast. So we’d walk 20 minutes over to the grocery store and buy some muffins. I don’t remember anyone being disappointed.”

Joel Richardson

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ARTIST AND FILMMAKER

Years: 1991–1997

Units: 102 and 302

Rent: $560 downstairs, $800 upstairs

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“IN 1992, I had just come back from Israel, and I was super depressed. I ended up in a mental hospital in Guelph for a time. When I left, I got on a bus to Toronto and looked for places in the back of NOW magazine. That’s how I found 888 Dupont. I moved straight from the mental hospital into that building—and there were many similarities between the two.

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There were a lot of people there with strange philosophies. I met someone who told me they were a time traveller and that their father was a pharaoh of Egypt. More than one person told me they were from outer space. There were people selling weed and loads of LSD.

 

For the most part, the people who lived there were from humble means. At the time, 888 was the cheapest-per-square-foot studio space in Toronto, and there were a lot of artists living there. There were visual artists and a lot of great musicians and DJs. There were people in the movie business. A group of Rasta musicians and poets from Grenada lived in the basement. There was a Jamaican record label next to me on the third floor. And there was a really good trumpeter and some rock and roll guys. It was very guerrilla and grassroots.

 

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There was one guy, Movie Martin, who was in the film business. But he was one of the only people I knew there who had a full-time job. People mostly paid their rent by hustling or doing odd jobs. People would often throw “rent parties” to make money.

 

A lot of us didn’t go to university, so this was our university. There were lots of people to talk to about your work. The community was supportive and would give you valuable (though at times biting) criticism. I would paint all the time. Even when I was hanging out with people, I would be painting. People would come over and I’d do sketches of them. Then I’d do paintings from the sketches. I painted dual murals on the rooftop with Dubai-Canadian artist Fats Patrol. I developed a tight bond with the neighbourhood and painted two more major murals on Dupont Street—my iconic suits with halos, based on the Black-Scholes equation. It was a very creative time for me. 888 Dupont is where I came of age as an artist.

 

I also lived there during multiple SWAT raids. The first one was when someone robbed a gun store and then briefly hid out at one of the basement studios. A lot of the cheaper units had no washrooms, so I came out to go to the shared washroom and there was the SWAT team, all wearing gas masks, pointing their guns at me and telling me to go back inside my place. Then there was the time when my friend Charlie Almeida and I were up on the roof shooting targets with his pellet gun. The building backs onto train tracks, and the week before, somebody had actually shot at a train in Toronto. Suddenly, there were 20 police cars and police swarming the building. In the end, it was almost comical. As the police were coming into the building, I went to meet them and try to diffuse the situation. We were all handcuffed anyway, but there were no arrests.

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The building is so special to me. I’m still friends with a number of artists and characters from 888. Because Charlie and I had met there, we wanted to commemorate our love for the building. So, on the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the millennium—08/08/08—we branded each other, at eight o’clock, with four-inch-tall 8s, which we burned into our arms using two pieces of steel pipe. We cut the pipe in half, held it together with a vise, put it over a camping stove, got it red hot and away we went.”

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

Winston Hacking

DIRECTOR AND ANIMATOR

Years: 2008–2012

Unit: 108

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Rent: $1,300

“888 Dupont was filled with a bunch of interesting, unusual people. I lived there with my friend Brett Long. We had a DIY production studio and artist collective called Exploding Motor Car, and we made our living doing puppeteered music videos and stop-motion animation commercials, back when there was funding for that kind of thing. We would get several MuchFACT grants and spend our time in the studio coming up with these really elaborate projects. We did a music video for this indie rock band called Zeus where we made puppets of the band members out of food and then had like fifty dogs run loose in the apartment and attack them. For Timber Timbre, we built an underwater scene using flour and spray foam. For three months after that, we kept finding flour dust everywhere.

Living in this affordable space allowed us to be playful, take chances and be inspired by the people who were all around. I went to film and animation school, but that was nothing compared to what I learned from being around other artists and musicians. By 2012, Toronto was getting a little bit more expensive, so I moved to Montreal for a change of scenery and to find the next bit of inspiration.”

Taylor Gesner

PROGRAM MANAGER

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Years: 1997–2001

Units: 108, 105, 303 and 102

Rent: $600–$1,200

gOgO K’necht

ART COLLECTOR

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Years: 1993–1998

Unit: 206

Rent: $700–$900

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“I WAS A DJ at a bar on Church street when I moved into one of the basement spaces at 888 with a roommate. It was large and beautiful but also raw and super dusty. We put a lot of work into it. My roommate had his father come in and do some plumbing so that we had a decent sink and shower set-up.

We didn’t have a lot of parties—and I don’t recall many from my time there—but the people who lived there before us must have, because people would come and knock on the windows at all hours asking for a guy called Dreads.

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Eventually, my girlfriend and I decided to move into another unit in the building. It was smaller, but it had also been fitted out by the couple who had been living there. There was a little bit more of a…let’s call it a kitchen. The bathtub was in the living room, and the washroom was more like a water closet. We put in a tiny little loft, and you had to keep your head down to get into bed, but it was great for two people.

Then, a few months later, we had the opportunity to move into a bigger space on the third floor. This one had a proper washroom—more or less. To get to the toilet, we had to walk up a few steps. Some people call their toilet a throne, but this one really felt like that. We also had an illicit washing machine, which we camouflaged with blankets or boxes every time Brad, the building manager, came around. He probably knew that we had it—he was pretty wise to most people’s tricks—but he would pretend he didn’t see it.

The artist who’d lived in the third-floor unit before us was a really creative guy. He’d built these oddly shaped pods as the rooms—there was hardly a right angle anywhere in the unit. The floors were square, but then the walls would go off in weird directions, and they were built on three different levels. We used one of the pods for a bedroom and another as a giant, luxurious walk-in closet. Even for that space, we were only paying $1,000 a month rent.

After my relationship ended, I needed a smaller space to live on my own, so I moved back down to a basement unit. The space was small and largely unfinished, and the guy before me must have had a motorcycle or fixed engines in there, because there were oil stains on the floor.

When I lived at 888, there were also two active textile factories, which you’d notice if you were walking by and the door was open. There were a whole bunch of people, mostly women, in the space working sewing machines. I think they were making those really cheap T-shirts that you used to see at Honest Ed’s—like $2 shirts.

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I went back for the last party in 2021. It was great. It was in one of the biggest spaces. A couple of electronic musician friends of mine were performing at the event, and there was a dance floor. It really felt like something from back in the day, when there were massive warehouse parties in Toronto all the time.”

gOgO K’necht

ART COLLECTOR

Years: 1993–1998

Unit: 206

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Rent: $700–$900

“IN 1993, I lived at Davenport and Ossington, so I passed 888 Dupont on my bike all the time. I had some friends living there, and when I got word that someone was leaving, I jumped on their unit. I was 31 and had recently come back from trips to Asia and Africa.

Besides the fact that it was one of the cheapest big places you could get in town—I paid around $700 a month—the building was also famous because everyone knew you could buy drugs there. I never went down to the basement because it had this really weird smell from drugs. I’m not even sure what the drugs were, but it wasn’t just pot. On my floor, there were nice quiet people who kept to themselves.

I’m a collector, so I loved having all the wall space to put everything up. It was a huge place, and it had very high ceilings, which I covered almost every inch of with art, found objects, belts, jewellery. I had a lot of fabrics and crafts and sculptures I brought back from my travels. There was also art made by friends, including Kurt Swinghammer, Fiona Smyth, Erella Ganon and Bill Wrigley. And then there was a bunch of different pop culture items, like merchandise from the movie E.T., toy sewing machines, old board games, Raggedy Ann dolls and tons of other stuff I picked up at garage sales. People called it the gOgO museum.

I lived there alone, and I never built anything in it. So there were no rooms, not even a bathroom—just a wide open space. Right in the middle of the room was a toilet and a shower. When anyone came over, I’d have to turn around while they used the toilet, or else they’d have to go to the shared washroom down the hall.

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On one side of me was a sewing factory, and I could hear the machines and people speaking Chinese, and behind me were the train tracks. So there was all this low-frequency oscillation in the background, like the hum a fridge makes, and I always slept really well there.

When I lived there, I worked in media relations for a virtual reality company called the Vivid Group—or as I liked to say, I did VR PR. I also wrote for a technology art magazine called Cyberstage, run by Mark Jones, who was head of Seneca’s media program at the time. We’d have editorial meetings at my place.

I didn’t have a lot of parties, but once a year I threw a big party on my birthday, and hundreds of people would come. I knew a lot of people from hanging out in the ’80s and ’90s, doing art things and promoting raves. This was before Facebook and Instagram, so I’d just invite people by phone. At the time, Bell had this thing where you could make lists of people and record a message and it would send that message out to the entire list. That service didn’t survive the internet, but it was fun while it lasted.

I left 888 in 1998, after I got married. In 2021, when I heard that the landlord was selling the building, I went to the last party. It was in the outside space that faces the supermarket, and Keith Mustachi, this groovy young kid, was deejaying. I went up to my old space and saw that it was being used by Andrea Shahara Kong, who does really cool art projects. And I thought it was great that, so many years later, my old space was being used by someone like her.”

A studio at 888 Dupont before it was demolished

888 Dupont was old, cheap and full of light, which is exactly why artists loved it

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Nicholas Di Genova

ARTIST

Years: 2005–2021

Units: 107, 110 and 112

Rent: $433 (unit 107), $350 (unit 112)

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Pete Nickson

SUPERINTENDENT

Years: 2002–2018

Unit: 101

Rent: $867

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The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“I WORKED at Curry’s art store with Nick Aoki of Team Macho, the artist collective, which is how I found out about 888. I moved in on April 1, 2005, which was my birthday and also the day I graduated OCAD. I had been to the building a couple of times before, to pick up a key or to go to a party, and it seemed like every open door was a different portal—like you were in a very lively, unknowable art organism with interesting things being made.

I lived with two of my co-workers at Curry’s, Aaron Hill and Matt Vincent. We were each paying $433 a month, and to figure out who paid the extra dollar in rent, we’d play a three-person game of Mario Kart at the end of each month. I left in 2006 for half a year to go to Italy. When I came back, the next-door neighbours, Team Macho, told me I could pay $50 a month to live under their ping-pong table. There was no mattress, so I would have to wait for the last person to go to bed and then drag the futon from the video game couch under the ping-pong table. I did that for four months, then a bedroom opened up in that studio, so I moved into it for $350 a month.

The studio didn’t have vermin, but it was filled with clutter. We were a bunch of artsy, curious boys in their 20s finding things on the street, bringing them inside, then never taking them outside again. We would leave the window open and lean out of it to smoke cigarettes. We were at street level, so people would jump in and out of the window, using it as a door. It was a very drop-in kind of place. People would come stay from out of town or live there for a short amount of time. There were six of us using the space, and we always had someone visiting.

Karl, the owner of the building, was an incredible person. He was a retired mechanic who ended up buying a few buildings in the city with his brother. He wasn’t necessarily a cheerleader for the arts, but he was a pleasant guy who always seemed to want to be accommodating. On one occasion, I swore I’d paid rent in cash, but he had no record of it. In the end he was just like, ‘Okay. I don’t think you’re lying to me.’ I don’t think he raised our rent the whole time we were there.

I can think of two dozen artists who went through that building and are still working as artists in the city. There’s probably hundreds more. 888 represents a time that I don’t think we’ll ever have in this city again.”

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The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

Pete Nickson

SUPERINTENDENT

Years: 2002–2018

Unit: 101

Rent: $867

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The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

Long-time superintendent Pete Nickson was known for letting his many reptiles roam free

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“I VISITED 888 many times before I lived there. Some of my musician friends lived in the building, and I would go there to jam with them and record—mostly rock songs. In 2002, I moved in, and soon afterward, the owner, Karl, made me the super, a job I did right up until we were all kicked out in 2018.

The place catered to eccentric self-made artists—although some of them had big ambitions and went on to do big things. Lauchie Reid and his art collective, Team Macho, lived there. Their place was organized chaos. They had built some little rooms, but the rest of the space was just a huge studio. Lauchie would work on paintings for months, and his work just blew me away.

There were some actors who lived there, like Jefferson Brown, who was my neighbour across the hall. And there was a book editor who used to work with Leonard Cohen. There were musicians, music teachers, computer guys, someone who built cabinetry. There were also people who had day jobs but just enjoyed living in the 888 community.

A lot of people knew me for my reptiles. You would walk into other studios and see crazy art, but with me it was lizards—and I didn’t lock them up. When I moved in, I had around 40 or 50 lizards, and having a big space definitely suited my needs. While I was there, I had frilled dragons, bearded dragons and chameleons. I also had some snakes, including ball pythons—which are super friendly—an Amazon tree boa and a Brazilian rainbow boa.

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The frilled dragons were the biggest. Some of them were three feet long, although half of that is their tail. They can walk on two legs, and the frill around their head pops out like a big flower. My bearded dragons are similar to having a cat or dog as a pet—they’re trained and very sociable.

Besides one or two people who were shy around reptiles, my neighbours loved my lizards. We used to do this annual loft crawl, where people would go from unit to unit and the host would serve hors d’œuvres and a special drink. When people would come to mine, there’d be bearded dragons walking around—in enclosures so no one would step on them—and chameleons crawling on the ceiling. When I’d have people over to jam and record music, the lizards would love it. They’d bob their heads to the beat.

I know that a lot of drug deals used to take place in the building, but that wasn’t the case during my time. We still had parties, but nothing too crazy. I did have to shut one down every once in a while when they got out of hand. That wasn’t the most pleasant part of my job. Sometimes, I’d have to take my baseball bat and go encourage people to leave. But it was all to protect the people living in the building. Sometimes you have to be an asshole to keep the dicks in line.

We did a lot of fun stuff together as a building. We’d have cooking competitions sometimes. One time a few of us made ribs and four people judged. And we’d have water fights. Everyone would load up water balloons and bring out their squirt guns and Super Soakers into the back yard. If I felt outgunned, I could just open the door to the boiler room and bring out the hose.

Karl was a good landlord. He gave people good spaces that were affordable. He loved dealing with all these eccentric people and artists. It was a business, of course, so he’d boot people out if they didn’t pay their rent, but he was always open to people using the building for what they loved. He liked the little guys trying to make something of themselves.”

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The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat
The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

Yi Shi

TATTOO ARTIST

Years: 2019–2021

Unit: 112

“Up until 2019, I was working at a tattoo studio in downtown Toronto. Two of the people I worked with quit to start a trans and queer tattoo collective that was later relocated to 888 Dupont, which they called Tapestry Collective. At the time, it was one of the first queer-owned and -operated tattoo studios in the city, and I joined it shortly afterward. We mostly took on queer clients—people who often didn’t feel safe in traditional tattoo spaces. In an all-queer environment, we share a mutual understanding.

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At the same time, 888 had a very haunted vibe. To get to the studio, clients had to walk down a long industrial-looking hallway with cables and tubes everywhere. At some point, the lights in front of our studio started blinking. It felt like a horror movie. Sometimes you would find cockroaches and so many different bugs—bugs you didn’t see anywhere else. But it was also very DIY and affordable, and after working at a street shop for so long, I thought, This is freedom. This is what art should be.

 

When you walked inside our studio, the atmosphere was suddenly totally different—a very warm, bright space. There were a lot of plants, and because we had a lot of sun in the afternoon, the plants would grow really well. We painted the wood floor a yellow called ‘spicy mustard.’ We were facing west, and every now and then, when I would work late, the afternoon sun would shine into the studio. Sometimes, after work, we’d climb the ladder to the roof. There was someone in the building who would always be playing jazz, and we’d listen to it while watching the sunset.”

Jeremiah Fisher

DESIGNER AND PRINCIPAL, MANUAL ARTS

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Years: 2018–2021

Units: 205, 206 and 208

Rent: $8,000 for three units

Greg Wong

PHOTOGRAPHER, BURLESQUE PERFORMER

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Years: 2010–2018

Unit: 218

Rent: $1,500

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“TEN YEARS AGO, I would walk by 888 Dupont and think about how I would do anything to have a studio in that building. In 2018, my business needed more space, and my broker said, ‘Let’s go to 888 Dupont.’ I thought there was no way, but it had just been purchased by the new owners, TAS, and most tenants had been kicked out, so I had free choice of any units I wanted.

We used one unit as a full-time design office, another as a massive woodworking and fabrication shop, and another as a living space. We weren’t technically allowed to live there, but we were a tenant in good standing, so it was basically don’t ask, don’t tell.

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I’d step out our door, and the next thing I knew, I was talking to an artist or a potter or a photographer. Everyone was always cross-pollinating, and being able to keep up with what others were working on was really valuable. It almost seemed like, no matter what we did, we were untouchable. We would throw huge bonfires outside any time we wanted. We had large parties and social gatherings that I assumed would get shut down, but they didn’t. My friend wanted to build an RV home, so he set up in the parking lot and worked on it for a year, and no one bugged him. Everyone could sense the raw creative possibility, that end-of-the-world feeling where no one really cares what you’re doing, but you can sense the finality of it because you know it’s going away.

At the end, we held a huge series of what we called Doom Ball parties. They were pretty much a wake for the building, which turned into a wake for our friend Danil—a neighborhood legend who had been hanging around the building longer than most actual tenants and had passed away on the eve of the evictions—which turned into a celebration of the greater arts community in the area. People who had lived there for 30 years came out of the woodwork. I have no idea how the word got out: that was just the kind of serendipitous stuff that went on there. It ended up being really magical. Seeing so much history flying out the door created this really big energy.

One day, I looked out the window and saw 915 Dupont and decided that I was going to move as many of the artists at 888 as possible to that building. I created a subsidiary of my company called Dupont Arts and made a deal with the landlord, fully tenanting out that building with creative businesses. We had to bootstrap and finance the project and ended up building a lot of it ourselves. It cost half a million dollars because we couldn’t just move in like we did at 888—we had to renovate according to building codes, get permits, hire engineers and so on. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it to move 10 artists and 14 businesses into 915 Dupont at the end of the 888 era.

Still, it’s kind of heavy being at the same corner with 888 Dupont still standing. On the last day of everyone’s lease, we watched artists run across the street carrying all their paint and supplies. It reminded me of mice scurrying from one falling building to another. It was surreal.”

Greg Wong

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PHOTOGRAPHER, BURLESQUE PERFORMER

Years: 2010–2018

Unit: 218

Rent: $1,500

“BEFORE MOVING IN, I used to live nearby on Yarmouth Road, and I was always fascinated by 888 Dupont. The building was really mysterious. It just had an aura to it. I lived in the back part, which wasn’t accessible through the front entrance. We all shared the back garden and sat outside after work, having beers on the landing.

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We had a really good community of folks who were close to one another. It was a motley crew of tradespeople, arts workers, people with mental health issues, recovering hoarders, weird artists. It was a very social space. Most of us left our doors unlocked. We had an open-door policy. Any time anyone was having a party, you could just pop in.

Every two weeks, my former partner and I would throw a party. We’d pick a food, like pizza or cookies or sandwiches, and everybody would bring that food. There’d be loud music, and sometimes a dance party would break out. I wouldn’t say it was anything chaotic, but maybe my definition of chaotic is different from others’. At one point, my neighbors and I had the idea for a loft crawl, so we made a schedule of units to visit. Everybody would have a drink, go from unit to unit and see one another’s spaces. Some folks had trapdoors and secret rooms.

It takes a certain kind of personality to live in a space like 888 Dupont. You didn’t have any amenities. It was really dusty and falling apart. But most of us lived there because it was affordable and cool and you were around other creatives. There was a sense of communal living. Having a really large studio meant that I was able to work as an artist, a photographer and a dancer and be creative whenever I wanted.

We tried to bring people together and cultivate a really safe, sex-positive queer space. We hosted theatre events and had film shoots in the apartment. I’m proud of what we were able to do and the footprint that we were able to have in our community. I moved out in 2018, after the building was sold. My roommate and I found a similar wide-open space in the Village, but we’re now paying twice as much. A bunch of us are still in the same WhatsApp group, and every once in a while we get together. We still feel like neighbours.”

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

Tenants built their own bathrooms—always elevated so the water could drain down

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Gabriel Ting

OWNER, THE WANDERING WIT

Years: 2017–2020

Unit: 304

Rent: $1,500–$1,600

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“I moved into a studio at 888 Dupont around the summer of 2017. At that time, there were still some people living there, but the building owners were in the process of transitioning it so that everyone would be a commercial tenant.  I started my brand, the Wandering Wit, in that building. My brand specializes in jackets, hats, shirts. It’s a bit niche, and the focus is whimsical workwear. I probably wouldn’t have been able to grow my brand if I hadn’t found 888. I was 19 at the time, and I couldn’t afford most studios.

My studio mates and I picked 888 because it reminded us of an abandoned building in Japan. I’m not Japanese—I’m half Filipino, half Chinese—but most people who are into the type of fashion I’m into are influenced by Japanese designers. We felt like it was the perfect place for us.

The building itself was not very clean or organized, and when I was working there I felt like I was in hermit mode—I could really keep my head down and work. And the character of the building made me feel like I didn’t have to be commercial. There was a DIY feel to all the units, which fit with what I was doing.”

Alice Xue

PHOTOGRAPHER

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Years: 2015–2020

Unit: 400

Rent: $1,250

Shevon Lewis

PAINTER

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Years: 2018–2021

Unit: 112

Rent: $400

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“IN 2015, I was desperate to find a rental, so I was messaging everyone I knew. A random acquaintance reached out and told me he knew a guy moving out of a bachelor unit in the building. I went with my now-husband to go see it; we talked to the landlord, Karl; and we moved in the next week.

It was a nightmare to live there. I would wake up every night to the sound of cars speeding down Dupont. In winter, the water heater sounded like a dying cat. After a storm, water would pour into the apartment because of a leak in the roof, and the unit flooded on two separate occasions, soaking all our stuff. It felt like a greenhouse in the summer, and it was freezing in the winter because heat was constantly escaping from the windows.

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I had a model come by for a shoot once, and her family happened to make windows, and she told me the windows at 888 were illegal because of how bad they were for energy conservation. It was not a place where people were meant to live, and we moved out after a year, but I continued using it as a studio. In terms of my artistic practice, it was really where I found my footing and blossomed after university.

In a way, I owe my career to that building. The rent was decent since I shared the space with a few other photographers. The vibe of the building was wacky as hell—our building manager’s apartment was filled with lizards—but the angelic light made up for all of its quirks. It was wonderful working there.”

Shevon Lewis

PAINTER

Years: 2018–2021

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Unit: 112

Rent: $400

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat
The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“I ENDED UP at 888 Dupont because my thesis instructor at OCAD, Lauchie Reid, invited me to rent out part of his studio space. He had been there for almost 20 years, and they had never raised the rent. It was very punk, a bit grimy. There was a lot of fun exploration happening in the building. Lauchie told me that the studio used to be a prep kitchen, so it was really greasy and weird.

I ended up illegally squatting there for a bit. The building manager knew and was chill about it. At first, I used the space just as a studio, then due to a bad situation, I began sleeping on the floor. Then I started using my studio mate’s military cot. I eventually got a small fold-up mattress that I would put on the ground. I had to sleep with two-inch-long cockroaches crawling on the ground. It was not fun killing them. I eventually gave up and just made sure to not kill the hairy centipedes, because they eat cockroach eggs.

Lauchie bought a bunch of 2x4s from Canadian Lumber and made a table bed so I could hide the mattress from anyone doing inspections. I was able to be in the studio 12 hours a day, working, researching, writing, understanding my materials and diving into my artistic practice. I remember having 12-hour-long conversations with my curator friend Ben DeBoer. We would start out at a bar, end up at the studio and go until 6 in the morning. I think 888 Dupont was a really pivotal space for a lot of people because rent was affordable, which allowed artists to explore their practices in complex, organic ways instead of just trying to make as much money as possible.

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On my last day there, I left that mattress and table in the studio as a memorial. I don’t want to squat again. I knew I was ready to move on to the next chapter.”

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

Arash Moallemi

COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHER

Years: 2005–2020

Unit: 306

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Rent: $750, later $1,500

“EVEN WHEN I started going there, 888 Dupont felt very run-down. It was a crusty old building, but it had so much charm. There was a patina to everything. The wooden stairs on the side of the building had these grooves where hundreds of thousands of people had walked up and down over the years. All year round, we had this glorious light coming through.

A lot of commercial photo studios are these big, modern, clean white boxes, and this wasn’t that at all. It felt like what a studio should be: free. You could do stuff in there that nowadays would get you kicked out of a studio immediately—like spray toxic chrome paint inside. When I had clients come in, a lot of them would use the word homey. It was a very comfortable, creative space. The windows were single-pane glass, so in the summer it was hot and in the winter they would frost up, but that just added to the charm.

Once the old landlord, Karl, left the building, it took a turn for the worse. You could totally feel it. In the last two years, things started sliding. All of a sudden, there was an expiration date. While I did not like the idea, I had understood for a while that there would come a time when the building was turned into a condo. It feels inevitable in Toronto, sadly.”

Kathi Ziolkowski

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OWNER, KZM AGENCY

Years: 2017–2021

Unit: 302

Rent: $1,300

Jen Pilles

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OPERATIONS

MANAGER AT AKIN

Years: 2017–2021

Units: 100, 101, 102, 105, 110, 204, 212, 213, 214 and 215

The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat
The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat
The wildest stories from the legendary 888 Dupont art squat

“WHEN I MOVED KZM into 888 Dupont in 2017, I’d been in business for about 15 years. I’m a photo shoot producer, and I also represent photographers. Some of them worked in the building, which is how I found out about it. Since founding the agency, I’d moved from a building on Stafford Street to one in Liberty Village, staying at both those locations until we got notice that the buildings were going to be torn down. 888 was affordable because it was also going to be torn down, which they were upfront with me about.

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By the time I moved in, the residential tenants had moved out. I’d been to parties there in the past, and I knew that it had been a community of arts people. There’s not very many places like that left in Toronto, especially downtown.

I felt ambivalent about moving in, because someone had obviously been living in the unit I moved into for a long time, based on the date of his diploma from OCAD, which he left behind. There were vines glue-gunned to the ceiling. The whole unit was painted lime green and red, including over the windows, and it had a weird platform in the middle for seemingly no reason.

My husband and I gutted the unit and repainted it, and we polished the concrete floors. It was gorgeous. We were on the southwest corner, so you could see the sunset. It was the most romantic, beautiful building ever.

When I worked there, there were so many creative people in the building, and you’d run into people you worked with all the time. There were people who had a machine shop, clothing designers, older women who were rich and had painting studios. It was such an eclectic mix of people, but what we all had in common is that we were creative.”

Jen Pilles

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OPERATIONS

MANAGER AT AKIN

Units: 100, 101, 102, 105, 110, 204, 212, 213, 214 and 215

Years: 2017–2021

“Akin is an artist-run organization that was founded 15 years ago, focusing primarily on reducing financial barriers to studio space. We lease commercial units all across Toronto and fill them with artist studios. In order to keep operating in the city, we’ve had to adopt a nomadic existence. So we often occupy spaces before they’re going to be redeveloped into something else, for two or three or four years, and sublease them to artists on a month-to-month basis.

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We were in 888 Dupont from 2017 to 2021. We had space for 70 artists across ten units, and over those years, we had around 300 artists work there: painters, digital artists, printmakers, ceramicists, jewellery makers. We even had a stone carver in there for a time, but they had to leave because we couldn’t accommodate all the dust. The studios ranged from 25 square feet to 250 square feet, divided either by plywood or just tape on the floor.

Akin Ossington was unique because it was the first time we had what we called ‘light industrial studios.’ We had two units where artists could do woodworking, and we put a spray booth in for people doing spray-painting.

A lot of collaborations and friendships formed there. People would do pop-up events together. One of my favourites was a holiday market we did in 2018, which we held in collaboration with No Fun Press. Artists set up tables, and there was a huge pile of winter-clothing donations. We served food and alcohol. The artists got to make a little money, and they shopped from and swapped with one another.

For a while, there was a firepit in the place we called ‘the backyard,’ which was a little section at the back of the building with some gardens and a picnic bench. It was right by the train tracks, and it was secluded and private. People would go out there to smoke cigarettes or have their lunch. We often built fires in the pit, until the building management finally told us we couldn’t do that anymore.

The goodbye party for the building took place back there as well as by the loading dock. Akin, Manual Arts and TAS—the developer—teamed up to throw it. Even though it was during Covid, tons of people showed up with their masks on and there was live music and a lively community energy.

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Right now, it’s more important than ever for artists to have affordable working space in the city, and I think a lot of the communities that were at 888 are still doing their best to stay in that general area, on Dupont, Geary, Christie and Ossington. There are a lot of smaller organizations and galleries trying to make space for artists, but the commercial leases in Toronto are becoming unaffordable for everyone. Artscape is struggling, and CSI has said that it will have to sell one of its buildings. It is becoming harder and harder to secure affordable commercial leases in Toronto, and as a result, we risk becoming a city without artists.”

This story appears in the December 2023 issue of Toronto Life magazineTo subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here

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