For many Torontonians, the rainbow tunnel on the east side of the Don Valley Parkway, approaching Lawrence Avenue East, is a beacon — a point of reference that tells us how close we are to home. For others, it’s a curious pop of colour on an otherwise frustrating commute.
Some assume the famous rainbow is a nod to the LGBTQ2 community, but the rainbow flag was popularized as a symbol of the gay community in 1978 by American artist Gilbert Baker. Toronto’s rainbow appeared first.
It was painted by a broken-hearted teenager named BC Johnson in 1971, after his friend, Sigred, died in a fiery car crash on the DVP, south of Lawrence Avenue East.
“Four o’clock in the morning, September 4. It was cold and wet and I looked at that tunnel and I said, ‘it needs a painting,'” said Johnson.
For Johnson, this memorial marked the one-year anniversary of his friend’s passing. Almost 50 years later, the artist still gets emotional talking about it.
“When her (Sigred) and I used to do walks here in the valley, she said ‘rainbows were smiles from heaven.'”
Johnson says the City would come and “take cement and grey it out,” but Johnson would return with his paint and brushes.
Over the years, the rainbow tunnel was “tagged” and vandalized until the City handed over its care to “Mural Routes,” a non-profit dedicated to the creation of public wall art. In 2012, the team of Mural Routes artists, led by Rob Matejka, came together to give the tunnel a makeover.
“I definitely appreciate the history of the where the rainbow came from, but all along, I think it was meant to be a smile for everybody,” said Matejka.
Matejka has been involved in the creation of dozens of public murals throughout Toronto, but giving the rainbow tunnel a facelift was a project he says was a dream come true.
“Growing up, like a lot of people, even when we were here painting, a lot of people say that they were always interested in what the rainbow tunnel was. When they were little kids, they thought it was like an entry to a magical place,” said Matejka.
“From childhood, wondering what this was and to be able to contribute to it and restore it, I was very appreciative of that.”
Mural Routes not only re-painted the exterior rainbow, the team also created murals through tunnel’s interior, making it more of an immersive piece.
It’s something the original painter smiles brightly about.
“I’ve signed over the rainbow to Mural Routes to look after it, but I still have the copyright,” said Johnson.
In the Global News series YYZ Why?, Melanie Zettler sets out to answer why certain Toronto landmarks exist.