It’s an unusually balmy Saturday evening, during a fall season in constant battle with summer warmth that is lingering through the transition. Smack dab in the middle of Toronto’s Scarborough community lies an artifact of its history, on display as part of Nuit Blanche – the city’s annual overnight, outdoor art festival. The artifact’s creator is Scarborough’s very own Mark Stoddart, artist and founder of LIWI68. He was commissioned by the City of Toronto to produce a piece of work emblematic of some of Scarborough’s success stories.
Creators are always drawn to one other. For some time, I’ve been drawn to Stoddart’s work, witnessing his ascent to neighbourhood stardom, then to more widespread notoriety. It long became an aim of mine to sit down with Mark. When we finally got the chance to chop it up, it was like talking to an old friend I hadn’t spoken to in years.
Stoddart, clearly overwhelmed by the support shown that evening by throngs of supporters, fans and curious onlookers, tried to make sense of it all. In the midst of non-stop conversation with his many admirers, he talked to me about the magnitude of the event and what it meant to him. There was so much going on we had to arrange a follow-up interview the next evening.
Here was a Scarborough native showcasing others from the area – part of his exhibit included highlighting people like Godfather of Canadian hip-hop Maestro Fresh Wes and Raptors assistant coach and retired NBA player Jamaal Magloire. We spoke at length about paying homage to those that have come before us and delivering flowers to them while they can still savour the aromas. “If I were to die yesterday (Nuit Blanche), I would have died knowing that people honoured me. I really felt that,” Stoddart states emphatically.
He has long been woke even before it was cool to use the term.
Growing up in Scarborough’s West Hill neighbourhood, Stoddart could easily have fallen victim to the negativity that besieged the infamous part of the city – its borders including areas such as Galloway and Malvern. He escaped because, as he claims, he was “slick with it.” He walked to school with a basketball in one hand and a portfolio in the other. “At a young age I knew I had a purpose.”
Stoddart, a teller of stories through art, has been a creative soul for quite some time. In the last couple of decades, he has arguably conceived and produced some of the most iconic pieces of art and fashion that the Greater Toronto Area has seen. His art and fashion have spoken stories of truth, rebellion, pride and awareness. He has long been woke even before it was cool to use the term. At the helm of his venerable label and mantra, Live It Wear It, Stoddart has been able to solidify himself by cleverly presenting a list of Scarborough’s who’s who wearing the T-shirt with the iconic Black power fist. A brilliant branding campaign, it caught the eyes of many in Canada and south of the border.
A chance encounter in 2011 would prove to be a defining moment for Stoddart. That was when he had the opportunity to connect with former U.S. Olympic sprinter John Carlos, famous and infamous for unforgettably raising his fist in protest on the podium of the 1968 Games. It was a time overwrought with racial tensions in the U.S. A moment resembling the current climate permeating North America — when, at disproportionate rates, Black men were either being incarcerated or shot down by police. Carlos, decades past his protest, remained relevant to activists and historians, who sought to hear and relate to his courageous story whenever possible.
Stoddart, now locally famed for his emblematic Black-fist T-shirts and apparel, would be able to fittingly align his brand with an internationally distinguished Carlos, on a new project that would elevate his platform to new levels. Stoddart does not mince words when he speaks of Carlos: “To have Dr. Carlos endorse and validate what we have been doing for so many years confirmed within myself the reason why I continue to do what I do.”
This newly formed partnership also paved the way for another chance meeting with none other than Colin Kaepernick — an athlete no stranger to controversy. Kaepernick had just voiced his displeasure of the treatment of African Americans at the hands of police officers, choosing to display his discontent by kneeling, rather than standing, during the playing of the U.S. national anthem. Meeting Kaepernick didn’t lead to a lucrative partnership for Stoddart, but it did cement his status as the pre-eminent producer of clothing related to the Kaepernick struggle. The former quarterback would often be seen wearing articles of clothing gifted to him by Stoddart.
Through his collections, Scarborough can claim yet another homegrown artistic talent.
In 2005, Stoddart suffered the loss of his friend, Shawn “Blu” Rose, a well-known community leader. He says it “shocked him to the core.” His friend’s passing as a result of a brain aneurysm weeks before his 29th birthday made Stoddart develop a new appreciation for life, while sustaining an unflinching outlook of positivity and forward thinking. Such newly inspired zeal allowed him to put his efforts into actualizing some remarkable designs and pieces. Through telling the stories of past prominent athletes, celebrities and icons of African descent, Stoddart further developed his own style.
Most notably, an impeccably crafted piece of work devoted to the work and newspaper headlines of former NFL great and Hall of Famer, Jim Brown. Brown was one of the first athletes to speak out against injustices in the world, at a time when it wasn’t trendy to do so. I remember sitting in a popular barber’s chair in Scarborough, looking at the work of Stoddart displayed so prominently on the walls, thinking to myself that this artist is clearly onto something. He was, and still is.
Through his collections, Live It Wear It, John Carlos, Black August and his signature Mark Stoddart collection, Scarborough can claim yet another homegrown artistic talent. One whose instrument of choice is a canvas and a mind cultivated by awareness, activism and, of course, an innate stirring of creative genius.
Conceivably, a part of Mark Stoddart died when his friend Blu Rose transitioned. Yet, in the face of death, Stoddart experienced a rebirth. His friend would be proud of the way his homie blossomed like a rose in concrete. Pun intended.
Photos Ⓒ Adrian McKenzie + Urbanology Magazine