| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


For Janet Bike Girl art + bicycle activism adds up to a message that sticks & a profitable business

There are few things as evocative of fun, freedom and youth than the image of a bike. That's why, more than 15 years ago, Janet Attard started drawing them on copy-laden cycling event posters around town. When she discovered the posters were staying up long after the events were over, she knew she was on to something. That she has turned her bicycle art into a lucrative business is a happy surprise, even to her.

Attard, also known as Janet Bike Girl, now occupies two studios at 401 Richmond, one of Toronto's best known creative communities. What began as a desire to subtlety change what was then a mostly negative messages about bikes in Toronto, has now evolved into documenting the history of the bicycle and famous cyclists around the world with her increasingly detailed stencil art. These images line the walls and hang from the studio rafters and her inspiration are the hundreds of cycling books in floor to ceiling shelves. 

Attard's career path follows the same pattern as many artists and creative types; after a few years in corporate jobs, the most interesting of which was at an interior design company, she quit to volunteer fulltime at the Textile Museum of Canada. There she learned how to mount art and prepare shows. She also began teaching at Art Heart, a Regent Park community program, housed then in a United Church that was also home to the now defunct Cabbagetown Bicycle Club. As a kid growing up in the North Toronto neighbourhood of Lawrence Park, she was always on her bike -- despite her mom's warnings of danger -- riding the bike paths and off-roading on the ravines. At age 9, she even began a bike-based "rent-a-kid" business, fetching dinners for customers. As a young adult pursuing a life in art, that community program in the church with the bikes next door represents the time and place her two passions began to collide.

Always a cycling advocate, she had tried traditional channels to help effect change. "I used to go to Toronto cycling committee meetings," she says, "but I never joined, I always wanted to be independent." Her artistic breakthrough occurred at a recycled bike art auction when her first bike stencil sparked a pricing war. From there her art began to sell at shows, and by the time of the Cycle Messengers World Championships in Toronto in 1995 her art had become welcome and familiar.

When asked how art promotes activism, Attard hesitates. It doesn't seem like something she's mapped out. She makes her art, sends it out to her communities -- both art and cycling -- and rarely stops to analyze the effect. "Back when I started putting bikes on T-shirts a lot of people, including cyclists, thought it was dumb. But people make art about cars and no one thinks anything about it, so I thought, we have to get some bike imagery out there and if I have to do it I will." She says she doesn't feel comfortable telling people to ride bikes or bugging them to attend events. "Every once in a while someone will tell me they saw my work and it made them remember how much they love riding, so they bought a bike, and one for their wife. I think, ok, my job is done."

It takes a while but Attard humbly admits that sticking to her instinctual knowledge that iconic images evoke and provoke is her strength as an advocate. "Anything grassroots is hard and costs money. I've donated images to organizations like Reproduce and Revolt, so activist groups can use them."

Over the years, Attard has participated in arts shows around the world, in Europe, the US and across Canada. Lately she's been spending more of her time documenting the history of cycling, including stencils of Major Taylor, the first African-American to win a world championship in 1899; and Benny Zenga, producer of the Bike Film Festival.

Attard is frustrated by the still slow bureaucratic progress to safely integrate cycling onto Toronto roads, but acknowledges that over the years the overall message has changed from negative stories about cycling accidents to more positive ones about its benefits. So, how does she think things could improve for the cycling community? "People always complain but I think it's important to make things happen on your own, not to wait for others to talk for you. Make yourself heard."

For Janet Attard, her statement is the simple yet powerful image of a bicycle.

Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto-based writer, TV producer and essayist for TVO The Agenda with Steve Paikin. She keeps a blog at www.herkind.com.
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts

Related Content