Melbourne is home to one of the most unique and vibrant street cultures in the world. Street art and graffiti vary hugely in cities around the world through styles, techniques and government control. Paris houses a strong street art culture, but strict government control renders most works monotonous. Our city is a vanguard for graffiti and street art, as both audiences and government have legitimised the forms in part—like the City of Melbourne’s street permit zones.
However, the very nature of this creative process will ruffle feathers, as something is always being violated—whether it’s turf, other works, a copied ‘style’, or just the property itself. Not all think street art is all necessarily the same, as its classification is far too broad. That in itself makes the culture incredibly interesting, since there’s always beef or a damned good story to tell, let me introduce you to it if you’re not already acquainted.
The legal v. illegal dichotomy:
First there’s the legality of it all. You can see plenty of work around Melbourne that is done by permit or commissioned, and it functions in a similar way to regular art. The artist has time to strategically approach the work, take time with a thought process, and erase errors if need be. Granted, the end result is almost always of higher quality than its illegal counterparts, but the illegal work also has its perks. Illegal street art adds a critical underpinning the challenges the culture of street art. To begin with, anything’s your canvas, which opens countless possibilities outside of a ‘formal’ context. Bold street artists manage to place provocative and insightful works down the corridors of the CBD, while graffiti artists risk huge fines to get their work on train panels, showcasing their work throughout Melbourne.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say street art has the same objective as most art, illegal or otherwise. Its objective is to make you feel, think, interpret or whatever else you’d associate with any contemporary art form. It is also far more diverse than graffiti, as it encompasses a variety of different mediums.
But graffiti is completely different:
It is art; sure, it exists on a different wavelength to a ‘trained’ industry. Graffiti can be subdivided into tags and pieces. Even though this form requires talent and effort, the stigma surrounding graffiti’s ‘lesser’ status still prevails (check out Philadelphia’s different tag styles of individual artists to see the potential there to see what I’m talking about). Both require a lot of skill to be done well enough to merit the respect of other artists. However, tagging is usually the starting point for budding artists, with an easier learning curve and cheaper materials. This of course, has been the medium’s catch-22: if street art is to be fostered then tagging needs to exist for skills to be developed among artists, as it’s ultimately a developmental medium.
The scene on the ground.
I raised this subject with three local graffiti artists. They preferred to keep their names and words unknown, but I’ll refer to them as 1, 2 and 3, and here’s what they had to say.
What got you guys into graff, and what do you think gets other people into it?
1: I guess it was the appeal of going out at night and risking everything simply to get your name up, while doing something that is visually appealing at the same time. A lot of people get into it for a variety of different reasons though, some do it for the gang culture, the art form, adrenaline, rebellion…there’s plenty of reasons.
So it starts off as a social activity then?
2: For sure. 1 and I both got into it at the same time. He’d always want to go to stores and spots to get stuff or take photos. So I sort of went with that.
3: Yeah, I guess also seeing graff everywhere and having my friends interested got me to recognize styles. It becomes hard not to notice everything. I just find it really fun, and the people you meet are cool.
Outside of the traditional places, what graff interests you now? Are there any specific places which you would recommend?
3: Everyone has a different taste. You just have to look around and you’ll find good productions everywhere. I really like the Upfield line because it has a lot more stuff to begin with, but a stronger focus on graff in those suburbs.
L: I don’t think there are necessarily parts of Melbourne that are ‘good’ and bad’.
1: Good graffiti is everywhere; to me graffiti isn’t just about how colourful your piece is, but where it is. The more dangerous or risky the spot is, the more respect I have for the writer. So there are heaps of spots around as long as you keep an eye out. I prefer train panels and the risky out of bounds stuff you see in the city.
2: I think busy streets are the best. The inner suburbs have a lot of cool stuff on shopfronts and alleys that can be seen from the street. I like how it’s just out there.
Tell me about a close call you’ve had.
2: Nothing really, besides a few little chases with cops. The most serious thing was probably when I got my pack taken by a few big guys, but I couldn’t really do anything but let them go. It’s just another risk you have to take.
1: I’ve copped a few chases in my time, painted some dangerous high up places, had some run-ins with some shady types and almost been hit by a train, so there is definitely a lot of risk to it. It’s hard to say what my riskiest moment was as the whole art form is based around risk. It’s worth it though. The pressure makes it so much better.
3: Yeah, I’m lucky because I haven’t had any trouble with authority, even in yards, which is all about the planning.
What do you see in graffiti and what keeps you involved?
1: Graffiti can be looked at in many different ways, to me it’s all about the culture that you become involved in. I guess that’s also the reason I keep doing it, some of my best mates I’ve met through graffiti and it’s also not something you can give up easily.
2: When you start to see the same name everywhere you think “why isn’t that my name, I could do this”. I want quantity over quality. I want to see my name everywhere. I like that it’s damage.
L: So you like the feeling of ownership?
2: Yeah, 1 would want to go to abandoned buildings, but I liked roads… train lines… inner city suburbs. But it has to be good stuff.
L: Quality over quantity, you mean then?
2: No. I just mean that I don’t care about how crazy a piece can be, but it obviously has to be good. Some toy going around bombing everything is the worst part of graffiti for writers and non-writers.
3: You end up wanting more. Like, as you get better it becomes more fun. You do it more and get better doing it. It’s vicious and addictive.
Graffiti as contemporary narcissism.
Graffiti is essentially an advertisement on the behalf of the artists. You’ve got people throwing up a brand in plain sight, showcasing themselves. However, it’s also an incredibly powerful statement. When you see something up on a wall, whatever the word is, whether it makes sense or not, you’re reading it. YOU are saying that word aloud in your consciousness and regardless of whether you want it to be or not and it is taking thought. This outcome, intentional or otherwise by the artist, is what drives my interest in the scene. Juxtapose Melbourne’s vibrant graffiti scene against the advertisement that is seeping down every other wall and into the gutters and assess which is more valuable. People will spit at and abuse a writer, without comprehending that the principles are the same as whatever images of shit that they don’t need being thrown into their minds daily.
The aspect that binds the two art forms is ownership. In the same way as making your mark on anything inanimate or otherwise, property is the source of conflict between artists. Especially in accessible environments such as the legal alleys in the CBD there is a unique culture of reputation. The rule of thumb is that you don’t ‘cap what you can’t burn’ (in other words, don’t cover something unless you can do something better than the original piece), which is always a source of trouble. Interest in the culture gives insight into the entire creative process of street art and graffiti, from notepads filled with rough sketches to explosive works atop multi storey buildings. This effort—the fights, climbs, time and chases show an untold story behind every individual work, and is in itself is a strong reason to explore the culture yourself.
By Lewis Vits
(Images were provided by the author, the creators of which are subject to anonymity, for obvious reasons)