Tag Archives: Rennie Ellis

Talking Points on the Street

In several of Melbourne’s lanes and alleys there a lot of people were talking about the graffiti. There was usual school group with art teacher in Hosier Lane, a young woman taking photos, and a middle aged man who had seen the ABC documentary on graffiti in Melbourne and had learnt to appreciate what he had previously regarded as rubbish. It is an unlikely scenario; strangers talking to each other about art in a city alley full of rubbish bins but in Melbourne it is common. Even if you can’t read the writing on the wall street art inspires communication, it is a social lubricant, providing a contact point for strangers in the big city.

Isn’t that the whole point of art? – To provide a reason or focus for communication. There is a lot of unofficial communications on the street. The streets will always provide a forum for politics that can’t be censored. Many political groups will use a sticker campaign to get their message on the streets. It is an obvious choice if you fear censorship or reprisals or just hassles.

"Corrupt Cops Killed Carl" sticker in Brunswick

Currently on the streets of Brunswick there is a sticker campaign against the Victorian police. A sticker: “Corrupt Cops Killed Carl” commenting on the death in jail of Melbourne gangster, Carl Williams. There are more stickers on the theme of corruption in the Victorian police scattered around the streets of Brunswick. Another much stranger and bigger political paste-ups on the streets of Brunswick (and Fitzroy and Coburg – how big is this poster campaign?) is advocating considering the alternatives.

"Seek an alternative" poster in Brunswick

Finally in this discussion of the graffiti discourse I must mention the Dunny Art blog. Following in the footsteps of photography Rennie Ellis’s books on Australian graffiti: Australian Graffiti (1971), Australian Graffiti Revisited (1979) and focusing on traditional, pre-aerosol graffiti Dunny Art, photographs graffiti on toilet wall around the world. The comment and reply nature of these ad hoc discussion walls is another forum that can’t be censored.


Remembering Australian Graffiti History

Tram Stop 21, outside the Brunswick Mechanics Institute, has a photograph of light graffiti by local artist Robyn Cerretti. Cerretti spells out “forever” using a sparkler against a dark urban setting. It is an ironic comment on Arthur Stace’s famous chalk graffiti “eternity” as ‘forever’ is a synonym for ‘eternity’. But a lit sparkler does not last forever, nor does Stace’s chalk on pavement. A word does not equate to the existence of a thing and so the ontological argument for the existence of God (or eternity), formulated by St. Anselm, leaves reality in the perfect, super-fast spaceship.

Arthur Stace is also the subject of a film by Julien Temple, The Eternity Man (2008) based on the stage opera by Australian composer Jonathan Mills and poet Dorothy Porter. Arthur Stace was an illiterate Sydney ex-alcoholic with an obsessive compulsive disorder and a one-word evangelical mission tag that made him an Australian legend. Stace lead a very dull life and both the film and opera have to work hard to make it interesting for even a short time.

The calligraphic appeal of Stace’s Copperplate letters made his work visually unique at time when graffiti was more concerned with the message and not the media. In the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s graffiti in Melbourne was limited to aphoristic slogans (rather like the art of Jenny Holtzer) written in simple fonts using house paint and a brush. It was more a form of literature than visual art. I found an old notebook of mine with a short list of graffiti slogans from the ‘80s and early ‘90s:

“Bite the wax tadpole”

“Real punks can’t spell capocino”

“Stilettos are a push over – wear bovvers”

“Nuclear families have fallout”

“There is only one thing worse than the desire to command – the will to obey.”

“1991 the year of LOVE (on the dole)”

Rennie Ellis exhibition “No Standing Only Dancing” at the NGV has nine photographs of Australian graffiti in the 1970s and 80s, at the very far end of the exhibition. Ellis photographs are social realism and his photographs of graffiti simply document them. It is mostly political slogans like “Smash the Housing Commission” along with photographs of two modified billboard advertisements and the photograph that gave its title to the whole exhibition “No Standing Only Dancing”. Ellis has an extensive collection of photographs of graffiti from this time and published three paperback books of photographs of graffiti: Australian Graffiti (1971), Australian Graffiti Revisited (1979) and The All New Australian Graffiti (1985).

I presume than in 20 or 30 years the NGV will have an exhibition of some photographer’s images of Melbourne’s current street art and that future artists will celebrate its images, when it is safely history.


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