Duro Cubrilo, Martin Harvey and Karl Stamer, Kings Way – The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti: Melbourne 1983 – 93 (The Miegunyah Press, 2009)
This massive 373-page book shows the beginnings of Melbourne graffiti, extensively documented in photographs. There is excellent information on spray-cans, marker-pens, trains and train yards; things close to a graffiti writer’s heart. The culture of tagging and train bombing in the 80s and early 90s is extensively covered.
The beginning in 1983 is clearly marked with the introduction of hip-hop music and break-dancing to Melbourne in 1983 with the video of Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Girls”. There had been graffiti in Australia before but the hip-hop inspired work was distinctly different in style. A decade later 1993 is selected as end of this beginning because of changes to the rail network meant that writers moved away from the railways. And, “Writing in Melbourne was a victim of its own popularity, achieving a degree of public acceptance as an art form with some city laneways become designated legal painting zones.” (p.23)
All three of the authors were involved with the early graffiti scene that they are writing about. Their ownership of the history and the documentation of this subculture is the book’s greatest strength and weakness. The intended reader is assumed to be part of the subculture. The exclusiveness of the gang (or crew to use the right lingo) is still evident in the book, influencing not only the writing and photographs but the shape of the history. To put it plainly: they can’t see the forest for the trees.
Most of the pages document the pieces of individual writers or crews. There is an attempt to identify stylistic changes: Abstract Era (1986 – 1987), Technical Era (1988 – 1989) and Experimental Era (1991 – 1993). These eras are rather less convincing than the micro-divisions of cubism into analytic and synthetic. And these eras also fail to match the eras of tag names. (p.242)
I did take some notes from the book to improve my own timeline of Melbourne’s graffiti and street art but the information is poorly organized rather shaky. In writing about the City Square the book fails to establish when the graffiti board was installed 1980. Some of the text is just plain weird and clumsy. “As with many buildings constructed in the years before this period, the wall and roofing of the abattoirs were ravaged by asbestos, which made the building unsafe for human inhabitation and hence led to its eventual closure and abandonment.” (p.152) Did an editor ever read this sentence?
Maybe I’m expecting too much from yet another coffee table book about street art. After all most people are just going to look at the pictures and the book has some great photographs of Melbourne’s early graffiti. I was particularly struck by the photographs that remind me how tagged the interior of trains were in the early 1990s and ephemeral nature of my own memory of the ordinary experience of traveling by train.
There are now many books about street art or graffiti in Melbourne and none of them is particularly outstanding. Jake Smallman & Carl Nyman Stencil Graffiti Capital Melbourne (Mark Batty Publisher 2005) focused on stencil graffiti with lots of pictures often grouped together by themes: animals, robots, cartoons, music etc. and profiles of some artists. Matthew Lunn, Street Art Uncut, (Caftsman House, 2006) takes a broader view of Melbourne’s street art from aerosol, to tagging to the experimental.