Oriel Guthrie and Spencer Davids’s Writers Bench: The Evolution of Melbourne Graffiti and Street Art Culture 1980 – 2011 tells a social history of Melbourne graffiti in a neutral, balanced and insightful manner. In telling the history its answers the question of how Melbourne arrived at this current state of flourishing diversity in graffiti and street art. It is a story that progresses from crude beginnings to the current sophistication and inclusion in art galleries.
The documentary’s title, Writer’s Bench, comes from the congregation of graff writers on the benches at Richmond Railway Station. Graffiti and street art are mass art movements; there are hundreds of artists in Melbourne alone. There are so many artists that to pick favourites is just an exercise of personal taste. And the documentary interviews so many of the artists involved in Melbourne’s graffiti scene. There are so many people interviewed in this documentary that their numbers swelled ACMI’s largest cinema to near capacity for the premier.
The documentary is not just interviews. There are extensive images of Melbourne in the 1980s from the archives of news and artists. There are no trite moments of documentary film making with artists walking around or long panning shots; when there is music there are plenty of relevant images to go with it.
Writer’s Bench neatly edits the many interviews and images to tell a social and art history in three clear chapters: the Sharpies tags and political slogans, the hip-hop graffiti and finally the stencils and street art. Each chapter has a beginning and end that leads on to the next; how hip hop replaced the gang culture with aerosol art and music, how the impact of age, the police and heroin addictions on hip hop generation opened the space for the stencils and street artists.
Many art histories highlight certain artists as stars. In doing this they ignore so many other artists or suggest that they were either helping or hindering the success of the star. Writers Bench does not do this – the artists are presented as people involved in the history and not aesthetic masters. Writers Bench looks at an evolution that responds to the urban environment and not the development of the current style. It does not glorify the artists – it discusses the problems along with the achievements. You can make your own aesthetic and other judgements; Writers Bench documents the history.
For reasons of full disclosure I’m proud to call the co-producer, source, soundtrack and more, Spencer David my friend.