Off The Wall

On Tuesday the 23rd of October I went to Off The Wall – Graffiti Management Forum at Fitzroy Town Hall. The City of Yarra employed Capire Consulting Group to review their graffiti management. Most of the people at the forum were from various city councils around Melbourne but there also were a few other interested people, including street artists, CDH and Makatron.

The review was focused on prevention and removal of graffiti. There was no idea about what the implementation of a graffiti management policy would actually look like on the street. The review did not have a cost benefit analysis; the cost of the current graffiti management policy compared to the financial benefits to City of Yarra in terms of visitor numbers or businesses that are based on graffiti scene.

The review appeared to be based on a naïve belief held by many people in local government that a distinction can be made between good and bad graffiti, between street art and tagging. This distinction is a faith-based policy that ignored so many facts: tagging has been around for millennia, there is no way to stop tagging, even if you have a police state equivalent to Nazi occupied Europe (see my post on WWII Graffiti) as the chances of being caught are so remote that a tagger would have to be persistent, pervasive or simply unlucky to be caught tagging. Tagging is a kind of visual urban noise, complaining about it in the inner city is like complaining about the noise of the traffic or light pollution. It is not a serious issue, there are no health and safety issues regarding tagging, unlike other urban problems like feral pigeons and fly tipping. (See my post on Coooburg)

Apart from studied ignorance (faith) there is no basis for the distinction between street art and tagging – I have asked Capire Consulting for the bibliography of their review but I have not had any response yet. Co-incidentally the following day I was sent a copy of The Bureau Magazine (thanks to its editor, Matt Derody) I will now quote from the start of the very first article that I read (even a non-systematic approach to the literature quickly quashes the distinction).

“There is no doubt that Australian society suffers a peculiar form of bipolar disorder when it comes to graffiti and street art. Rabidly opposed on the one hand and warmly encouraged on the other. It’s easy and comfortable to deploy timeworn distinctions that allow us to interpret the paradox and get on with our revulsion/appreciation agendas. The most popular is an aesthetic assessment of the art/vandalism in question. An ‘artistic piece of street art is fine (legal or illegal), a tag is ugly and blight on society. However, graffers think that tags, throw ups, burners, pieces and murals as parts of a whole – you can’t have one without the other.” (Andrew Imrie, “Graff vs Street Art…Neither or Both?” The Bureau Magazine Sept. 2012)

After the presentation CDH asked how the government can make a positive contribution to street art and reiterated points that he made in his Trojan Petition about neglected walls indicating tacit consent to being painted.

Makatron (in the red hoodie) conducts a tour of Fitzroy graffiti

Finally, after the forum Makatron lead a small tour of Fitzroy’s graffiti scene. Before he started the tour Makatron acknowledge the traditional aboriginal owners of the land –a subtle point about the hypocrisy of Australian governments demanding respect of property rights on stolen land.

In other local council news Melbourne’s Mayor Robert Doyle has made the installation of CCTV cameras in Hosier/Rutledge Lane part of his election platform against the advice of residents, the community and all the evidence. (See my posts CCTV or not CCTV Act 1 and 2.)


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

4 responses to “Off The Wall

  • Rodney McDonell

    Very well written and a nice read. I am one of the bipolar people i think. Love street art, but tagging is ugly.

    I would say that, if you are right, and that you cannot make a distinction between good and bad graffiti, then that would also hold for food, sounds and anything else that is able to be perceived.

    Thus there is no good and bad anything. Which is true, as these are all purely subjective things. Everything is relative and these things are relative to what the individual prefers.

    Thus someone will prefer one piece of art over an other. They may say, for art they prefer, that the art is good or better than other art. Again, that doesn’t make it good or bad in an absolute sense, but it does relatively.

    But if 1 person can make a judgement on food or art, then so can one community. Thus the communities judgement should be the majority judgement. That is, if you ask the entire community or a sample space, is graffitti or Tagging good or bad, then you should get an answer and that answer should be considered just as correct as if one person was to say that tagging was good or bad.

    So can a community wash their walls of the art they do not like? Why not?

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks the question, sure a community can decide to elect anti-tagging politicians (it looks like they have in this round of municipal elections in Melbourne). It remains to be seen if this is worth it or if it might be more worthwhile to have put the money and energy into something else.
      On Friday Adrian Doyle was noting on Facebook that “Napier Studios street art program was shut down in 2011 here is the graffiti statistics from then until now…. ‘Requests for graffiti removal from private property increased in Yarra from 2500 in 2010-2011 to over 4000 in 2011-12.’ Seems like the City of Yarra made a very expensive mistake shutting down Napier Studios…”
      When the citizens of the US voted to enact prohibition they thought that it would be a good idea but they didn’t like the consequences. Will the removal of tags be worth the young people jailed or the loss of business due to the decline in Fitzroy’s cool status?
      I think that it would be better for the community to deal with other aspects of the urban environment rather than worry about a little paint, ink and paper.

  • Viewpoint – City Of Yarra – Graffiti & Street Art Management | INVURT

    […] I didn’t feel in a position of being able to formulate an opinion on it all. Firstly, though, I saw a post from Black Mark about the meeting over at his website, Melbourne Art & Culture critic – he […]

  • CDH

    I basically agree with Rodney; I find the argument that tagging is good art to be unconvincing. I think a more relevant question is ‘do taggers have a right to a legal space?’. Whether or not we like tagging becomes irrelevant- lots of young people do like it and therefore they should have a right to a space to practice it, if it doesn’t impinge on anyone else’s rights. If lots of kids are interested in skate board riding, we build a skate park. My parents didn’t understand punk or hip hop. Their parents didn’t understand hippies. My grand parents parents didn’t understand Elvis Presley. You don’t have to understand youth counter culture to recognize it’s right to exist. In a liberal democracy sometimes you have to tolerate other people’s right to enjoy things that you might find irritating.

    Some kids might go outside of legal spaces. But another requirement of a liberal democracy is not to assign collective guilt to a group. So the argument that some kids might not restrict their tagging to the legal spaces isn’t justification to criminalize them all.

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