A face emerges from or sinks into the aerosol paint covered walls. A person merging with the structure of the city, a skeleton of metal, a body of bricks and concrete and a skin of paint. Features register underneath the layers of paint, the hint of a smile. There are more faces on the wall… It is the same face? Is it a portrait?
Street art sculpture still interest me on because it is such a difficult medium. The sculpture has to survive the conditions on the street. Public sculpture criticism needs to be modified by a difficulty rating. Just as the aesthetics of sculpture is modified by a difficulty rating for moving large pieces of metal or stone around, public sculpture has the additional difficulty rating for being exposed to drunks and dickheads. And street art sculpture has the added difficulty multiplier for being done without permission.
The sculptures survive under multiple layers of paint. In graffiti intense environment, like Melbourne’s Hosier Lane, a street art sculpture will need to still work underneath aerosol paint.
There are a cluster of Will Coles crushed cans at the entrance of Rutledge Lane (now a stub off Hosier Lane blocked at both ends by building work). Further along there on a ledge are the vandalised remains of a Will Coles sculptures that someone broke trying to steal it. Nearby are cast sea shells, the faces and pieces with raised lettering. I suspect, because of a couple of tags in raised letters, that the raised letters could be the work of Anthony Lister except the letter style is different.
I have no idea who did the faces. There are many other similar works, like Mary Rogers cast faces for a footbridge in Moreland. They are also similar the work of the French artist Gregos but it is not his face and therefore not his work.
Having a particular focus on street art sculpture and don’t feel compelled to photograph every piece of street art that I see. My photography teacher always emphasised being focused.
Walking around my neighbourhood, Coburg, one of Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, I am seeing all these augmented street signs. I’ve seen the NO STANDING “but squatting…” text in several places around Coburg and Brunswick. Is this a trend or is it the same prolific person?
Thinking that street art was much the same this year as previous years; same artists, same locations, same styles. Although a well executed graffiti piece or a good stencil will still interest me I am not enough of a fan boy to want to rush to photograph a fresh wall.
I certainly haven’t written as many blog posts about street art this year. This is because what I want is something new to write about, a new style, a new technique; but that’s just what I want, what people want from Stormie Mills or Adnate is more of the same. I did get to see some new styles this year. The super-flat work of Seam and Rashe and the Indigenous inspired graff of LSDesigns.
What will still make me turn my head on the street is a collection of stickers; even though you can’t tell from many stickers if it is a street artist, graffiti artist (although the handwritten tag on the “hello my name is” sticker is one sign), a band (post-punk group Pinch Points have a very interesting choice of sticker location around Coburg) or advertising a dog walking business. Maybe this variety of purposes is one reason that I keep looking.
I am interested in more than wall; the street is the paradigm of communication and variety. Street art of all sizes from the murals the size of a five story wall to the smallest sticker. The stuff scratched on the concrete footpaths to the aerosol art.
Walking around my neighbourhood I am pleased to see a couple of pieces by Discarded amongst some guerrilla gardening. Discarded makes figures assembled from ceramic casts of discarded rubbish. I don’t know if these are new or if they have been there for years and I have just found them. Perhaps it is the process of discovery that interests me more than the art itself? Perhaps it is the walk rather than the destination.
As I entered Paynes Place I could hear women’s voices and the familiar sound of an aerosol spray-can being shaken. Paynes Place off Little Bourke Street in Chinatown is opposite an empty lot with a massive mural. You turn a corner and at the end Paynes Place is Croft Alley. The laneway off is an attractive and discreet location, covered in graffiti and street art with a bar at the far end.
Around the corner in Paynes Place there were about five young Moslem women sitting around on the ground smoking cigarettes (one was lucky enough to have a milk crate to sit on).
Around the next corner, into Croft Alley, there was a thirty-something Asian guy with half a dozen cans of quality aerosol paint sitting beside his backpack. He had just started spraying a couple of lines of an outline for his piece. (I am commenting on people’s age, ethnicity and religion because I want to emphasise the diversity.)
“Keep on painting.” I said as I passed him in the narrow lane.
I looked around at the work in the lane, looking at the mix of old and new work. The area was comprehensively painted in the Croft Alley Project in 2009. (See my original post.) High up on the walls there is a layer of old work from 2009 but the rest is all fresh and new. There are more paste-ups by Mr Dimples, recently I’ve been seeing his cute monster paste-ups in many places around the city.
As I was making my way back past the graff writer with the can. A red and blond haired “working family” (as Kevin Rudd use to endlessly repeat) from the outer suburbs came around the corner into the lane. Cool parents to know about Croft Alley and show their kids some quality graffiti.
I write about the graffiti and street art because it is remarkable to have a mass visual art movement. It is a cultural shift for so many people to be involved in a locally produced cultural activity, that doesn’t involve gambling and that isn’t advertised. It is a cultural shift for kids to be interested in an adult visual culture that (unlike cinema and tv) is local, progressive and they can participate in.
It is the way that it creates a place that people want to visit out of a service lane; “placemaking” as the architects and urban planners call it. And the anarchic, egotistic altruism of this unauthorised placemaking; the individual empowerment to make their mark on the urban environment, both in collaboration and in competition with others.
It is this cultural vibrancy that interests me far more than the popularity of any of its artists and writers, how much some rich fool might pay for the work of some popular artist, or even, the aesthetics or meaning of any of the work in the lane.
I used to write blog posts about my wandering around the city. I still wander around but generally I try to keep my posts more focused than my meandering feet and mind. Now, even if I see a couple of exhibitions I will choose one to write about, or focus on one aspect of street art, or a single public sculpture. However, for this post I will make an exception and maunder about street art and graffiti.
Exploring my local area, Coburg, graffiti and street art continues to expand north along the Upfield train line corridor. I am amazed that there are so many bluestone back laneways in Coburg that I haven’t walked along in the decades that I have lived in the suburb. It is an area that is about to change because of the new elevated railway line.
So I continue my travels around greater Melbourne; photographing street art in Footscray, Brunswick and in ‘Lovelands’, a series of alleyways off Queen St, near the corner of Franklin St. which often has some of the best street art in Melbourne. And, around the corner from Lovelands, in Blender Lane, where Blender Studios used to be — no other art studio in Melbourne has had such an impact on its geography.
Keeping my eye on Hosier Lane, where the most significant work are no longer spray painted, they are political. Support for Hong Kong with a ‘Lennon wall’ of post-it notes.
Looking at actual graffiti, the scribbled messages on the street rather than the calligraphic art of the kamikaze paint sprayers.
At guerrilla gardeners along the Upfield bike path who will use anything and everything to plant things in.
I have been writing about and photographing these kind of things for over a decade. So often now it feels like I have seen it all before but even in the antarctic winds of Melbourne’s winter there are some things that catch my eye; photograph and post on this blog.
A gallery of Melbourne street art inspired by Star Wars collected over the last decade. Crisp and HaHa are the two major contributors to this theme but there are also great pieces by anonymous artists. Roughly in chronological order.
On Friday 5 July I met the NAIDOC Week march as I was walking to Fitzroy. The march was coming the opposite way walking from Fitzroy to Federation Square. I felt inspired by the march – I want a treaty and truth (like South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission). Australia needs a treaty with its Indigenous population; Australia is the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its indigenous people.
I considered my options joining the march or continuing my walk into Fitzroy. I decided to continue on looking at public art, street art and art exhibitions but with a focus on indigenous history. My methodology for these walks is asystematic, random, and often without preconceived objectives. This is because I want to take unfamiliar routes and find new things.
This is No Fantasy, the Dianne Tanzer and Nicola Stien’s gallery on Gertrude Street was showing Vincent Namatjira’s exhibition Coming To America. Vincent is a Western Arrernte man from Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and the grandson of Albert Namatjira.It was Vincent Namatjira’s fifth solo presentation at this prominent Melbourne commercial gallery. Black dots beside the works showed that every painting had sold.
Vincent Namatjira’s crude but effective style has an absurd sense of humour. The exhibition has a series of paintings depicting his trip to America, including his time in Hollywood, the White House and relaxing on beach chair at the Miami Beach Art Basel. On one wall was a grid of black and white portraits of alternating black and white people. Namatjira seems to be saying: why so serious when this is fun?
Gertrude Street was named after the daughter of Captain Brunswick Smythe who acquired the land in 1839 in colonial exploitation; in spite of it colonial origins Gertrude Street has many reminders of Melbourne’s Indigenous history. There are several plaques by the City of Yarra Aboriginal Cultural Signage Reference Group and the Aboriginal Advisory Group: The Koori Club, the Aboriginal Housing Board and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. (As well as public art I am now looking at plaques — how dull can I get?).
At the corner of Lt. Napier Street, there is the recent ‘Sovereignty’ mural by Robert Young, Heesco and Makatron. They are all Melbourne-based artists but only Young is a Gunnai/Gunditjmarra/Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri man – Heesco is from Mongolia and Makatron is probably from outer space, or Adelaide.
A bit further along Gertrude Street, at the corner of Gertrude and George Streets stand three “Delkuk Spirits”, 2002, by Kelly Koumalatsos, a Wergaia/Wamba Wamba woman from the northwest of Victoria. The yarn bombed dress on one of thin bronze figures has been there for years, it implies that it a woman and makes the group more inclusive.
On the same corner is Maysar, the Melbourne Youth Sport and Recreation Co-Operative with glass design in the windows and glass doors by Mandy Nicholson, a member of the Wurundjeri-willam clan of the Kulin Nation. Nicholson’s work is familiar to me as she designed Gayip, the stainless steal spiral headed figure with wings perched on a rock on the South bank and the petroglyphs at Birrarung Wilam.
I turned left onto to Smith Street, named after Melbourne’s Mayor Smith 1855-64 a publican turned politician. At first there was much less reminders of Indigenous history on Smith Street, just on plaque for the Victorian Aboriginal Co-operative Limited at 108 Smith Street, one guy in an Aboriginal flag t-shirt getting lunch and a small flag painted on a house in one of the streets off Smith.
That was until I reached the corner of Stanley and Smith Street where the Glenn Romanis has designed the combination of a micro-park, seating, public art and a map. Glenn Romanis is from the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation, and like Nicholson, Romanis’s public work was familiar from his carving at Birrarung Wilam. The sites are mapped in fossilised wood with granite streets cutting across the sedimentary rock that flows like rivers. Carved in the rock “Wominjeka Wurundjeri Bik” (Welcome to Wurundjeri Country). It was a good place to continue an exploration of Melbourne’s indigenous culture.
I am trying to promote a new term: ‘green buff’. To ‘green buff’ is to plant in a way that a wall is no longer usable for graffiti. Brunswick Station is a good example of green buffing. It used to be a prime location for graffiti. Adnate and the AWOL crew found their style on the walls around the station. It also used to be surrounded by fly tip of a wasteland. Apart from maintaining the path to the station Moreland Council and the multi railway authorities took no care of the area. Then locals took action and guerrilla gardeners turned it into a garden. Now there is only a couple of walls left around Brunswick Station, the rest of them have been green buffed with trees blocking the view. Green buffing is the best way to prevent graffiti because graffiti is a response to neglected areas, to ugly blank walls.
Graffiti writers, those extreme urban decorators of the urban wasteland are still inventive and looking at the beauty of aesthetics in of letters. I keep seeing a development of fresh material in graffiti and in the last couple of years but I hesitate to call it a new style. Saem and Rashe’s work looks like a fresh take on modern artists, like Léger’s cubism or the Russian Suprematist. It is a contrast to all the painted air, the illusionistic space around the letters, blown by the aerosol, that has been the standard for many years. These works are so flat there is no air in it; they are super-flat like Takashi Murakami. It was so startling that I had to stop my bike and check it out.
After more than a decade of looking at graffiti and street art it I feel some burnout; a bit like “I have seen this all before, so many times.” CDH asked me when I last got excited by street art or graffiti. I replied: “Astral Nadir.” I forgot that I put the breaks on my bike for Saem and Discarded; willing to lose the momentum had been hard won with muscle power to look at their work.
So what if I’ve become a bit jaded over the years – I’m still thinking, looking, and exploring the city. Part of my routine over the last decade, aside from wearing down a groove in the bluestone blocks of certain laneways, is visiting art galleries, sometimes the two align but I didn’t expect them to at a high-end commercial gallery like, Flinders Lane Gallery.
At Flinders Lane Gallery (now on the first floor of Nicholas Building) Amber-Rose Hulme’s exhibition — “Context” is a series of photorealist pastel drawings of Melbourne’s walls. The photorealist quality is startling. There was a shock of recognition of same familiar laneways, tags and walls. Unlike the photographers who exploit the popularity of graffiti Hulme has her own vision of these location. It is one of a nostalgic urban wabi-sabi, the acceptance of ephemeral and the decay. Drawing the cracked paint, the splatters and drips with a mix of dedication and patience the graffiti is seen in its context of walls and bluestone laneways.