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Category Archives: Street Art

Indigenous Culture on the streets

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.

Kelly Koumalatsos, Delkuk Spirits, 2002, bronze

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.

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Graff Notes

– green buff – a new style? – pastels?!

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.


Makatron’s Book

Mike Makatron In Ten Cities (Trojan Press, 2015)

I read Makatron’s book, if “read” is the right word for book that is primarily photographs, over a pub lunch and two pints of cider. It is a good over-view of his work in Melbourne and around the world.

I have been looking at Makatron’s work in Melbourne’s walls for the last decade and it is easy to see why his work is popular. He mostly paints animals but there is more to his work that just reproducing a photograph in aerosol paint. Makatron’s animals are often distorted surreal creatures, giant animals with buildings on their backs, decomposing fish or stranger creations. The book doesn’t show all his work but it is a fair representation and not just a greatest hits; there are tags, straight letters and photographs of works in progress.

The text is not indulgent or boasting, fun, modest and reasonably informative although limited and containing way too many puns.

How to present the man behind the paint is a problem given that we are not going to get a photographs of Makatron’s face for legal reasons, although there are a few masked versions. There is a bit of autobiography at the end of the book. A born risk-taker Makatron was working as bicycle courier in NYC on 9/11; something that gets a random page of photographs in the middle of the book and is mentioned again at the end.

Although the structure of the book is not irritating or terrible it could be better than the almost random approach. An editor’s view could have made this book so much better than chaotic travels in time and space.

As a photo-books, street art and graffiti don’t make for great photographs; a wall square on in good lighting is the standard format, photographing street art is often more documentation than photography. John Tsialos is credited as the principle photographer but there are others including David Russell (see my post on his street art photography that brings the streetscape into focus).

I borrowed this book from Moreland Library. Like me, Makatron will have received his library lending rights money for this month for all the times that his book has been borrowed this year. Yes, authors do get paid when their book is borrowed. So go and borrow Makatron’s book (and my book Sculptures of Melbourne) from your local library.

Here are some of my photographs of Makatron’s work in Melbourne.



The Ardern mural

Apart from the graffiti pieces at their base the old silos have stood empty for decades. Now there is a mural by Loretta Lizzio of Jacinda Ardern embracing a Muslim woman on one of them.

So why in Brunswick? The silo is owned by a Muslim and Coburg’s Islamic community has supported the mural. The mural was crowd funded and the artist, Lizzio donated her time. And Ardern is considered far more believable than any current Australian politician according to a recent poll.

I wouldn’t call it an original work; as is a copy of a photograph taken in NZ after the Christchurch massacre. I assume that it has been done with copyright permission from the photographer. And originality is not the purpose of the work, it is getting the image and message up there.

Tinning Street is a good area to explore and see street art and graffiti in Brunswick. There are often fresh new graffiti pieces in the other nearby lanes and there were some guys painting when I was there this week. There is also the vibrant Ilhan Lane, the Hosier Lane of Brunswick for street art. (Ilhan Lane is named after “Crazy John” Ilhan. Remember when retailers would advertise that they were mentally ill? Crazy John, Ken Bruce has gone mad, Bipolar Bill; okay I made the last one up. I’m glad that trend came to an end.)

At Moreland Station I notice that OG23 and Askem have repainted the same wall that they have been painting for decades. It is not unusual. (See my post Same Walls.)

OG23 & Askem

Has Melbourne’s street art and graffiti reached an almost steady state? In my last blog post about street art wrote that it had. A point where very little changes except for the names and locations; although many of the names and locations have been the same for decades. A decade ago new forms of street art were being explored: installations, yarn bombing, people even thought that you could grow moss in patterns.

Adnate and Fantauzzo

Vincent Fantauzzo collaboration mural with Adnate in Strachan Lane serves as a reminder that street art is now another luxury commodity. F is not a street artist and his fine art works with a theme of luxury and fashion. Artists can have their careers entirely within the street art and graffiti scene, rather than moving to another career in graphic design or fine arts. This professionalism has brought an end to the D.I.Y. aspects of the culture.

What will alter the current stasis?

Locally I have seen that growth of guerrilla gardening out compete graffiti along the Upfield trainline. Planting at Brunswick Station now obscure walls that were once regularly painted. Along the tracks the vines on the side of The Commons building at Anstey Station have green-buffed large sections of that wall.

Scanning the horizon with a global look I wonder how will the environmental hazards of the current street art and graffiti be tolerated? The chemicals, the one-use cans and other aspects make it environmentally unsustainable. Painting another mural to raise public awareness will only be a sustainable argument for a short time.

Van Rudd, climate strike mural

Melbourne Street Art Past and Future

In Centre Place there are a couple of relics of an earlier era of Melbourne’s street art. Both the City Lights and Heart Lock are now covered in layers of paint and stickers. Centre Place was once a prime location for graffiti and street art, now after a new building it is now too small for more than one or two pieces.

The heart lock is still there but has lost its heart and I think that it has been moved from its original location. I guess that Melbourne walking tour guides no longer tell the love story about Paula Birch’s Sacred Heart of Centre Place (See Demet Divaroren’s Blog for the legend). Andy Mac’s City Lights Project were photo light boxes; you can still see the now redundant cables for the power. There were two sets installed in Centre Place and Hosier Lane back in the 1996. (For more see my blog post from 2009.)

Appearing to go further back in time; I spotted these initials carved into the bluestones along the bank of the Yarra. At first I thought that they might have been stonemason’s marks. However, if they were stonemason’s marks I would have expected them more widespread amongst the stone embankment rather than concentrated in one place. If they were stonemasons would also expect greater quality in the carving of the initial. So I suspect that they are mid-century modern tags but they could be earlier.

I photographed some more stencils around the city; not surprised that this time they are in the laneway leading to the new location for Blender Studios. Melbourne’s street art and graffiti appears to have entered a holding pattern. Instead of any developments or new directions there is an almost steady state where we can expect more repetition. No new developments, just new walls with the same kind of stuff on them. There are so few innovators currently on the scene that I’m not even aware of any disruptors, like Lush. In another old street art location, Presgrave Place, there are new works by Tinky, Phoenix and Calm.


Elemental Forces in Public Art

Considering the use of the so-called ‘elemental forces’ of water, fire, earth and air in public art; with examples from Melbourne’s public and street art.

Air 

Although it is the space between, air is the most under used element in public art. Aside from making flags and banners flutter it is used in a couple of sculptures. The 15-metre-high wind-powered sculpture by Duncan Stemler, Blowhole in the Docklands. Elsewhere in the world there are musical sculptures that are played automatically, like Aeolian harps and the common wind chime. On a more subtle level there is scent of gardens, of incense and the burnt eucalyptus leaves of smoking ceremonies carried in the air.

Duncan Stemler, Blowhole

Water

Water was the first one to be used for public art with public drinking fountains and other water features from artificial lakes and waterfalls. There are many fountains and drinking fountains in Melbourne there are also mist sprays on the rocks in Footscray, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom by Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins. Street artist have also used water, one summer blocks of coloured ice were left to melt in Hosier Lane, the coloured liquid running between the bluestone cobbles. The street artist, CDH used hypochromatic ink for stencil works where the piece that only became visible when wet. Finally there is the unofficial colouring of fountains and moats often in conjunction with protests.

Maree Clarke and Vicky Couzins, Wominjeka Tarnuk Yooroom

Fire

From the eternal flame at the Shrine of Remembrance, candle light vigils, to Indigenous smoke ceremonies fire is used in a variety of public art. Camp fire with Aboriginal story teller at Federation Square. It is not all sacred; there are profane gas flares at the casino and temporary public art events like, fireworks displays. Fortunately there is little use of fire in street art, aside from a rare CDH pyrotechnic painting.

Immolating portrait of Yukio Mishima by CDH (photo courtesy CDH)

Earth

Earth art is the principle form of public art. From its landscaped gardens, the city is an artificial constructed landscape, complete with kitsch floral clocks. The metal and stone used in sculpture is also from the earth but that might be labouring the point. Street art also use earth and plants in guerrilla gardening.

Melbourne’s Floral Clock

Walls and supports

I want to write about the aesthetics of walls; the supports for the advertising, graffiti, street art, decay and accidental marks in the city. Something about the dirty mix of dividers, partitions and supports that we see all the time, that defines the city but we don’t usually focus on.

What brought the city’s walls into focus for me was a copy of a wall on a wall in the CBD. On a brick wall in the city someone had added cast a section of bricks; I guess it was done by an art student who had read some Baudrillard. It had then been reattached to the matched section of the wall. This simulation was an elegant minimal celebration of a plain brick wall for what it is.

Consider some other walls and surfaces, not just for their suitability as a surface for applying aerosol paint, or glue. In Union Lane some paint had come off a wall in a big acrylic sheet about the size of my hand. It revealed the layers of different coloured aerosol paint was almost half a centimetre thick. Some Melbourne walking tour guides will tear off a bit of peeling paint to show visitors the archeology of Melbourne’s graffiti.

Like the accretion of staples, nails and screws on wooden power-poles, all that remains of posters for lost cats, garage sales and other signs.

The advertising posters at Flinders Street Station, torn off because their contracted time is up, compared to the “décollage” of Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Mahé Villeglé in France in 1949. The duo exhibited layers of torn advertising posters that they had ripped from the streets as works of art.

The contested values of  buffing and art appreciation where selected street art pieces are painted around. Or where graffiti writers leave space to preserve ghost-signs, the old hand-painted advertisements by professional sign-writers.

They make you wonder what forces are operating on the wall. Are they intentional? Or accidental? Or the inevitable entropy of a plumber putting a pipe through a Banksy rat on a wall in Prahran.


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