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Tag Archives: Cedar Lewison

Melbourne’s Best?

”I doubt it’s something the authorities are particularly proud of, but Melbourne street art leads the world.” – Banksy (The Age, May 29, 2010)

Land of Sunshine, Brunswick

Land of Sunshine, Brunswick

David Hurlston, curator of Australian art at the National Gallery of Victoria, said Melbourne’s street art was “the most distinctly identifiable cultural and contemporary artistic movement to have occurred in Australia over the past 30 years”.

I’m always suspicious when I hear Australians make the claim “amongst the best in the world” even when they are quoting a foreign visitor like Banksy. But people often ask me where does Melbourne street art and graffiti rate compared to other cities in the world?

I thought that I’d take a different approach and count the references for cities listed in Cedar Lewison Street Art – The Graffiti Revolution (Tate Publishing, London, 2008) Melbourne comes out in at number 5: New York 34, London 15, Sao Paulo 9, Paris 7, Melbourne 5; with 2 each for Madrid, Berlin, Bologna and Bristol; and 1 for Los Angles, Liverpool and San Francisco. More research is still needed; a larger data set of books, but you can see the approach to take.

Perhaps a more interesting topic that rating Melbourne is to look at how various elements contributed to this creativity from the public transport structure to other parts of city design. The radial spoked “intergrated network” of public transport created an accessible centre of activity (in the same way that it has concentrated drunken violence). And this ensured that in the 1980s painted train carriages could be seen on any of the suburban lines, now the trains are mostly graf free but the walls along all these train lines are still painted.

Paintspotting* in various cities around the world (New York, London, Paris, Dublin and Greece) it is clear to me one reason why Melbourne is so highly regarded. The street art is so accessible; you don’t need to explore very far in order to find some great pieces. In the inner city, Hosier Lane is just off Flinders Street and Fitzroy or Collingwood are just short tram rides away.

The centre of Melbourne is a 1.28 square kilometres of shopping, business, residential, entertainment, restaurants and government buildings defined by Hoddle’s grid of streets. Melbourne’s main streets, as originally surveyed by Hoddle are 99 feet wide with the smaller street 33 feet wide. (A geomancer with a numerological bent should be able to do something with those numbers.) Weaving between the streets are the lanes that makes an excellent, if discreet, surfaces for street art. If you think that all of Melbourne’s lanes are full of street art, you haven’t looked down enough there are so many.

Melbourne has a vibrant street culture; I go away for a few weeks and my email box is full of posts from Arty Graffarti. Taking a ride around Brunswick today I saw many fresh pieces and some guys starting some more in Ilham Lane, north of Tinning Street. They had just started on the outlines when I passed buy and more writers were arriving for an afternoon of paint. On a sunny day it doesn’t really matter what your ranking in the world is.DSC08307

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* Paintspotter, noun, definition: like a trainspotter but for people who look for street art and graffiti (a portmanteau word coined by Fletcher “Factor “Anderson of Invurt).

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Graffiti – not just for the graffers

“I was always aware that the photos would last longer than the piece and I shot in the spirit of historic preservation.” Martha Cooper in Cedar Lewison Street Art – The Graffiti Revolution (Tate Publishing, London, 2008) p.37

Some old school graffers think that they are just doing their thing for themselves and other graf writers. Just like some tribe that thinks that they are just making feather headdresses for their ceremonies until some anthropologist comes along to trade for them, photograph them, record their songs and dances. The anthropologist will attempt to learn the culture of the tribe but that will always be analysing this as an outsider. The outsider always has a different view and different objectives in their records, as well as, different systems of classification but that doesn’t automatically make this view wrong.

There are lots of people, like myself, who are collecting digital photos of street art, the urban equivalent of bird watching in many ways. Some of them are very diligent in their work, like New York photographer Martha Cooper, who documented the graffiti on subway cars, the visual equivalent of the field recordings of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. We are attempting to preserve an ephemeral cultural event that may disappear entirely or change beyond recognition.

Some people resent being recorded at all, or only want to be recorded on their terms, by themselves or a minion/collaborator. If you feel so protective of your work then don’t put it in a public place for others to look at. The fact that graffiti is in a public view means that it is open to anyone to interpret and appreciate or deprecate (one reason for the graffers to be anxious about outside interpretation).

Cedar Lewison argues that graffiti is distinctly different from street art in that graffiti intended for a small group. “Graffiti writers are communicating with themselves and a closed community, they have little interest in being understood by the wider world.” (p.23) Lewison notes that graffiti writers have little interest in the reputation of graffiti or being considered artists. He points to the almost illegible calligraphy of wildstyle pieces as a means of excluding the public. Of course, the general public, if they are determined, can learn to read wildstyle letters as well as the next graff writer. There are articles like “How to read Graffiti” by Jason Dax Woodward (13/6/99) or books like Claudia Walde Street Fonts – graffiti alphabets from around the world (Thames & Hudson).

Lewison’s argument ignores the intentionalist fallacy; that is, the graffiti and the writer’s intentions are two different things and lack of knowledge of one does not preclude understanding the other. For example, no one knows what Homer’s intentions were in composing The Iliad but that doesn’t hamper understanding the ancient epic poem. Likewise although graff writers may not intended to communicate with the public their work on the street is open to anyone to interpret and appreciate.


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