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Tag Archives: City of Melbourne

Graffiti’s Bonnie and Clyde

Over the last decade in Melbourne there has been a change of attitude about many kinds of graffiti and street art, what once was reviled is now celebrated. One man who knows about these changes is Gordon Harrison, the city engineer who created and runs the City of Melbourne’s graffiti management policy. Harrison knows about the changes because he wrote the city’s current graffiti policy.

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The current graffiti policy is to remove graffiti only when it is obscene or racist or when  requested by the building owner. Otherwise it would be left to survive in the organic process of the street. Harrison does not believe in protecting graffiti or street art. The City of Melbourne does keep a photographic record of significant work and it passes on its record of tags that it removes to the police.

According to Gordon Harrison $900,000 is spent each year in the removal of tags. All graffiti writers and even some street artists tag but then there are some people who just tag. Some prolific taggers like Nost and Pork have nineteen images removed per month from just the small area of the centre of the city administered by the City of Melbourne. Harrison explained to the Street Art Round Table, 22/4/16 at Melbourne University.

Unlike many people Harrison doesn’t hate taggers. He understands that there a blurred line between tagging and graffiti pieces. Harrison would prefer tags to violence or suicide, he removes the tagging but respects the free spirit behind it, wishing that it was directed differently.

The free spirit of taggers makes them not just vandals but sometimes audacious urban outlaws. They are risking their liberty and life. For there are the industrial scale dangers of the railways and rail yards. The dangers of climbing up to the heavens just to leave your mark, to show that you have existed in the city and made part of it your own.

Along with the dangers hardcore taggers also experience the most violence. There are fights between them over walls and other issues. They are also likely to be beaten up and abused by the railway’s Asset Protection Officers or even vigilante citizens taking the law into their own hand.

This brings me to the American graffiti writers and lovers, Ether and Utah who were in Melbourne earlier this year. It was here that Ether’s self-titled “Probation Vacation” came to an end on a Fitzroy sidewalk in a fight with a vigilante citizen. Charged with attempted robbery, recklessly causing injury, unlawful assault, possessing a controlled weapon (a knife) and four counts of criminal damage. He received a six month sentence, less the 27 days he was held in remand. On his release he will be deported to the US where he faces another six months for outstanding graffiti offences.

A six month stretch at the notorious Rikers Island in New York goes someways but doesn’t completely explains Ether and Utah leaving the USA in 2011 for a five year intercontinental graffiti spree focused on that most traditional graffiti site, the train. Neither does Utah & Ether’s Probation Vacation, in book and video format, which is available online along with limited edition zines, t-shirts, poster, sticker sets and box sets. There is a weird post-modern romance about deciding to live the life as an international outlaw with your love while creating “a dialog between the safety of the gallery setting and the vitality of painting in the streets illegally.” (Utah & Ether about page)

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Fragments from the history of Melbourne’s graffiti

Graffiti, fly-pasting and stencil advertising have been around in Melbourne for a long time, at first it was mostly advertising. The traditions and media of Melbourne’s street art were created by the advertising industry, only the product changed, from commercial to self-promotion or art.

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It was also the advertising industry that brought the law down on these techniques as Andrew Brown-May in his book, Melbourne Street Life (Australian Scholarly, 1998, Kew). “In 1920 some men who had stencilled the footprints of a dog in whitewash on the footpath from Flinders Street to the Majestic Theatre could not be prosecuted under clause 32 by By-Law No.134, as no obstruction or annoyance could be proven. This lead to the creation of a new By-Law No. 156 ‘for regulating or prohibiting the writing, painting, printing, stencilling, placing or affixing of any letter, figure, device, poster, sign or advertisement upon any footpath, street, or road within the said City, or upon any building, fence, or other property vested in the Municipality of the City of Melbourne.'” (p.50)

Later, after graffiti became illegal, there was protest graffiti and tagging in Melbourne. This was painted with a brush and can of paint or written in ink and sometimes documented by Rennie Ellis in three paperback books of photographs of graffiti: Australian Graffiti (1971), Australian Graffiti Revisited (1979) and The All New Australian Graffiti (1985). In 1971 as part of Anti-Vietnam War protests the word “PEACE!” was painted in large white letters on the pillars of the north portico the Shrine. Tagging and slogan writers had no limits, there was graffiti on Vault in the City Square and even more when it was moved to Batman Park. For more on this phase see my earlier post Remembering Australian Graffiti History.

At the start of 1980s aerosol hip-hop style graffiti started in Melbourne. An early article to explore Melbourne’s graffiti culture in depth was Chris Everett, “Adrenalin” (Youth Issues Forum, Dec 1988 – Jan 1989). “As a result of the pervasiveness of rap, spray can art ‘crews’ sprang up in a wide range of often contrasting areas around Melbourne. These areas are possibly best delineated by the railway lines. In 1984 crews were most active along the Belgrave, Frankston and Hurstbridge lines. These were their home lines and the artists tended to work within these boundaries. Home suburbs included West Heidelberg, Macleod, Burnley, Elsternwick and Mentone. By 1985 crews were leaving their mark on most other lines though some, such as the Gowrie line have remained relatively untouched. Lines which have produced the most crews comprise all those from Epping to Frankston inclusive.”

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In the article Everett points out some of the standard elements of graffiti youth culture, especially the conflict between the graffiti artists and the rail transport authorities, laying the blame this on the heavy hand of the transport authorities. Aside from the heavy hand of transport authorities and police Melbourne was receptive to the new graffiti style. There was a graffiti wall in the original City Square that along with Central Station Record’s shop creating a hub for graffiti writers. Everett mentions exhibitions of graffiti at the National Gallery of Victoria and the City Gallery but doesn’t give any details about either of these (I’m guessing that the NGV exhibition might have been Keith Haring painting the water wall window in 1984).

There was no mention in Everett’s article of the anti-American attitude in Australia towards aerosol graffiti that was seen as an imported cultural product along with the rest of the elements of hip hop. But Everett does make one interesting cultural point about graffiti writers in Australia. “Their continued confidence and desire to have their bold art ‘on display’, whether on walls or in a gallery , needs to be nurtured in a country notorious for its cultural cringe and tall poppy syndrome.”


Adnate, Bigger and Better in Hosier

Tuesday morning 8:30am and half-way up the spray paint encrusted Hosier Lane, amid a cluster of cameras, Mayor Robert Doyle is talking with street artist, Adnate about his almost completed mural. Adnate and Mayor Doyle are obviously enjoying their conversation and I can hear snatches of it amid the sound of the cameras.

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“I love paint, I paint 7 days a week, 365 days a year…” Adnate explains to the Mayor. “You don’t want to become too attached to your work because then you don’t progress… Aerosol spray paint, the background is acrylic…dodgy paint roller… texture…”

It is the media preview of the still unfinished multi-story mural commissioned by Hosier Inc. and paid for through an arts grant from the City of Melbourne. The mural is the face of a a local aboriginal boy from Melbourne’s northern suburbs gazing towards Birrarung Marr.

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Adnate has been up on a scaffold painting for three days and will be working up there again today. (See my post PaintUp!) Five years ago Adnate was just another graffiti painter doing pieces with the AWOL crew along the Upfield line. Then he started painting faces, not the unusual graffiti characters, not stars but the faces of children of indigenous peoples. Adnate is now represented by Metro Gallery.

Five years ago conservative politician and former State Opposition Leader Robert Doyle had just started his first term as Lord Mayor; he was elected on the 30 November 2008. He had come to the position with a conservative attitude to graffiti but Melbourne’s street art started to change his mind.

This is not just a story about a new mural in Melbourne but about people changing their minds and then changing the world around them. Part of it started in 2012 when the Melbourne City Council proposed CCTV cameras in Hosier Lane to reduce crime in the area. This proposal was successfully resisted by the street art community (see my posts To CCTV or Not CCTV 1 and 2). The City of Melbourne has since revised its policy on graffiti management and Hosier Inc. was formed. Hosier Inc is a community organisation of interested people formed not to manage the anarchic lane way but to provide a hub for communication about the lane. It hasn’t been the perfect solution, there are still problems in the lane, but has improved the lane and its street art.

Mayor Doyle and Adnate spoke to the media and the trio of television cameras. Mayor Doyle described the mural as an “important and large work, more permanent, not a forever work, but more permanent than the other art in the lane.” Change is constant in Hosier Lane; it was once part of the garment district, from 1936 to 1939 Melbourne’s Communist Party Headquarters was at 3 Hosier Lane. Now the lane is street art destination and tourist attraction.

Mayor Doyle departs, Adnate poses for a few more photographs and then gets back on the scaffolding to start another day painting.


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For the last two days Adnate, from Melbourne’s AWOL crew has been up in the heavens painting on the rear wall of McDonald House that faces in Hosier Lane. Adnate will be up there painting for a few more days to come.

McDonald House (no relation to fat food empire) is a seven story building built in the Chicagoesque style. It was originally built in 1921 as warehouse but has since been converted to offices. The wall overlooking the lane has not been painted before because it has been too high and inaccessible.

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The current painting was made possible because the cement rendering on the wall of the building was being repaired and the scaffold had to be installed. Adnate’s giant piece was commissioned by local community association Hosier Inc. and funded by the City of Melbourne’s annual arts grant program. Hosier Inc. say that is the first instalment in a series of major artworks for the lane.

Ink & Clag in Hosier Lane

Ink & Clog in Hosier Lane

Down below in the lane the tourists come, take photos and go. At the Flinders Street corner a notice that the Ink & Clog, a crew from Singapore has been painting. (I’ve had a long interest in Singapore Graffiti). Near the Flinders Lane end two guys, both named Dave, are sitting on stacks of milk crates watching Adnate paint. One of the Dave’s is better known as Phoenix, whose paste-ups can be seen in Flinders Lane and other places around Melbourne. The other Dave is David Russell who is photographs Melbourne’s street art scene and whose photographs are regularly seen on Invurt. The location was a difficult one to photograph and David Russell was preparing to go up on top of various buildings around the lane to get photographs of Adnate’s progress.

Melbourne is now following the example of many European and South American street art of very large legal murals to bring art and colour to a giant run-down and drab wall. I can’t tell how Adnate’s mural will look when it is finished, hopefully it will be as good as the face that he did in an earlier piece with the rest of the AWOL crew in Fitzroy.

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Adnate with the AWOL crew, Gertrude Street


Crazy City Comforts

The way that the city is used had changed fundamentally along with the way that people moved around in it. In the 1890s the Melbourne City Council did not provide any public seating in order to discourage loitering. A century later, in the 1990s the city council was adding even more flamboyant seating not just for tired pedestrians but also as decoration to the street.

There are sculptures that are intended to be used as seats like Edward Ginger’s “Echo” or the plinth of “The Children’s Tree” by Tom Bass. And there is seating as sculpture like he polished steel blobs like solidified solder on Collins Street, Matthew Harding’s Mercury Rising, 2008.

In 1992 the City of Yarra installed 3 mosaic benches by Giuseppe Roneri along Brunswick Street. There are two on the corner of Victoria Street and one on the corner of Westgarth Street. They also installed another bench near Leicester St. made of wood and iron cut in a floral pattern with the words “Shine On Me” in the centre of the back; the bench was made by M. Bronwyn Snow. These sculptural benches contributed to the street life.

In 1994, the City of Melbourne, followed the example of the City of Yarra, and added what was described in the design brief as “unique and distinctive forms of street seating” in the streets. They added Simon Perry’s “The Public Purse” to the Bourke Street Mall and another bench by M. Bronwyn Snow, “Resting Place” located near the corner of Swanston Walk and Little Lonsdale Street. Snow’s “Resting Place” is more elaborate than her earlier bench in Fitzroy. It is a double-sided bench of steel and jarrah with decorative iron supports featuring giant steel sunflowers and vines. Another piece of whimsy added to Swantson Street.

It could be worse, there is tiled red lips seat on Southbank – a kitsch copy of Dali’s May West sofa (which is actually the work of Barcelona architect and designer, Oscar Tusquets) – and another photo opportunities for tourists.

These seats confuse distinctions between public sculpture and architectural urban design. They raise the question of what is the use of sculpture? As a drinking fountain, a seat or a rubbish bin. The unofficial use of crevices in public sculpture as places to stuff rubbish. The hall through the middle of the Jason Waterhouse “Dwelling” in front of the Coburg Public Library is an official rubbish bin.

Walking around the city you might somewhere to sit. You might need a drink of water but drinking fountains are a whole other story. You might also need a toilet but as far as I know there isn’t an artist designed public toilet in Melbourne yet. There are plenty of unofficial artist, or architect designed rubbish bins, maybe future design briefs for public sculpture should include rubbish bins or ashtrays? The philistine inclusion of a practical use for a sculpture goes against the aesthete idea of art for arts sake. The political moderation of these two extreme positions creates these unique Melbourne seats.

(For more about this see my earlier blog post Moving & Sitting in the City.)


Russell Street Sculptures

On awkward location of the wide median strip in the middle of Russell St., between Bourke St. and Lt. Collins St., there are two mysterious sculptures. This wide median strip was originally the location of Melbourne’s first underground toilet (and first public toilet for women) opened 1902 and decommissioned in 1994. The median strip also incorporates the ventilation point for the decommissioned Telstra tunnels that run beneath Melbourne’s CBD.

The sculptures are Chris Reynolds, “A History apparatus – Vessel Craft & Beacon”, 1993 (installed 1994-5) a 24m. long series of aluminum and fiberglass forms, part of which is attached to some steel rails. And Maurie Hughes, “Ceremony and Vehicle for Conveying Spirit”, 1996, made from silicon, bronze, galvanized and mild steel. The two sculptures are separated by centre of the road car parking and some plane trees; so although Maurie Hughes’s sculpture was intended to refer to Reynolds’ sculpture the two do not appear connected. Both of the sculptures are composed of several parts as well as long titles. And they both have a strange functional appearance implied by their liner design along the median strip.

One reason for these odd sculptures can be explained in the process of commissioning the sculptures. Chris Reynolds “A History apparatus” was part of the National Metal Industry Sculpture Project, a sculpture-in-residency program. It was a collaborative effort between the artist and the Australian Metal Workers Union, Aerospace Technology of Australia and the City of Melbourne. Maurie Hughes’ sculpture was linked to the redevelopment of Telstra’s former Russell Street exchange and funded by Telstra and the City of Melbourne’s Urban & Public Art Program. It was commissioned with a brief to “incorporate the functional and visually meaningful elements of the vent”; the vent is part of a decommissioned Telstra tunnel.

Maurie Hughes, "Ceremony and Vehicle for Conveying Spirit", 1996

Maurie Hughes’s “Ceremony and Vehicle for Conveying Spirit” has three elements: totem pillars, the chimney and a gate each with their own plinth. The wheels on the chimney and the smaller wheels on the base of the gate suggest movement but this sculpture is going nowhere. The chimney flue form is presumably above the old Telstra tunnel’s vent.

Chris Reynolds, “A History apparatus - Vessel Craft & Beacon”, 1993

Chris Reynolds’s “A History apparatus – Vessel Craft & Beacon” feels disappointing as a sculpture; given the whole apparatus with the rails and vessels, you expect it to do more. The sculpture leaves me with a sense of disappointment and failure.

I have not been able to find anything more about these two artists. Like other artists who received commissions for public sculptures from the City of Melbourne their careers have not been notable.

The sculptures in the middle of Russell St. do not attract much close examination; their eccentric meanings appear impenetrable. Looking awkward and out of place they fail to give a sense of place, or excite the imagination. The problems with these sculpture stem from their location and commission before the two artists even started work.


Cocker Alley & Nicholas Building

Cocker Alley at the back of the Nicholas Building has been largely untouched by street artists, except for a stencil work of a diving helmeted figure (by Banksy?) preserved under plexiglass, at the corner. The rest of the ally is used to store rubbish bins. Perpetually in shadow and stinking, Cocker Alley is not a welcoming place, and drawing attention to it with the Laneway Commission can only help.

“Welcome to Cocker Alley” by Bianca Faye and Tim Spicer is part of the City of Melbourne’s Laneway Commissions 08. “Welcome to Cocker Alley” imitates the external pipes of Paris’s Centre George Pompidou in an ephemeral work, the gold leaf is expected to dissolve completely over the course of the year. The pipes covered in gold are all sewer pipes coming from the toilets on that side of the Nicholas Building so there is an obvious psychological interpretation – shit is gold.

The Nicholas Building was once a modern office building; consider all the modern conduits of communication in the building, the elevator, the no longer functional mail slide that runs from the top floor to the ground. It is now a bohemian haunt, from the boutique fashion stores in the arcade with its leadlight roof, to the elevator operators and the artists, jewellery makers and fashion designers that have their studios in the building. The building also houses is also the Victorian Writers offices and three art galleries: Blindside, Pigment and Stephen McLaughlan Gallery.

When I was last in Stephen McLaughlan Gallery there were a trio of musicians rehearsing and contributing to the pleasant ambience. Laurel McKenzie was exhibiting a series of digital prints of a collage of a field of textures with figures roughly torn from the same textured surface. It creates an intense visual effect recognizing the camouflaged forms. And in the south facing part of gallery, Craig Barrett was exhibiting a series of drawings of central Australian landscapes.

A floor lower at Blindside Artist-Run Space was showing Prohibition by Pamela See. See’s contemporary paper-cut work expand this delicate traditional art to floor pieces and steel sculpture. Cutting falling leaves from old Chinese propaganda images creates a strange, ambivalent nostalgic mood.

The studios at the back of Blindside are being cleared out in preparation to create another gallery space. The Nicholas Building continues to change and evolve.


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