Tag Archives: graffiti history

Looking back at street art in 2009

I have been reporting on Melbourne’s street art and graffiti in this blog for over a decade. What has changed? And what did I get completely wrong? The largest and most obvious change is that the walls have got larger until they were the size of grain silos.

Part of a large wall by AWOL crew 2009

It has been a decade of adjusting tensions between local city councils and the people who create art on their streets. There are now a lot more legal walls, in 2009 they were not as common as there are now. Businesses were far ahead of local councils in this regard because they didn’t have to negotiate with people with an ideological commitment to be against graffiti they just looked at their triple bottom line.

In  2009 as graffiti and street art grew in popularity anti-graffiti legislation was a draconian punitive response; instead of fines, jail terms. Consequently many graffiti and street art events, like the Croft Alley Project, had a specific political agenda.

Melbourne still doesn’t have a street art centre and specialist street art galleries have not survived. I was completely wrong about this, While some people imagined a centre at Docklands, many people objected to having any institution, even a festival like the Melbourne Stencil Festival in 2009. In other cities street art centres have been created without the dire consequences that the nay sayer predicted.

Street art was always welcome by art galleries and a mainstream art career was always a clear path a decade ago as it is now. I don’t know why I thought that a parallel gallery system might emerge.

A decade ago there was more of a need to place street art within a historic context (or was that just me?) to prove that it was connected with art history and a continuing tradition of graffiti. As it turned out this was irrelevant.

Although no-one is talking about doing street art with living moss anymore much has stayed the same. Many of the same artists are still putting work up in the street. In 2009 I saw my one of the first Junky Projects on a side street in Fitzroy.

Modern Artists & Graffiti

During the 20th century artists looked to the street and graffiti for inspiration. Street art has a century of artistic interest from modern art. I hope to show in this short and incomplete history that street art is not a transitory fad but the flowering of long established trends in art history.

At the turn of the 20th century modern artists attempting to connect with authentic, democratic creativity turned to the naïve, folk, primitive and street art. Graffiti was the logical conclusion as it was both urban and, at that time, primitive. Modern artists like Francis Picabia, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock and Cy Twombly found inspiration in graffiti and tried to imitate it in their paintings.

Balla, Bankrupt, oil painting, 1902

The urban landscape of the street, including its graffiti, was important theme in modern art. As early as 1902, the Italian painter Giacomo Balla, who later was a member of the Futurists, painted a realist urban scene that focused on the chalk marks on a door – “The Bankrupt”. Brassaï photographed graffiti on Paris streets in the 1920s. English Pop artists reproduce graffiti in their art just as they reproduced other signs from the modern world. David Hockney used graffiti in some of his early paintings. And Gilbert and George used photographs of graffiti in ‘The Dirty Word Pictures’, 1977. All of these artists were working with graffiti before the aerosol spray paint drastically improved the quality, at least calligraphically, of contemporary graffiti.

When aerosol graffiti emerged on the streets and subway cars of New York about 1968 it obtained a new sophistication and, with the late 60s focus on youth culture, a new relevance. In the same year the Situationalist International covered the streets of Paris during May riots with graffiti slogans bringing graffiti firmly into the attention of art students, including Malcolm McLaren. Graffiti was no longer the source material and inspiration for art; it was now art.

Graffiti and street art has since spread around the world. Some of its exponents quickly moved into art galleries: Robert Combas, Harold Naegeli, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and, most famously, Jean-Michel Basquiat all emerged from a street art background.

And graffiti continues to be the source of inspiration for contemporary non-street artists. Most notably, Gilbert and George have returned to using contemporary graffiti in their recent work, with mirrored images of tags in their ‘Perversive Pictures’, 2004. “Like the other pictures incorporating found text – whether graffiti, personal advertisements or street flyers – they form an idiosyncratic map of the city, tracing the artist’s endless wanderings” Wrote Simon Bolitho about the Gilbert & George Major Exhibition (Tate Modern, 2007)

“We’re making pictures out of the subjects that talk to us: religion, graffiti, sexuality.” Gilbert & George (interviewed by Michael Fitzgerald “We are two people but one artist: Four decades of Gilbert & George” Art & Australia v.47 n.4 p.577)

This is just a rough draft the future history of art will have a lot more to say about the relationship between modern art and graffiti that has developed into contemporary street art.

Kings Way

Duro Cubrilo, Martin Harvey and Karl Stamer, Kings Way – The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti: Melbourne 1983 – 93 (The Miegunyah Press, 2009)

This massive 373-page book shows the beginnings of Melbourne graffiti, extensively documented in photographs. There is excellent information on spray-cans, marker-pens, trains and train yards; things close to a graffiti writer’s heart. The culture of tagging and train bombing in the 80s and early 90s is extensively covered.

The beginning in 1983 is clearly marked with the introduction of hip-hop music and break-dancing to Melbourne in 1983 with the video of Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Girls”. There had been graffiti in Australia before but the hip-hop inspired work was distinctly different in style. A decade later 1993 is selected as end of this beginning because of changes to the rail network meant that writers moved away from the railways. And, “Writing in Melbourne was a victim of its own popularity, achieving a degree of public acceptance as an art form with some city laneways become designated legal painting zones.” (p.23)

All three of the authors were involved with the early graffiti scene that they are writing about. Their ownership of the history and the documentation of this subculture is the book’s greatest strength and weakness. The intended reader is assumed to be part of the subculture. The exclusiveness of the gang (or crew to use the right lingo) is still evident in the book, influencing not only the writing and photographs but the shape of the history. To put it plainly: they can’t see the forest for the trees.

Most of the pages document the pieces of individual writers or crews. There is an attempt to identify stylistic changes: Abstract Era (1986 – 1987), Technical Era (1988 – 1989) and Experimental Era (1991 – 1993). These eras are rather less convincing than the micro-divisions of cubism into analytic and synthetic. And these eras also fail to match the eras of tag names. (p.242)

I did take some notes from the book to improve my own timeline of Melbourne’s graffiti and street art but the information is poorly organized rather shaky. In writing about the City Square the book fails to establish when the graffiti board was installed 1980.  Some of the text is just plain weird and clumsy. “As with many buildings constructed in the years before this period, the wall and roofing of the abattoirs were ravaged by asbestos, which made the building unsafe for human inhabitation and hence led to its eventual closure and abandonment.” (p.152) Did an editor ever read this sentence?

Maybe I’m expecting too much from yet another coffee table book about street art. After all most people are just going to look at the pictures and the book has some great photographs of Melbourne’s early graffiti. I was particularly struck by the photographs that remind me how tagged the interior of trains were in the early 1990s and ephemeral nature of my own memory of the ordinary experience of traveling by train.

There are now many books about street art or graffiti in Melbourne and none of them is particularly outstanding. Jake Smallman & Carl Nyman Stencil Graffiti Capital Melbourne (Mark Batty Publisher 2005) focused on stencil graffiti with lots of pictures often grouped together by themes: animals, robots, cartoons, music etc. and profiles of some artists. Matthew Lunn, Street Art Uncut, (Caftsman House, 2006) takes a broader view of Melbourne’s street art from aerosol, to tagging to the experimental.

Remembering Australian Graffiti History

Tram Stop 21, outside the Brunswick Mechanics Institute, has a photograph of light graffiti by local artist Robyn Cerretti. Cerretti spells out “forever” using a sparkler against a dark urban setting. It is an ironic comment on Arthur Stace’s famous chalk graffiti “eternity” as ‘forever’ is a synonym for ‘eternity’. But a lit sparkler does not last forever, nor does Stace’s chalk on pavement. A word does not equate to the existence of a thing and so the ontological argument for the existence of God (or eternity), formulated by St. Anselm, leaves reality in the perfect, super-fast spaceship.

Arthur Stace is also the subject of a film by Julien Temple, The Eternity Man (2008) based on the stage opera by Australian composer Jonathan Mills and poet Dorothy Porter. Arthur Stace was an illiterate Sydney ex-alcoholic with an obsessive compulsive disorder and a one-word evangelical mission tag that made him an Australian legend. Stace lead a very dull life and both the film and opera have to work hard to make it interesting for even a short time.

The calligraphic appeal of Stace’s Copperplate letters made his work visually unique at time when graffiti was more concerned with the message and not the media. In the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s graffiti in Melbourne was limited to aphoristic slogans (rather like the art of Jenny Holtzer) written in simple fonts using house paint and a brush. It was more a form of literature than visual art. I found an old notebook of mine with a short list of graffiti slogans from the ‘80s and early ‘90s:

“Bite the wax tadpole”

“Real punks can’t spell capocino”

“Stilettos are a push over – wear bovvers”

“Nuclear families have fallout”

“There is only one thing worse than the desire to command – the will to obey.”

“1991 the year of LOVE (on the dole)”

Rennie Ellis exhibition “No Standing Only Dancing” at the NGV has nine photographs of Australian graffiti in the 1970s and 80s, at the very far end of the exhibition. Ellis photographs are social realism and his photographs of graffiti simply document them. It is mostly political slogans like “Smash the Housing Commission” along with photographs of two modified billboard advertisements and the photograph that gave its title to the whole exhibition “No Standing Only Dancing”. Ellis has an extensive collection of photographs of graffiti from this time and published three paperback books of photographs of graffiti: Australian Graffiti (1971), Australian Graffiti Revisited (1979) and The All New Australian Graffiti (1985).

I presume than in 20 or 30 years the NGV will have an exhibition of some photographer’s images of Melbourne’s current street art and that future artists will celebrate its images, when it is safely history.

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