Instead of going out paint-spotting today; photographing graffiti and street art around the city I am staying home. I have been cleaning up my photo collection of graffiti and street art. The photos need to be named, tagged, filed. In the process I saw my photos of Hosier Lane and, the then adjoining, Rutledge Lane from a decade ago in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Hosier Lane was not created so that people could sell product or attract tourists. It was a place for graffiti writers and street artists, where they could spray in the centre of city. Not that those original intentions mean anything in what it has become. So here is a photo-essay about Hosier Lane from over a decade ago when there were a lot less tourists and a bit more respect for the art.
War is not pretty. War is ugly. Even a very small territorial war between a Melbourne street artist, 33rd Key and various graffiti writers over a wall gets ugly. The wall is part of some units beside the railway on Reynard Street. It is a large wall that is visible from the road, bike path and the railway line.
It is this view from the trains that make it a valuable asset to the area’s graffiti writers. While these days, few trains are sprayed in Melbourne trains are still connected to graffiti as they are one of the prime ways of viewing graffiti. Consequently walls along railway lines are valuable territory.
There are always new pieces being sprayed along the Upfield bike path. If the developers thought that by having the wall painted by a street artists would be enough to stave off graffiti. They were wrong.
The battle started just after the units had been built in 2017 when Melbourne street artist, 23rd Key was commissioned to paint a mural on the wall. 23rd key’s wall of botanical stencils were bland and boring, even compared to their other work. It might have satisfied the developers but it certainly did not impress the graffiti writers. It was not covered in a clear layer of graffiti resistant paint. And 23rd Key has not responded in paint as a graffiti writer would; they have no further interest in the wall after they have been paid for the original painting.
I don’t know what the motives or casus belli ; I’m not sure if motives are the right thing to examine in a war. Had there been a violation of the graffiti writer’s code of conduct? Had some graff writer had already staked their claim to the wall before 23rd Key sprayed paint?
There was another buff and an attempt to get the wall repainted however, once the war started, all kinds of things happened in the free fire paint zone. Each layer of paint is another skirmish. Someone even took to it with a paint filled fire extinguisher. The graffiti writers have won by their persistent bombing campaign but at what a cost. It is now one of the least attractive walls along the whole train-line.
Legal walls that graff writers paint are rarely subject to tagging or bombing. It is not that it doesn’t happen but when it does it is quickly dealt with. Legal walls, that graffiti writers have permission to paint, are well maintained and even repainted when the colours fade. (See my post about same walls or about how the AWOL crew responded to the vandalism of one of their walls for examples.)
The most interesting aspect of this battle is that part of the wall painted by the naive artist with a brush has been left alone in this spray-can contest. This shows that graff writers do not consider that they have the right to paint all walls along the train-line and that they are painting by a code of conduct.
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.
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.
“I like this guy!” One of the three blonde girls declared pointing at a piece by Facter. All of the girls were wearing tiny denim shorts and overall less cloth than next two people in Hosier Lane but I won’t discount their opinion for lack of clothing. I was more amazed that they liked Facter.
Facter is an old hand in Melbourne’s street art scene and amongst the most important people in the scene. He grew up with the tiny Perth graffiti scene in the 1980s (when you couldn’t spellcheck your tags). He is a nice guy and more of a writer than a graff writer; he is the editor in chief of Invurt. He is more significant as an advocate, curator and organiser, then for his painting on the street.
Facter’s pieces are robotic segmented creatures that exist somewhere between street art and aerosol graffiti; the letter form of graffiti replaced by the outline of the creature but most of the traditional aerosol elements of a piece are still there. There is a childish joy in the bright colours in his pieces and shapes. Facter also makes designer toys in this style.
That day I was exploring the Melbourne grid and although I have been doing that for years there are still parts that I haven’t seen. Hoping that just down this lane will find something beautiful or surprising. Sometimes I do but more often it will be more construction, workers smoking out or a van being unloaded. I didn’t find anything that day; last week I found Baptist Place and the work of the Night Krawler but I can’t expect to do that every time so I went back to some of the major street art locations.
That day I had already seen a couple of pieces by Facter; there were two in Croft Alley in Chinatown. Croft Alley still has plenty of fresh graffiti pieces in it, only it is so narrow that there are only a couple of walls that are easily photographed.
In Hosier Lane there was more political pieces reflecting the current political issues: the students strike against climate change inaction and the conviction of Cardinal George Pell. It is so political that Van Rudd has a prominent section of wall for his brush painted mural. I’ve forgotten who said that street art had lost its political edge.