“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.
Hosier Lane has changed and will continue to change, it has also stayed the same. The homeless are still in Hosier Lane, seeking shelter around the corner in Rutledge Lane. There are still people doing graffiti in the lane, residents who live in buildings and the workers in the businesses but mostly there are the tourists, local, interstate and international tourists. Hosier Lane is an established part of the Melbourne tourist experience.
From the instigator, Andy Mac moving out of his laneway apartment to draconian anti-graffiti legislation and the threat of installation of CCTV there have been many predictions that the lane would cease to be a successful street art zone. However no-one predicted that the lane would be killed by its own success. What did you expect from street art and graffiti’s aim for mass appeal?
Now many street artists and graffiti writers are complaining that the lane is being destroyed by tourists. There were always tourists who visited the lane but now there are more tour groups and individual tourists than ever before. Tourist attraction are the Kali Yuga, the fourth stage of the world.
There always was developments and building in the lane but now the Culture Kings shop is ripping a hole in the middle. At least we spared it overshadowed by a massive tower, yet another of its predicted demises; Keep Hosier Real.
It has long been an established photo location for bridal, fashion, advertising and selfies but now it is difficult to even walk up it because of the number of cameras pointed across the narrow lane. Every metre there is someone posing for a selfie next to its walls thick with aerosol paint.
Melbourne’s great graffiti location has become crowded with tourists, tour groups all day, every day. There always were tourist in Hosier Lane, often they were on ‘spraycations’, visiting graffiti writers and street artists from around the world had long contributed some of the graffiti in the lane. However, now there is tagging on pieces by people whose handwriting demonstrates that they have no idea of graffiti or its etiquette (do not tag on a piece).
It long ago ceased to be the best place in the city to see street art and graffiti but the tourists don’t care. They are too busy taking photographs of each other in front of its walls. It doesn’t matter that the quality of the painted walls because the focus of their cameras is on the tourist and not the walls. Although it once was sufficient to see Hosier Lane to understand the vibrant scene; seeing or painting in Hosier is no longer necessary for the survival Melbourne’s street art and graffiti.
One obvious benefit that Hosier Lane still provides is that it is an example to every local council and business as to what a success that a graffiti and street art zone can have in the centre of the city. One of the more surprising recent changes is that along with the tourists there is more protest art in the lane, for more on that see my Political Graffiti in 2018. I have been watching and reporting on the development of Hosier Lane for over a decade and I intend to keep on.
In late April on The Conversation Dr. Flavia Marcello. Associate Professor at Swinburne University’s School of Design, asks “Where has Melbourne’s political graffiti gone?” It is worth asking the question but aside from the yearning for the 70s and the overtly political graffiti of those times there wasn’t much to the article.
The scene on the street is now a more complex system, with greater diversity and more types of graffiti and street art operating. Rest assured Dr Marcello there is still plenty of political graffiti and street art in Melbourne. In all kinds of media from aerosol paint to stickers and even yarn bombing. Some of the best is done by stencil artist like Crisp and paste-up artists like Phoenix.
There is a wide variety of causes being promoted from ending Australia’s abuse of refugees to free West Papua. These causes are now in front of the eyes and cameras of international tourists who throng in their thousands to Melbourne’s graffiti attraction of Hosier Lane. The Free West Papua slogan managed to occupy space in the highly desirable Hosier Lane by using a chainlink fence that the aerosol and paste-up artists didn’t want. Consider the subversive power of a series of paste-ups calling to Free Liu Xiaobo in front of the cameras of Chinese tourists taking selfies in Hosier Lane.
So here is a collection of some of the best political street art and graffiti that I’ve seen in Melbourne in the last year or so. Although I am aware that there are many ways that graffiti and street art can be political, as in, contesting public and private space, I have tried to keep the politics of the collection clear and obvious.
At the anti-EastWest Tunnel rally in Brunswick on Sunday there was a man in a Melbourne tram conductors uniform giving living-history performances with a political edge. The dream of better public transport in Melbourne was the positive agenda for the rally.
Melbourne tram drivers no longer ride the trams selling tickets and helping passengers. They have been replaced by machines that are of little assistance to passengers, especially if they are tourists, the elderly, parents with small children, people unfamiliar with the route… grumble, grumble…
The tram conductor’s political street theatre engaged people in conversation about local history and politics. He even was of interest to small children. The tram conductor was from a performance group called The Connies, that is made up of former tram conductors. They advocate, amongst other environmental causes, the reintroduction of tram conductors.
Dressed up in the old uniform of a tram conductor complete with the leather ticket bag with its brass fittings, ticket punch and tickets (remember when a purple city section ticket was only 30c?). The ticket bag was complete with collectable cards of famous tram conductors: Joyce Barry, the first women tram driver in 1975 and Armand “Frenchie” Lefebvre, the performing tram conductor. Hole punched for authentication.
The tangible element of the street theatre; the cards about the famous tram conductors and the old tickets made it a very genuine and engaging performance. Really attractive playing-card sized cards.
I walk home from the rally, thinking/dreaming about better public transport. On the subject of transport I find an automatic email that about my blog being quoted in Free Walks of Melbourne using our Trams. Apparently my post provides a “The following link is a balanced overview of the village” (Pentridge Rehabilitated).
Jason Wing’s “Intervention: Criminal” speaks powerfully. It is a giant paste-up photocopy of a photo of himself with the words “An Australian Government Initiative: Criminal” on a sign hung around his neck. The image has all the sympathy of a mugshot. In 2007 by act of federal legislation the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) legislation better known as “the intervention” removed the rights of the Aboriginal population in the NT. The Australian government gains political power by marginalizing and criminalizing minority groups.
Jason Wing’s image is the centre-piece image of the exhibition “Ghost Citizens: witnessing the intervention” at the Counihan Gallery and features on the exhibition flyer. (In 2009 I wrote about Jason Wing’s first solo exhibition of in this blog.)
My favorite images from the exhibition are Chips Mackinolty’s digital prints “National Emergency Next 1,347,525km” “…and there will be no dancing”; signpost the incredibly vast territory that as an emergency is absurd. I had seen Bindi Cole’s work at the NGV’s Studio space last year but her series of photos are well worth another look to see the absurdity of the idea of the standard image of aboriginal Australia.
The paintings of Dan Jones, Kylie Kemarre, Sally M. Mulda and Amy Napurulla provide a colorful accompaniment to the other works and the bleak subject of the exhibition. Fiona MacDonald’s woven archival print of the landscape of James Cook Island at Sylvania Waters in NSW provides the contrast and made me question who is need of an intervention. There is so much balance in this exhibition between the works of 8 Aboriginal and 5 non-Indigenous artists.
The excellent curatorial skills of Jo Holder and Djon Mundine OAM make this exhibition a powerful experience. The Counihan Gallery has done another great job at bringing together art and politics in this exhibition, a feature of their program this year.
The subject of the exhibition is extraordinarily important to Australia’s culture and its claim to be a civilized nation. Considering the up-coming federal election everyone should make an effort least see this exhibition and try to understand what is happening with the “Basic Card”, the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT and the “intervention”.
One of the most clearly political street artists in Melbourne is Phoenix. His paste-ups are the visual equivalent of a play by Bercht; they always has a message but you to think for yourself. In the case of Phoenix you have to look at the play of words and images in his paste-ups.
Although I write about the politics and street art I haven’t mentioned Phoenix’s work that much because the message is always so clear. But if Phoenix’s work were only political messages there wouldn’t be much art to them. The collage overlay method that he uses to create his images throws up many surreal combinations. The shapes and use of primary colours only make his work instantly recognizable even though there is no tag or other signature.
Phoenix’s paste-ups have a wooden backing and are coated polyurethane that makes them both weather resistant and difficult to remove. There is another reason why his paste-ups are seldom removed, even when the rest of the wall is buffed, and that is the obvious quality and workmanship in every piece
Phoenix, t-shirt face, 2010
I first noticed Phoenix’s paste-ups when he was using t-shapes and then I met up with him when he volunteered at Sweet Streets. Phoenix is a thoughtful guy; he is not the art student type, and older than the typical street artist, more of a cheerful eccentric. His art reflects his thoughtful approach to life and street art.
Phoenix, spraycan hand, 2012
Looking back on the war on terror: I was alert to the anti-war stencils and street art but not alarmed. It was a war with many different sides fighting a propaganda war and Melbourne’s street artists were mocking the official line. Mockery the one thing that really works – laughing at the enemy. The propaganda war continues on the street with street art and stencils.
Phoenix, Osma Scare, 2011
Pheonix, statue of liberty, 2010
Phoenix’s art roses from the ashes of a studio fire and now disintegrates on the streets in a loop of creation.
A century ago Appolinaire wrote about some of Duchamp’s early paintings; “he will reunite art with the people”. The remark was more critical rhetoric by Appolinaire than analysis, as there was no reason to believe the Duchamp’s early cubist paintings was any more or less democratic. Prior to the 20th century art was not democratic it was purely plutocratic, a pursuit for the rich and powerful. Appolinaire was right that art in the 20th century would become more democratic, but I don’t think Duchamp was the artist to do this.
I’ve been thinking about is democracy in art. No, I’m not talking about voting, or people’s choice art prizes. And I’m not thinking about an ideal socialist man who works in a factory in the morning, fishes in the afternoon and writes art criticism in the evening – that will just end in knitting circles. I’ve been thinking about democratic art that is by the people and for the people, as opposed to being by a particular caste/class to another caste/class. Not an abstract “people” that is discussed in political circles, nor people whose public role (be it king or art curator) has diminished their individual taste with organisational responsibility, just individual people.
From the people does not mean that democratic art has to be created by amateur artists in community groups. From the people means that artists do not have to come from a particular group, class or caste. Warhol and Basquiat were both from disadvantaged backgrounds and received their art education at public expense.
Democratic art is promoted peer to peer rather than by academic or royal approval. In the past popular arts had a bad rap from critics and it was probably justified if you consider a life limited to listening to the top ten songs. In the past the limit of the media and this limited audience forced popular arts into a lowest common denominator position, with the occasional rare exception. The limited numbers available for an audience in all but the largest of ancient cities meant that all popular art forms had to cater to the lowest common denominator otherwise they wouldn’t get an audience. Now 1% of a population can be a huge audience. This has changed the arts from what most people would like or should like, to a world where individual preferences are tolerated.
Being able to tolerate your neighbour’s terrible taste is another part of democratic art. In a democracy just as you tolerate right of others to express their stupid political opinions, their blasphemous religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs) and, along with this their taste. Taste, although apparently superficial, is part of politics, religion and culture.
The democratisation of art in the 20th century followed the triumph of the bourgeois in the 19th century. It required both changes in technology and the distribution of art. Technology has been responsible for the democratisation of art – it is no longer mob rule. Shakespeare had to keep both the groundlings and the lords happy. Not anymore. From a room of ones own to headphones; the changes to technology that have lead to a horizontal market for taste, instead of a vertical, hierarchical determination. The vertical market sells exclusively to the hierarchy of institutions and collections. The horizontal democratic model sells to anyone who wants to buy at a price that they can afford. This requires cultural products that come in multiple editions to be sold in large numbers.
Democratic art is not completely level, some people have more money to buy art and some people have more time to post images and comments on the internet. Appreciation of art will always remain an elite activity; the refinement of taste will be a pursuit that not all will choose. But there can be many elites; the elites of speed metal, of classical ballet, of contemporary art or graffiti. The diversity in contemporary art is a feature of its democratisation. Now being an elite is open to everyone but it is a pursuit that only a few will have the time, will and inclination to do. What mean by this democratic elite is a meritocracy the 1% of people who put the time in to contribute seriously to a culture, who aren’t prepared to simply swell a scene in the chorus or to be a spectator.