Tag Archives: Rennie Ellis

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.


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.”

Talking Points on the Street

In several of Melbourne’s lanes and alleys there a lot of people were talking about the graffiti. There was usual school group with art teacher in Hosier Lane, a young woman taking photos, and a middle aged man who had seen the ABC documentary on graffiti in Melbourne and had learnt to appreciate what he had previously regarded as rubbish. It is an unlikely scenario; strangers talking to each other about art in a city alley full of rubbish bins but in Melbourne it is common. Even if you can’t read the writing on the wall street art inspires communication, it is a social lubricant, providing a contact point for strangers in the big city.

Isn’t that the whole point of art? – To provide a reason or focus for communication. There is a lot of unofficial communications on the street. The streets will always provide a forum for politics that can’t be censored. Many political groups will use a sticker campaign to get their message on the streets. It is an obvious choice if you fear censorship or reprisals or just hassles.

"Corrupt Cops Killed Carl" sticker in Brunswick

Currently on the streets of Brunswick there is a sticker campaign against the Victorian police. A sticker: “Corrupt Cops Killed Carl” commenting on the death in jail of Melbourne gangster, Carl Williams. There are more stickers on the theme of corruption in the Victorian police scattered around the streets of Brunswick. Another much stranger and bigger political paste-ups on the streets of Brunswick (and Fitzroy and Coburg – how big is this poster campaign?) is advocating considering the alternatives.

"Seek an alternative" poster in Brunswick

Finally in this discussion of the graffiti discourse I must mention the Dunny Art blog. Following in the footsteps of photography Rennie Ellis’s books on Australian graffiti: Australian Graffiti (1971), Australian Graffiti Revisited (1979) and focusing on traditional, pre-aerosol graffiti Dunny Art, photographs graffiti on toilet wall around the world. The comment and reply nature of these ad hoc discussion walls is another forum that can’t be censored.

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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