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Tag Archives: tags

Melbourne Street Art Past and Future

In Centre Place there are a couple of relics of an earlier era of Melbourne’s street art. Both the City Lights and Heart Lock are now covered in layers of paint and stickers. Centre Place was once a prime location for graffiti and street art, now after a new building it is now too small for more than one or two pieces.

The heart lock is still there but has lost its heart and I think that it has been moved from its original location. I guess that Melbourne walking tour guides no longer tell the love story about Paula Birch’s Sacred Heart of Centre Place (See Demet Divaroren’s Blog for the legend). Andy Mac’s City Lights Project were photo light boxes; you can still see the now redundant cables for the power. There were two sets installed in Centre Place and Hosier Lane back in the 1996. (For more see my blog post from 2009.)

Appearing to go further back in time; I spotted these initials carved into the bluestones along the bank of the Yarra. At first I thought that they might have been stonemason’s marks. However, if they were stonemason’s marks I would have expected them more widespread amongst the stone embankment rather than concentrated in one place. If they were stonemasons would also expect greater quality in the carving of the initial. So I suspect that they are mid-century modern tags but they could be earlier.

I photographed some more stencils around the city; not surprised that this time they are in the laneway leading to the new location for Blender Studios. Melbourne’s street art and graffiti appears to have entered a holding pattern. Instead of any developments or new directions there is an almost steady state where we can expect more repetition. No new developments, just new walls with the same kind of stuff on them. There are so few innovators currently on the scene that I’m not even aware of any disruptors, like Lush. In another old street art location, Presgrave Place, there are new works by Tinky, Phoenix and Calm.

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Modern Art & Tagging

‘Tag’, used as a noun means a name on the street; as a verb it means to write a tag.

It is a basic human right to have a name. And names are in part poetry, as well as, part magic. There hasn’t been enough written about the artistic and poetics of tags – Psalm first impressed me for the poetry of the word chosen, both in the biblical references, as well as, the two sets of constants bracketing a single vowel.

Think about those big blockbuster exhibitions at the NGV where the artist’s signature is enlarged as a logo, think about all the brand names on t-shirts, trucker caps, etc. that are part of the contemporary world. Think about all this and you find it is not surprising that people want to tag everywhere.

Considering the artistic value of a tag, as calligraphy, as a combination of letters, as the cool status that the name implies.

The artistic history of the tag along with the importance of the artist’s signature – is an important factor in contemporary art. Were Duchamp’s signatures essentially tags? He applied his signature to various objects, not only to his readymades, ordinary objects transformed into art. Duchamp also signed restaurant murals and other things joking about the transformative power of his signature.

And there is a connection between the tag on the street and the European avant-garde tradition. The connection is Brion Gysin.

“Gysin’s final work, completed less than a year before his death, was a ten-panel painting entitled Calligraffiti of Fire (1985), a reworking of an idea first tackled in a small accordion notebook from 1961, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York… Indeed it is not difficult to interpret a work like Calligraffiti as an immense tag, a signature “across the sky,” in Burrough’s words…” (Laura Hoptman Brion Gysin – Dream Machine, Merrell, 2010, New York, p.65)

Calligraffiti is not an isolated work in Gysin’s art and was influential on Keith Haring. Gysin’s influence on the Keith Haring connects street art with the European avant-garde back to Surrealism. Laura Hoptman in Brion Gysin – Dream Machine argues that Gysin’s calligraphic art, although influenced by his experience with Japanese and Arabic script is simply his initials: ‘BG’ endlessly repeated.

So next time you consider a tag (in joy or anger) consider these words of Brion Gysin; “I may write only what I know in space: I am that I am.”

(For more about the relationship between graffiti and modern art read my post Modern Artists & Graffiti.)

Tags @ Project Melbourne Underground


Civil Civilization

Imagine a lonely person who believes that they are the last person alive on earth walking through a modern city. The place could be anywhere in the world. The architecture is international modernism; glass walls and the Brutalist concrete constructions. The modern forms repeat endlessly down the empty streets. The city grid is all empty and quiet and perfectly undisturbed. It is a sterile environment where not even weeds grow.

The lonely person walks down empty streets desperately searching for signs of other life in the empty buildings. Then the person sees a fresh tag, spray-painted on a wall – a handmade sign. This in itself is a reason not to commit suicide. Then another tag – and following the trail of tags the lonely person comes to a huge painted sign. A clear indication of another living human, like Robinson Crusoe seeing Friday’s footprint on the beach.

The tag is an intentional human sign that says I exist.

Civil suggested this story in his talk at “Vandals or Vanguards?” that was part of the Space Invaders exhibition at RMIT (26/9/2011).

Civil’s early stencils really turned me on to street art. I always remember seeing his early stencils around Richmond but unfortunately I didn’t carry a digital camera in those days so I can’t show you any (I will always regret that). They were very political, a bowler hatted man in a suit with polite, civil slogans encouraging revolt. Then I saw his stick figures – I was slightly disappointed that he had changed style and I realized that I was already a fan. I was not that disappointed because the simple stick figures are like those simple figures of Keith Haring, or Henri Matisse in the Rosaire Chapel. They are perfect and beautiful figures in their pure simplicity. There is still a political message in these mass figures – they are a civil community. The community of figures interact in their individual ways, sitting talking with another figure, walking with their dog, riding their bicycle.

Some of these figures are done with stencils (as can be seen in this photo of Civil working at the first Croft Alley Project) but many are simply ‘throw-ups’ drawn freehand with a spray can. And when you see them you recognize that other humans exist.

Civil is a veteran of Melbourne’s street art scene with a particularly strong sense of community that came with that scene. A graduate of Monash University in Environmental Science rather than design or fine art, which, I think, gives his simple art a political focus. In other parts of his talk at “Vandals or Vanguards?” Civil spoke about the unresolved and still relevant protests of John Howard era against the Iraq war and World Economic Forum 2001. The disproportionate anger towards graffiti compared to the ugly aspects of urban development. And reclaiming public space from advertising; Civil pointed out that Sao Paulo, another city notable for its street art, has banned outdoor advertising.

Here are some more signs of civilization.


Wannabe art

What is the difference between graffiti and street art? The later is art but that is just a deductive point and the actual difference may be very subtle, like the difference between a carton of Campbell’s soup cans and Warhol’s cartons of Campbell’s soup cans in an art gallery. Part of the difference is that one is in an art gallery and the other is not but that is neither a necessary nor a sufficient difference, a point that seems to have been lost on some wannabe street artists. The white walls around Sutton Gallery in Fitzroy have become covered with graffiti as if this brings the writers closer to art. And now the stairwells of Westspace and Bus artist-run-spaces are becoming covered with tags. Outside Westspace I saw two pairs of shoes hanging from a wire. There are tags on their soles: Drew & Putz. If you sign it does it make it art?

Outside West Space

Outside West Space

But there are still more desperate acts of wannabe art on exhibition in Melbourne. When I visited No Vacancy the smell of aerosol was in the air as Swifty prepared a Susuki hatchback to do a ‘live’ piece at the opening. The Urban Dictionary  defines “Like a Swifty” as a incredibly bad or embarrassing performance at something which the person/s tried hard at. This sums up “The Swifty Show” at No Vacancy Gallery. I have never seen such a derivative exhibition, there is less original content in it than a photocopier. Swifty  is a British street-style designer who wants to be Pop artist and thinks that by re-branding Andy Warhol’s and Jasper Johns’ old images he will be one. Simply re-branding Vegemite jars or Campbell’s soup cans with his own “Swifty” logo is the work of a designer rather than be an artist. I don’t know what fool thinks that this is wit or the sophisticated work of “an unrepentant acolyte of the post hip hop sampling generation”. Swifty’s work might have pseudo-intellectual appeal if you have read a child’s guide to Pop Art.

I don’t know why so many street artists are desperate to get into art galleries when really they could earn a better living as designers than wannabe artists.


Fitzroy Graffiti

Fitzroy is an example about how bad and how good it can get with graffiti. There is tagging everywhere in Fitzroy and the names of some major street artists appear amongst them, like Happy and Phibs. Not that business is suffering due to the tags, there are plenty of customers on Brunswick St. and Smith St. and none of them seem disturbed by the graffiti. Indeed many business on these streets appear to try attract customers with the quality of street art decorations on their building. If Fitzroy is as bad as graffiti can get it can then it is actually less of a threat than noxious weeds.

Along with the tagging there are some magnificent and beautiful works of street art that contribute to Fitzroy’s trendy, artistic and dynamic image. Not all of the street art in Fitzroy is aerosol art. Paste-ups are getting bigger and better; there are some good paste-ups near the corner of Gertrude and Victoria Parade, along with some aerosol work by A1one from Tehran. Further along Gertrude St. there is a tree with its truck and branches covered with croqueted dollies. The lace covering appears almost natural and very beautiful. It is obviously the work of the shop that it is in front of, Cottage Industry.

In Fishers Lane there is a lot of great street art, it is mostly aerosol pieces but also some quality paste-ups and stencils. Without the color street art the car park in Fisher’s Lane would be a very ugly urban location.

One of the best works in Fishers Lane is the “The Banality of Evil” is a great series of paste-ups. Prints of watercolor monotone paintings of a masked man doing the shopping, laundry, cooking and gardening. It is important to remember in these times that the most evil, cruel people in this world are living ordinary suburban lives. And it is important for this message to be on the street rather than preaching to the converted in art galleries.

Another great little location is Little Smith St. is basically an alley but it is also a gallery of famous Melbourne stencils artists including Optic, Psalm and HaHa. Little Smith features a very good version of HaHa’s Ned Kelly stencil in block of Warhol-like repetition.

There are so many good locations in Fitzroy and so many quality work of street art along with all the tagging. This is just a sample.

Ha Ha 'Ned Kelly'

Ha Ha


Tagging & Teenagers

Happy has been happily tagging, recently I have been seeing them everywhere. Ha Ha’s huge tags are still visible, years later, along the Upfield line, as is Dulux. These are not just some kids but some of Melbourne’s most artistic street artists. Happy is well known for his colourful paste-ups, Ha Ha is exhibiting his stencil art in galleries and Dulux is another notable stencil artist.

The fact is that you can’t separate the acceptable artistic street art from the tagging. This is not simply my opinion (based on my observations) but a conclusion that criminologist Alison Young emphasised at a forum on street art (2008).

Personal identity must be expressed; marked in a way meaningful to the individual. Marking identity is as old as handprints painted on cave walls and as contemporary as tags. Tagging is, in part, a response to a lack of other forms of recognition.

Initiation rites marking the transition from childhood to adult have been mostly lost in contemporary society (and perhaps replaced with other rituals). Matthew Lunn in Street Art Uncut (2006) states that the average tagger is 15 years old. Young men in particular are regarded as an uncontrollable element in society as there are no initiation rites to control the young men. The rituals that have replaced initiation rites have been reinvented by the alienated youth – rock’n’roll, punk, hip-hop, street art – “ the realm of protracted danger, pollution and taboo.” [Dana Tiffany “Jarry’s inner Circle and the Public Debate of Pere Ubu” “Event” Art & Art Events ed. Stephen C. Foster (1988)]

The impact of the creativity of alienated teenagers on the history of modern culture is underrated. It is easy to forget reading art history that Alfred Jarry, Tristan Tzara, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, Sid Vicious and many other artists all did their best work before they were 21.

Finally, how is tagging related to Duchamp’s signature? The artist’s signature has been important in art as a method of identification and authentication since the 16th Century. But in the modern world it has taken on new significance and the signature of the artist has become both a brand name and a logo. Duchamp’s use of his signature to make readymade objects art pushed the significance of the artist’s signature still further. The names of some artists are now more famous than their art. Blockbuster art exhibitions use the signatures of famous artists as logos for the exhibition. Tagging becomes the next logical step in this history.


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