Tag Archives: train bombing

Painted Trains, Trams & Cars

Graffiti painted trains was the classic format of 1980s and 90s but are there any connection to the Russian painted Agitprop train of 1919? The Agitprop train (“agitprop” a portmanteau word combining agitation and propaganda) was sent out to announce the revolution across Russia; its painted carriages were a demonstration of what the future would be like. (There is a 1919 film about the Agitprop trains on YouTube.)

Flinders Street with painted train

I know that some hardcore aerosol graffiti writers would like to see a connection between this but I’m not sure. It is not as if graffiti writers have the patent on painting trains. The intention of all these officially decorated modes of trains is to enhance its prestige and attraction whereas the graffiti writers are painting for their own reasons.

In the age of railway, trains were often decorated, most frequently in patriotic flags, or specially painted. The Americans had a “Freedom Train” in 1947 painted red, white and blue. France’s president, Charles De Gaulle’ had a private gold and silver decorated train. As well as politicians, circus animal also travelled in brightly painted and decorated railway cars; the brightly painted cages were as part of the attraction.

I am reliably informed that trains are still being painted in Melbourne but I haven’t seen that many in the past years but then I’m not spending a lot of time hanging out on railway platforms where multiple train lines are visible. The war between the railways and the graff writers continues – like all wars the results are often ugly and a peaceful resolution appears impossible.

Melbourne had 40 painted trams in service from 1978 until 1993. It was called “The Transporting Art project” and begun by the Ministry of the Arts under then Premier Rupert Hamer. The artists who painted trams the include: Howard Arkley, Mike Brown, Michael Leunig, Mirka Mora, John Nixon, Clifton Pugh, David Larwill and Lin Onus. (St. Kilda Historical Society has an essay by Joan Auld on Mirka Mora’s tram.) Melbourne needs to revive this art project instead of selling the trams bodies for advertising space.

In 1993 Qantas went bigger and several aircraft painted by aboriginal artists. When will we see the first aeroplane painted by a notable street artist?

Painted Van in Melbourne

I try to photograph all the painted cars, vans and trucks that I see, there aren’t many on the road. (For more pictures see my blog post about Automotive Graffiti.) The hippy tradition of a painted van that started with Ken Keasey’s psychedelic painted bus, “Further” remains a hippy tradition. As a culture we need to ask why are people in Indian and SE Asia happy to decorate their vehicles when the wealthier Westerners don’t? Is the re-sale value more important than the personalisation?


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.


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