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Melbourne Graffiti: The Race for Space

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Urban Enhancement’s lead artist talks about Melbourne Graffiti, its history, and the race for space that has plagued the scene since its beginning.

There was a time not so long ago, before the Melbourne graffiti scene, when this land we all love belonged to no one.
In fact, the people here belonged to the land. The original occupants lived in a symbiotic relationship and had physical and spiritual connections to it.
Colonisers denied the idea of a ‘magical’ connection to this place, ruthlessly dividing up the land as though it were uninhabited and untapped, and deemed it their right to claim ownership. Everything on offer was divvied up and rinsed for what it was supposedly worth.
The strange thing about ownership, a very small percentage seem to end up owning everything and everyone else seems to be borrowing off them.

Melbourne Graffiti, Urban Enhancement, Aboriginal Art
Australian indigenous art is maybe the work of the world’s oldest artists? (Source: ABC)

You might be starting to wonder, what does all this have to do with Melbourne graffiti?
Well, the fact is that Australia has a chequered past when it comes to claiming ownership of a place. Since this land was originally stolen, the land-grab has greatly intensified, upwards and outwards, to the point that people are now frantic to claim any public space.
Artists, cops, advertisers, cleaners and councils constantly bump heads in regards to widely differing perceptions of graffiti and street art and the space this art occupies.
From the perspective of public artists, it’s a never-ending fight between commercialism and freedom of expression. In Melbourne, the mainstream opinion has become more accepting of Graffiti, and even more so of street art. However, where and how you get your work displayed, legally or otherwise, always entails some sort of space-centric turf struggle between numerous warring parties.

A Brief History of Melbourne Graffiti’s War for Space

This ongoing struggle has an extremely colourful history, with the main players laid out below…

Kids vs Cops & Cleaners

In its infancy, Melbourne graffiti was sparse, and often humorous or political. With so many surfaces to choose from, these messages were often scrawled across prominent walls with large bold lettering. Many great examples can be found in the book Australian Graffiti by Rennie Ellis (1975). Slogans such as: ‘No Standing Only Dancing’ and ‘Meat is Murder’ were typical of the time.

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From Australian Graffiti by Rennie Ellis (1975)

It was the explosion of hip hop culture in the early 80s that propelled graffiti art into a global art movement that would remarkably change the cultural landscape of Australia forever.
In this golden time, before mobile phones and parents needing to know where their kids were 24/7, Melbourne’s metropolitan tram and train network became a literal playground for hundreds of youngsters looking for excitement.
Melbourne graffiti artists began scrapping for space; doing loops to tag the insides of trains, rocking handstyles while doing hangouts and back-ons, bombing train stations, bus stops, main roads, rooftops and anywhere else they could reach. It got to the point where writers would get on a train, marker in hand, only to find all the wall space completely filled by the handiwork of other writers. 

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Unnamed graffiti kids/posse in Melbourne during the early days.

With the lack of cameras, police presence, and funds to clean up the ‘mess’ it seemed Melbourne was starting to resemble the Bronx. Numerous news articles about the ‘graffiti blight’ combined with increasing political pressure, saw the introduction of anti-vandal squads, cameras and graffiti clean-up crews. Once these cleaners or ‘buffers’ entered the picture, the race truly began between them and the ever-growing number of writers to keep the city clean or to keep it covered in style.

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Melbourne graffiti cops posing for a pic.

Newly formed police anti-vandal squads, not satisfied with beating up 15-year-old taggers or raiding homes and pressing charges, decided they wanted to get further in on the act.
Enter CTSA (known amongst artists as ‘cops trashing shit art’) or their more recent incarnation CTCV (cops trying to catch vandals). Police anti-graffiti squads who used graffiti gang type acronyms and graffiti tactics to get their message out. They would walk the train lines tagging over the work of graffiti artists. Their main gripe with graffiti was its illegal nature and how “unsightly” they found it, yet they would target colourful well-painted pieces, covering them with ugly scrawling, threats and swearing. (Yes, they really did this). Sometimes even going to the extent of writing the artists name and address over their work or the words “Done” or “Next” implying that they had charged a graffiti artist or that they were next on the list to get raided.

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CTCV (cops trying to catch vandals) attempting to deter graffiti by ruining a trackside burner.

This is how the race was run in Melbourne for a good portion of time.
Then, as styles and attitudes evolved, many artists sought out legal spaces where they could spend more time on their painting techniques.
Some youth organisations saw an opportunity to reach out to ‘at-risk youth’ using graffiti projects as the drawcard to bring the kids in. Many legal Melbourne murals were subsidised by local youth services to encourage artistic development. Hoardings around building sites in the CBD were literally turned into graffiti art galleries, with artists from all over the city coming to claim a spot. What started as an informal graffiti jam gradually grew and artists started collaborating on larger pieces such as the Duel, Mars, Pest Style Machine wall painted trackside in Prahran in 1992 (see below).

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Duel, Mars, Pest collaboration: Style Machine. Painted trackside in Prahran in 1992.

Legal walls became a place for the well-versed train and wall writer to flex their skills in a more elaborate way. By the late 90s and early 2000 crews like WCA were painting ridiculously dope murals in a style that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in NYC.
Some of these works suffered blowback from various hardcore members of the graffiti fraternity who felt slighted if tags or other illegal graffiti was painted over, but ultimately their prowess garnered a new level of respect for Melbourne graffiti from bombers and cleaners alike. Alas, this was not to last, as new players were about to enter the game, and some old ones began making lots more noise. 

The Rise of Street Artists

Melbourne was a Mecca for graffiti before the turn of the century, so when street art boomed in the early 2000s, it was seen by many Melbourne graffiti artists as graff’s annoying little brother.
Stencils, posters/paste-ups, stickers, etc, flew up in places like Hosier lane and other noted spots around the city. Some graffiti writers such as Phibs, Aeon and Psalm were early adopters and partook in street art as well as graffiti. However, its explosion in popularity bought many new participants from a wholly different demographic who had little knowledge of the code that existed amongst graffiti writers. This ignited a considerable beef between graffiti and street artists, and the race for space became even more intense.
Street artists, oblivious to the aforementioned code, would often paste-up posters directly over graffiti pieces. This was a huge no-no, as writers may have spent hours painting risking incarceration, while street artists were only slapping up some posters over the top in a matter of minutes, risking an insubstantial fine for billposting.
In turn, graffiti artists who had a piece of artwork covered by a street art mural would often destroy all of the murals painted by the artist who wronged them. This type of behaviour often sparked copy-cat instances with many new writers jumping on the bandwagon slashing murals just to get a name for themselves and a few extra street credits.

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Melbourne graffiti artists show their lack of respect for street art.

Poster Boys

Another integral player in the grab for space is the commercial street-posting mob;  commissioned by commercial bodies. Paid pennies by their corporate masters to promote bands and festivals, this lot stick giant pieces of glue-soaked paper in places that might grab the eye of the passer-by. They have been a huge part of advertising in Melbourne for many years, plastering the city’s most noted walls since 1986.
For the longest time these guys stayed in their lane, sticking to the spots they were told to hit: main roads, under bridges and hoardings around building sites. Yet, as Melbourne grew in size and continued to gentrify extensively, their business model has continually evolved in order to grab a bigger piece of the ever-expanding pie. With a continually increasing number of clients and the need to show their posters to bigger audiences, they have become the most prolific, and annoying, of competitors in the war for wall space.
Some time ago they dropped all morality and started targeting walls that had already been painted by street or graffiti artists, with no regard for code or aesthetics. Their complete lack of tact has been a major contributor to the slow erosion of street art counterculture in Melbourne, they continue unchecked to this very day.

At least four walls that I have personally painted graffiti murals on over the years have recently been commandeered by these guys. They give the owners of the building a cash payment, paint the wall black then attach a frame to it, so that it encases an ever-changing variety of their soulless adverts. Not that long ago they took out a wall with a mural painted by my now dead friend and renowned graffiti bomber Sinch.
As a professional artist, do I have a right to be mad? Or do I just get pushed aside by big business? Is the ever-expanding reach of the advertising dollar becoming so pervasive that it is now inescapable? 

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On the left, a wall that Sinch had painted some time back. On the right, that same wall covered in commercial posters.

The Media 

Graffiti has always been of interest in the media, particularly around election time when politicians push for a big cleanup of the city (instead of dealing with prevailing drug, homeless or other such crisis). Over the years the Hinch program, 60 mins, and all major news networks have covered graffiti and its cost to the nation.
The media are undoubtedly the most influential voice in the race for space and the public’s general perception of graffiti artists, yet ironically are also the most uninvolved. They blurt out news that 9 out of 10 times paints artists in a negative light, then leave us to fight it out amongst ourselves. 

Prolific graffiti artist Nost is a great example of how the media can set the tone to suit their purposes. He has been covered on numerous occasions, and he is by far Melbourne’s most notorious artist.
It was Nost’s huge street piece on the corner of Hodgkinson and Smith Street that caused quite a media stir, then went viral. The uproar came from a triggered segment of the public who heard that this graffiti artist had ruined a 30-year-old mural depicting Women of Northcote. Combine a feminist issue with a so-called ‘graffiti thug’ and it’s a great recipe for some serious virtue signalling from the media. Anything to get the politically correct high-ground, right?

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Notorious Melbourne graffiti artist Nost’s work, covering a dilapidated feminist mural in Northcote.

The irony of the whole saga is that the mural had been dilapidated for years. The weather had taken its toll on the piece, fading all its colour and detail, and the bottom three meters of the entire length of the wall had been saturated with graffiti. Nost was claiming a space that had already been lost to time. The Age article showed a photo captioned: “The Smith Street feminist mural before a graffiti vandal destroyed it.” Funnily enough, the photo was about 30 years old and did not depict the state of the wall at all.
Why didn’t all these outraged social justice champions campaign to protect and restore this mural before Nost painted over it?
Being immersed in the scene, I know for a fact that some local artists had approached the local council with the idea of restoring the mural, getting female street artists to repaint and update it. This idea was knocked back presumably due to its cost.
One of the original artists, a Ms Evans, was angered that the images of the women were painted over, but also stated: “We don’t really care …it was very badly damaged anyway across the bottom because of many years of graffiti, it was never really looked after.”

Sometimes the only way graffiti artists can be portrayed in a semi-positive light via the media is in the wake of tragedy. Five years ago a close friend and graffiti writer Sinch died train surfing at Balaclava train station. Sick of seeing the media depict graffiti artists in a bad light, I spoke to TV news crews who were at the train station soon after the accident. I was desperate to provide a positive voice at an exceptionally sad time. I wanted to talk about young people and their need for a voice, the claiming of space with acts of graffiti was for notoriety, pride, acceptance by peers, and not an aggressive act that deserves jail time. As a result of this, I ended up discussing tagging in-depth on the ABC series Thrill and Fury: The Art of the Tag, and also appeared on Channel 10 panel show The Project as a guest (see the interview below). 

I spoke about why people paint, explaining the ownership of a place, being connected to your peers, and doing it all for the sheer fun of it.
When asked whether graffiti was a “gateway crime” I responded that the only gateway was that of the prison cell in youth detention centres. Taking young people and treating them as the enemy, then putting them in juvenile detention centers where they learn how to offend, where horrible things are bound to happen, and where a community of hate is so thoroughly embedded in them, that by the time they leave they have a Xanax addiction, they are carrying a box cutter and they’re afraid of the world. Treating young people like the enemy is far more of a gateway than the graffiti act itself, the act is just a young person applying paint.
I’m glad they listened, and hope my message did something. Still, the media’s love-hate relationship with graffiti is cyclical and seems to sway to whichever bias will get more viewers. 

Vigilantes

All the hype in the media can get a few people really riled up. Now that we are able to speak our minds online with anonymity and without factual evidence, people’s reactions have become vastly more extreme.
Some have decided to step out from behind their keyboards and take their extreme stance to the street.
Enter the anti-graffiti vigilantes in the race for space.
They despise graffiti, and project all of their issues upon it. It’s as though graffiti is a flashing red light that the very fabric of society is unravelling. In their minds every tag is a symbol of disorder.
The actions of these would-be superheroes (or villains) are the height of hypocrisy. In order to eradicate that which they loathe so much, they become what they hate.
Packing their bags with paint (just like artists) they roam the streets at night painting over as much graffiti as they can.
Sick of the horrid tags in ‘their’ neighbourhood, they get about splashing, rolling, and smearing grey paint over the ‘scribble’ in an attempt to bring supposed normality back to the streets, often leaving the walls in a much more undesirable state than before they arrived.
Do they have a right to be annoyed? Or is it the nature of public space that the individual alone has no right to shape it? Whichever way you view their stance on things, they exist, and they destroy good and bad artwork alike.
(I personally have seen my artwork targeted by such a person for many years — until I caught up with him…but that’s another story).
One such vigilante targeted the work of Nost when he was at the height of his activity. Being that he was so active and ever-present in the streets, Nost caught him in the act and poured a bucket of paint over him, hopefully erasing him from the scene. 

Advertising

With people turning away from free-to-air television and most traditional forms of media, advertisers have had to start thinking outside the box. With the continual rise in popularity of social media, advertisers fully understand the power of the influencer.
Once confined to billboards and bus stops, advertisers are now creeping further into the public domain. People are no longer impressed by a massive billboard or repetitive TV adverts, and this is where we’ve started to see the lines of public art, street art and advertising blur.
Companies are now hiring well-known street artists to paint murals that at first glance appear to be works of art. The hope is that the paintings are then shared and hashtagged on social media. As the ad has been painted by an artist you may already trust and follow, the advertisers have cleverly taken a shortcut into your world.
The truth is that these pieces get no respect from graffiti, street, or public artists alike, and are often ruined quite quickly. This ‘commercialisation of cool’ has also created substantially more dislike for street art from hardcore stalwarts of the graffiti game, as it becomes harder to see the difference between an artwork painted for self-expression or financial gain.
A couple of Melbourne outfits provide hand-painted advertising. They do business in a similar fashion to the poster people. They approach property owners who have art on their walls and offer them money to lease the space for advertisers. These parasitical practices have seen such iconic Melbourne history as the 30-year-old Graffiti boards at Richmond station removed. These boards featured early work of artists such as Peter Daverington and were an amazing time capsule from the aerosol era.

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Graffiti boards at Richmond that stayed up for nearly 30 years.

What Can We Do?  

Graffiti is a language of the street that once translated can never be unseen. A graffiti artist sees space as an opportunity.
As developers fight (bribe) local members to erect taller shoddier windowless high rises, and advertisers climb over one another for the opportunity to adorn these eyesores with billboards, artists duke it out in the streets for what’s left.
Cash is king, the dollar talks loudest, and amongst these corporate types the beautification of the city through graffiti or street art is not often considered. Yet it is artists who create a much more liveable, and unique, city. If we only ever delegate public space to those pulling the purse strings, then we will continue to undermine Melbourne’s vibe. 

Taking this into consideration, there are certainly some important things we could implement, or at least think about, to level the playing field in the race for space…

Advertising: Wouldn’t it be great to see less advertising and marketing material thrust upon us in the public realm?
A bit more consideration towards the city’s stringent regulations when it comes to commandeering public space for private profit would be a great start. If a mega-company wishes to hijack a wall in order to advertise, then it could be highly beneficial to everyone if part of the space could be set aside for local youth centres for young people to express themselves?

Penalties: Kids caught for criminal damage really shouldn’t be sent to juvenile detention, where they’ll undoubtedly become lost in the crime cycle and re-offend. Treating young people as criminals is a sure way to turn them into fully grown ones. Instead, I believe that they should be made to work together on some large public art pieces that will help them feel pride of place and learn teamwork and respect. These young people are the ones actively involved in the conversation of the street, so they should help to shape it. Outreach workers could talk to the participants about drug, housing and health issues while working on such a project.

Murals: It’s amazing to see some councils opting to fund large scale murals and street art. The problem I see is that it is done as a “graffiti prevention” tactic. This creates even more reason for graffiti artists to target street art. I feel that the artworks should be done with the focus being on beautification of the city, as opposed to graffiti eradication. The problem being that money talks and graffiti reduction tends to be a selling point for muralism. I also believe that the artworks should be done by, or with, local active members of the graffiti and street art scene. Many artists have been actively painting the streets for 10, 20 and 30 plus years, yet they are never afforded the opportunities that get handed to the big names in the street art world.      

Cleaning Less, Painting More: The amount spent in each municipality on graffiti removal is a hot topic. Here’s an idea: if you keep painting a wall and it keeps getting tagged, stop propping up the graffiti removal economy and start thinking outside the box. Many of these “graffiti hotspots” are perfect canvases for young rapscallions to hone their skills. Who knows maybe some of them will stop bombing your fence and start painting sad, beautiful forlorn women everywhere just like you want, right? 

In Conclusion

In closing, I would just like to add that public space will continually be altered by those that occupy it. The transient nature of public artwork is at times part of its appeal. So what goes up, or stays up, can never really be controlled.
As I watch Melbourne (world’s most livable city 7 times in a row, The Economist) gentrify at a rapid rate, and see each suburb losing its individuality to a plethora of chain stores, I hope that we can at least slow the growth of the invasive advertising that continues to dominate the public domain, but I’m not holding my breath.
I would much rather see a wall tagged up with graffiti than plastered with posters, or covered by a billboard advertising pointless shit I don’t really need. 

A wall full of graffiti should not be scary or confronting, in fact, it indicates a living, happening place. Tags, stencils, stickers, posters, throw-ups, and pieces, have all been practiced and placed in public with purpose. Each instance adding to the continual conversation that happens in all cities, and indicates that space means a lot more to some people than to others.
Often times it’s areas that have become dilapidated where the graffiti and street artists bring back true beauty and character.
Hopefully, as the public begins to understand graffiti on an even deeper level, more people can begin to see the beauty in our work, and realise we are no threat. Then, one day, maybe, everyone involved in this constant and brutal race for space could come to some sort of worthy compromise that works for us all.  

Urban Enhancement’s artists have been in the Melbourne Graffiti scene for over 20 years. If you would like to know more about us, or need some work done, please get in touch HERE

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