Hanging over bridges is difficult, particularly when you are trying to safely manoeuver yourself to glue a large sheet of paper to the wall with a broom, or at least that’s what Melbourne street artist Rone (left) says.
Rone is a paste-up artist and a member of Everfresh, a notorious collective of Melbourne street artists. Their studio, nestled in a back street of an inner-city suburb, is an explosion of brilliant colour. Splashes of paint obscure the floor, layers of graffiti and canvases adorn the walls. The half finished image of a beautiful yet melancholy woman rests on a low shelf. A rainbow of spray cans threaten to tumble out of the milk crates beneath.
“Sometimes you put a huge effort into putting your work up and you come back the next day and it’s gone. You don’t even get a photo.” says Rone, as he pours lemon yellow paint into a tray.
Melbourne has hundreds of graffiti and street artists. The city’s labyrinths of alleys and laneways present the perfect urban canvas for stencillers, graffers and taggers. Built upon by hundreds of anonymous artists, laneways such as Hosier Lane, Caledonian Lane and Centre Place are constantly evolving street art spaces that attract tourists, school groups and even those looking for an edgy wedding portrait.
Despite its proliferation, graffiti presents a controversial paradox: some see it as a positive and valuable contribution to the urban aesthetic and a form of political or self-expression while others view it as an eyesore and an act of vandalism.
In her book, Uncommissioned Art: An A-Z of Australian Graffiti, Christine Dew identifies graffiti as being any ‘unsolicited markings on public or private property.’ Subsets, styles and other forms of graffiti range from stencils, paste-ups and stickers to aerosol art and tagging, many of which are more commonly referred to as street art.
Associate Professor Mark Halsey, who contributed to a graffiti management plan for Melbourne City and adjacent councils, believes “graffiti can have artistic merit but also be illegal. The two are not mutually exclusive which obviously makes it a complex issue to deal with.”
Nowhere is the complexity more apparent than in Melbourne City Council’s approach to graffiti management.
Melbourne Mayor Robert Doyle believes Melbourne’s street art is internationally renowned and has become “an attraction for local and overseas visitors experiencing Melbourne’s creative ambience.”
However, Melbourne City Council estimates that cleaning up graffiti in the city of Melbourne is estimated to cost taxpayers around $500,000 per year.
In an attempt to control graffiti around Melbourne City, the Council has implemented a graffiti management plan, which is currently under submission. The plan focuses on the removal of tags in the city centre.
“Research on consultation with the community has revealed most people don’t like graffiti tagging compared to street art which is highly valued by many members of the community.” says Doyle.
The plan also includes the use of legal graffiti walls and spaces. Within Melbourne city there are currently twenty one legal walls that artists can apply for permits to display their work on. They say legal walls, when done by well-known artists, deter further graffiti on these walls, but are unwilling to say whether they work to deter graffiti in other areas.
Scott Hilditch, CEO of anti-graffiti lobby Graffiti Hurts Australia, argues that legal walls promote other acts of vandalism and graffiti in the surrounding alleys and laneways.
“Once a legal wall goes up, who cleans it? Who monitors it? Who is allowed to use it and who is not allowed to use it?” says Hilditch, “Legal walls don’t work, they have never worked anywhere in the world.”
Legal walls are also problematic as graffiti is naturally a spontaneous, public act and is often done without permission.
“There is always going to be something a little bit less credible about a legal piece or a legal space as opposed to graffiti done illicitly.” says Halsey.
The Melbourne City Council may be encouraging artists to use designated areas to create street art but under current legislation, you can face hefty fines and jail terms if you stray outside the system.
Under Victoria’s Graffiti Prevention Act 2007, if you are caught writing graffiti you could face up to 2 years in jail and be slapped with a fine of more then $26,000. If you are caught with a spray can or other type of graffiti implement around public transport you could receive a fine of over $2,500 or an on-the-spot fine of over $500. And the onus is on you to prove you are not committing an act of vandalism.
These substantial fines and sentences have been introduced to deter graffiti writers, but the jury is still out on whether they work.
Ghostpatrol of the Mitten Fortress is one Melbourne street artist well aware of the law.
“Graffiti is a crime. It is marking on other people’s property, it still might be art but it doesn’t change the fact that it is illegal and people know it and do it, knowing that it’s illegal.” says Ghostpatrol.
There are many motivations that lead graffiti and street artists to illegally display there work in public spaces. Some artists do it to for fame and respect through the quantity of the image, such as mass tagging, and others are motivated to create quality ‘art’ images. Some find that the illicit nature of street art provides a different challenge to the artist.
Others, like Ghostpatrol, are motivated by a sense of community.
“When you are an artist, it is part of your responsibility to give back to the community.” says Ghostpatrol who is involved with a program that educates young children about street art.
Street art can also be used as a vehicle for self-promotion.
“There are plenty of artists who use it the same way as advertisers use it to gain notoriety for there work or to increase the public awareness of there work,” says Andy Mac, director of the CBD’s Citylights Project, “Street artists are not naïve, they are using the street because they know it can be seen by a lot of people.”
If the public prefer street art to tagging, then perhaps ‘good’ street art is also looked upon favourably.
Andy Mac believes Melbourne is a victim of the success of artists who have done quality work on the streets that then led to a level of public acceptance. With the proliferation of graffiti and street art in Melbourne the standards dropped and the work we are now seeing is of a much lower quality.
“If you choose to do graffiti or art in public then you need to take that as a serious responsibility. There are a whole lot of people who haven’t honed their skills but think they have a right to put their stuff up.” says Andy Mac.
Rone believes that because graffiti, by its very nature, cannot be curated newer artists need to be guided so the quality of their work improves.
“There are people out there who want to teach kids how to do it and train them so that those who are artistic can do better stuff then scrappy shitty tags everywhere. They are always going to do something illegal because that is where the fun is but if they are going to do something illegal then at least it is going to look good.” says Rone.
Graffiti is difficult to control. The policing and regulating of it presents a whole host of grey areas. At one end, advocators continue to champion it as a form of artistic expression, at the other end, the illicitness of the act itself often breeds outrage and disgust.
But graffiti will never go away.
“It’s not a matter of how you stop it, but how you can manage it best,” says Halsey, “Something undesirable is always going to exist, but you are never going to take away the desire of those to express and get involved in public space.”