marcus westbury

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Street Art: Melbourne’s unwanted attraction

July 5th, 2009 by marcus


photo by Andy Mac

HOW is Melbourne dealing with the fact that one of its biggest tourist attractions and one of its most significant cultural movement since the Heidelberg School is illegal, outlawed and vilified?

I was at a forum in Sydney this week. I listened intently as a panel made up of artists, bureaucrats, and business people had a long and serious discussion about how they could emulate Melbourne’s . . . graffiti!

I believe I even spotted a couple of senior political-adviser types in the audience nodding and taking notes.

Like it or not, over the past decade, Melbourne has become one of the “street art” capitals of the world. Our southern city’s iconic laneway graffiti is fast joining its trams, its cafe culture, its cutting-edge architecture and its ability to muster a crowd for even the lamest of sporting events as one of its defining features in the eyes of the world.

On any given afternoon, Hosier Lane, opposite Federation Square, and other lanes like it, are full of tourists taking and posing for photographs, fashion mag photo shoots, documentary and commercial film crews, students and school groups, and even the occasional guided tour run by outlaw artists turned urban ambassadors.

On weekends, they compete with jostling newlyweds and wedding photographers who have discovered the gritty, vibrant and iconic laneway backdrop is the perfect contrast to any $10,000 wedding dress.

Street art is embedded in the international identity of Melbourne. A quick Google search pulls up thousands of pages of praise for Melbourne’s street art in everything from travel and art magazines to subcultural websites, graffiti forums and business journals.

You can find glowing reviews everywhere, from The Guardian to The Baltimore Sun, and see it featured in art documentaries and travel shows in dozens of countries.

With the exception of the indigenous visual arts, there are few Australian art movements in recent times with the same breadth and depth of impact around the world. Melbourne’s street art is both part of a global movement and internationally unique.

Like all forms of art, there are plenty of bad examples. At its worst, it is badly derivate, destructive, ugly and pointless but when it’s good, it’s very good. At its best, Melbourne’s streets are full of smart, witty, funny, pretty, provocative, illuminating and delightful interventions. Artists pose interesting questions and talk with the city.

Yet not everyone is willing to take this excitement and success lying down.

Late last year, Premier John Brumby famously pulled a Tourism Victoria promotion that recreated a Melbourne laneway – graffiti and all – at Florida’s Disney World. The Premier even went so far as to oblige Tourism Victoria to apologise to the minister – who one can only assume is rather fragile – for foolishly and recklessly promoting what Lonely Planet has described as Australia’s No.1 cultural tourist attraction.

Premier Brumby went on to assert that tourists are attracted to the “European-type” lanes but not the Melbourne-type street art. Rather than acknowledging the genuine if problematic interest in the city’s street art, the Premier sung the praise of Melbourne’s laneway “flower pots” and “window pots” and pointed that the Government had gone to great length to push through tough anti-graffiti laws.

The only references I could find to Melbourne’s famous window pots on Google were from people ridiculing Premier Brumby.

The reality is that Melbourne’s graffiti is both highly popular and widely vilified. Tabloid frenzies, media beat-ups and scare campaigns push politicians towards draconian policy responses and self-evidently stupid statements. Few politicians are brave enough to acknowledge that much of anti-graffiti rhetoric comes from the same media outlets that regularly use street art in their photographs, feature it in their lifestyle lift-outs, or promote it on their travel shows.

Premier Brumby might not be, but Melbourne might just be big enough actually to acknowledge the tension. Melbourne has somehow acquired a very problematic asset and it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge that.

We could try to make useful distinctions between street art and vandalism, and at least admit that some people – a lot of people, apparently – actually really like this stuff. Once we admit that many thousands of people do actually value the vibrant, organic cultural experience that Melbourne has become famous for, we might even be able to capitalise on it.

Failing that, if the Premier really wants to get rid of the problem, perhaps he could start by running tours for his envious interstate counterparts?

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11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 TimT Jul 6, 2009 at 9:26 am

    Nice. Is this your latest column?

    I note, though, that a lot of the graffiti in Hosier Lane is wholly approved of by Melbourne City Council – it is, in fact, legal.

  • 2 Marcus Jul 6, 2009 at 9:50 am

    This column is from a couple of weeks ago. There is a delay between them appearing in the paper and appearing here due to a combination of wanting to give Fairfax a bit of exclusive time and my own laziness.

    In relation to the city of Melbourne, the graffiti in Hosier lane was made retrospectively legal. After it had been there for a number of years and was attracting such a large number of people that it couldn’t be ignored, they decided to legalise it. There was the rather strange site (which we captured for series one of NQA but didn’t air) of DA notices appearing on the graffitied walls suggesting that they were the site of proposed legal walls. I probably should have mentioned that.

  • 3 Jacek Jul 6, 2009 at 10:15 am

    OOO there are so many ways to capitalise on the graffiti in Melbourne. I cannot believe premier Brumby cannot see how much money, he can possibly get out of it…

    Why not appoint a graffiti committee to determine it a graffiti and its locations are artistic and if so offer the property owner a tax brake. Then hit Tourism Victoria for % of all the money they are making of the tourists that come to see the graffiti…

  • 4 Ben Farrelly Jul 6, 2009 at 10:16 am

    your best article yet.

  • 5 TimT Jul 6, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Ah, interesting to hear that about Hosier Lane and its retrospective legality. Wikipedia didn’t tell me anything, though it was a google search that bought up that Melbourne council page.

    Here’s what I wrote a while ago about Melbourne graffiti:

  • 6 Andrew Mac Jul 6, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Please note there is a lot of misinformation regrding Hosier Lane and legality.

    Hosier Lane is NOT “legal”, and never has been and the City of Melbourne continues to have a bet each way by allowing incomplete and ill-defined language on their website, as referred to in the link posted below by Tim T.

    Where it suits them, the City of Melbourne aim to imply that they support or even generate the conditions that have lead to street art proliferation.

    The retrospective permits were forced on residents of Hosier Lane (who did not want nor need such permits) by the City of Melbourne under the insinuation of threat regarding fines for having ‘un-permitted art”.

    The retrospective and unwanted permits do not mean that graffiti is legal in Hosier Lane, nor is it legal to do graffiti in Hosier Lane.

    The permits and the general misinformation that Hosier Lane is “legal” has lead the decline in quality of art in this lane, as juvenile taggers and inexperienced public flock to the lane to add their own (oft ill-considered) marks, often over the better work.

    Since 1998, to do art in Hosier has required invitation or commssion, or a high level of competence, knowledge and awareness of your environment and what you were doing in it. This community and peer based system has been destroyed by City of Melbourne meddling, and the street looks much worse for it.

    The Hosier Lane community has requested that the City of Melbourne revoke these permits from Hosier Lane, and remove the misleading information from the website. They are yet to do so. As a community we are pissed off and feel that the City of Melbourne is disingenuous and exploitative in its approach to street art and Hosier Lane in general.

    Hosier Lane is a highly contested and abused site.
    Hosier Lane is and has always been a community-led street.

    Andrew Mac
    Citylights Projects and Until Never
    Hosier Lane Melbourne

  • 7 jacinta Apr 27, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Enjoyed reading this. Mark Mordue has similar things to say about the commercialisation of music

  • 8 Blender May 17, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Street art has made suburban people care about art. Art is for the people. As it should be. It is important to capitalize on this. Melbourne’s contempory art scene is so hot. And for the first time ever, people seem to care about it…Street art has been awesome for contempory artists. Gone are the dayz of snobby art critics and yuppy genralisations.

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