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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Tags: disney world · federation square · flower pots · graffiti · hosier lane · john brumby · lonely planet · me · media beat ups · Melbourne · melbourne v sydney · premier brumby · street art · street art tours melbourne · tabloid frenzy · tourism victoria · vandalism · victoria · window pots11 Comments