Call them HaHa, Meek or Happy: the members of this artistic movement born in New York in the 1980s are fond of nicknames. In Melbourne, it’s only been a few years since certain walls in the city and along railroad tracks began to be covered with graffiti. Early on, anonymity was essential; without it, artists might have ended up in the nick. But since the early 2000s, the phenomenon has become so significant that it is now a veritable tourist attraction in its own right.
Yes, but is it legal?
Michael, an artist from Adelaide, settled in Melbourne after developing his art in New York and Europe. He sometimes serves as a tour guide, leading groups through the labyrinths of narrow Melbourne alleyways at weekends. ‘In Australia, no other city can compare with Melbourne as far as Street Art is concerned. Here, galleries are actually willing to pay artists thousands of dollars to come paint. Even the municipality orders our art!‘ he says, pointing to a series of pipes running up and down a wall.
Well and good, but is it legal? Even if graffiti is officially against the law, it would seem that the authorities look upon the small community of artists with a benevolent eye.
‘The city of Melbourne recognizes the importance of Street Art and its contribution to urban culture,’ states the municipal website.
In other words: ‘Get thee a permit.’ In certain cases, yesterday’s vandals have become today’s rising stars, hoping to acquire the fame of a Keith Haring or a Banksy: two Street Art celebrities who followed the path, at different moments, to Melbourne. In the mid-1980s Haring, one of Australia’s graffiti pioneers, created Street Art in the little suburb of Collingwood, covering an entire wall that is now crumbling from neglect but which is rumoured to be earmarked for renovation. Banksy, on the other hand, who first brandished his aerosol paints in 2003 on the now legendary Hoiser Street, was less fortunate. Soon after having created them, his (in)famous rats with parachutes flew the coop, washed away by municipal employees. A disaster? Not necessarily.
‘The very essence of this art is its ephemeral nature, ’ Michael says. ‘I enjoy seeing my work transformed by other artists. Above all, Street Art is about teamwork.’
Signs of the city
Mural art is sometimes so well integrated in the Melbourne cityscape that it has come to identify certain districts. In his Belgian Waffle shop covered with graffiti and collages of all types on Degraves Street, a stone’s throw from the very busy Flinders Station, Marc waxes philosophical. ‘Graffiti? Why not? As long as it’s attractive,’ he says, smiling. And Street Art has one major benefit: it attracts tourists and has become an integral part of the art market, as witnessed by the profusion of art galleries dedicated to the phenomenon. Every autumn since 2004, a festival celebrates the new scallywags of contemporary art: the latest edition of the Sweet Streets festival (formerly called the Stencil Festival) was the opportunity for Amnesty International to make this remarkable media their own. In the heart of Fitzroy, on Melbourne’s north side, an entire wall has been covered with frescoes on the theme of Human Rights. The northern suburbs of Fitzroy, Collingwood, Abbotsford and Richmond are fertile breeding grounds for artists whose talents can be discovered while turning a corner or peeking inside the open door of an atelier.
Guided tours of Street Art in Melbourne at http://melbournestreettours.com/