Here is a bit of history for Melbourne’s street artists:
“Stencilled advertisements were a popular form of footpath advertising particularly in the more frequented stretches of Bourke Street. Little action was taken against offenders unless damage to property was incurred, though the practice was seen by the MCC as being contrary to the spirit of the advertising regulations. In 1920 some men who had stencilled the footprints of a dog in whitewash on the footpath from Flinders Street to the Majestic Theatre could not be prosecuted under clause 32 of By-Law No. 134, as no obstruction or annoyance could be proven. This lead to the creation of a new By-Law No156 in 1920 ‘for regulating or prohibiting the writing, painting, printing, stencilling, placing or affixing any letter, figure, device, poster, sign or advertisement upon any footpath, street or road within the said City, or upon any building, fence, or other property vested in the Municipality of the City of Melbourne’.”
(Andrew Brown-May, Melbourne Street Life, Australian Scholarly, 1998, Kew, p.50)
Brown-May does not have any information on when stencilled advertising began in Melbourne. Stencilled advertisements were probably used prior to 1920 but before 1870s when it would have been pointless as the sidewalks of Melbourne were in too poor a condition.
Maybe if this trail in the 1920 had been proto-street art, the work of art students rather than advertising then the City of Melbourne’s council might have taken a different view of the activity. However, there was no street art in the 1920s and advertising not graffiti was seen as blighting the image of the city. Along with stencilled advertisements there were numerous advertisements pasted around Melbourne along with people ringing bells to advertise sales. And so the City of Melbourne passed the first laws specifically prohibiting stencilling, wheat-pasting and the other techniques of street art
Advertising has long had a deleterious effect on Melbourne’s culture and on its street art in particular. Except that without the techniques and technologies of advertising, like stencils, there wouldn’t be street art. (See my post for more on the nexus of Art & Advertising). The footprint of advertising is still on us.