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Fragments from the history of Melbourne’s graffiti

Graffiti, fly-pasting and stencil advertising have been around in Melbourne for a long time, at first it was mostly advertising. The traditions and media of Melbourne’s street art were created by the advertising industry, only the product changed, from commercial to self-promotion or art.

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It was also the advertising industry that brought the law down on these techniques as Andrew Brown-May in his book, Melbourne Street Life (Australian Scholarly, 1998, Kew). “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 by By-Law No.134, as no obstruction or annoyance could be proven. This lead to the creation of a new By-Law No. 156 ‘for regulating or prohibiting the writing, painting, printing, stencilling, placing or affixing of 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.'” (p.50)

Later, after graffiti became illegal, there was protest graffiti and tagging in Melbourne. This was painted with a brush and can of paint or written in ink and sometimes documented by Rennie Ellis in three paperback books of photographs of graffiti: Australian Graffiti (1971), Australian Graffiti Revisited (1979) and The All New Australian Graffiti (1985). In 1971 as part of Anti-Vietnam War protests the word “PEACE!” was painted in large white letters on the pillars of the north portico the Shrine. Tagging and slogan writers had no limits, there was graffiti on Vault in the City Square and even more when it was moved to Batman Park. For more on this phase see my earlier post Remembering Australian Graffiti History.

At the start of 1980s aerosol hip-hop style graffiti started in Melbourne. An early article to explore Melbourne’s graffiti culture in depth was Chris Everett, “Adrenalin” (Youth Issues Forum, Dec 1988 – Jan 1989). “As a result of the pervasiveness of rap, spray can art ‘crews’ sprang up in a wide range of often contrasting areas around Melbourne. These areas are possibly best delineated by the railway lines. In 1984 crews were most active along the Belgrave, Frankston and Hurstbridge lines. These were their home lines and the artists tended to work within these boundaries. Home suburbs included West Heidelberg, Macleod, Burnley, Elsternwick and Mentone. By 1985 crews were leaving their mark on most other lines though some, such as the Gowrie line have remained relatively untouched. Lines which have produced the most crews comprise all those from Epping to Frankston inclusive.”

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In the article Everett points out some of the standard elements of graffiti youth culture, especially the conflict between the graffiti artists and the rail transport authorities, laying the blame this on the heavy hand of the transport authorities. Aside from the heavy hand of transport authorities and police Melbourne was receptive to the new graffiti style. There was a graffiti wall in the original City Square that along with Central Station Record’s shop creating a hub for graffiti writers. Everett mentions exhibitions of graffiti at the National Gallery of Victoria and the City Gallery but doesn’t give any details about either of these (I’m guessing that the NGV exhibition might have been Keith Haring painting the water wall window in 1984).

There was no mention in Everett’s article of the anti-American attitude in Australia towards aerosol graffiti that was seen as an imported cultural product along with the rest of the elements of hip hop. But Everett does make one interesting cultural point about graffiti writers in Australia. “Their continued confidence and desire to have their bold art ‘on display’, whether on walls or in a gallery , needs to be nurtured in a country notorious for its cultural cringe and tall poppy syndrome.”

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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