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Street Art’s Institutional Phase

On some walls layers of graffiti and street art have been building up for decades. They are like layers of archeology they could be divided up into phases of work on the street. They are not perfect layers of paint, paper and glue. There are plenty of overlap, early isolated examples and the long tails of previous phases mix with subsequent phases. This leaves plenty of room for argument over when one phase started and finished, so all the dates in the next paragraph are vague.

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Hosier Lane, Meeting of Styles 2016

A short history of Melbourne’s graffiti/street art would consist of the following phases, each with their own distinct group of artists and media. Starting with the white paint and brushes of the old message, the text based graffiti and sgraffito where the art was in the literary aphorism. Followed by, and concurrent with, the muralists of the 1960s and 70s, a left wing political tradition of public art making. Then came the old school, hip hop aerosol graffiti of the 1980s from bubble letter to wild style. Then street art with peaks of stencils, and subsequent peaks in other media: paste-ups, installations and yarn bombing.

In case you hadn’t noticed, and confirmed by Dr Lachlan MacDonald, street art is now the institutional phase, the “mainstreaming of street art”. In the institutional phase there are established career path for artists, established curators, collectors, major exhibitions and civic interest in street art murals. The very fact that Dr MacDonald, Head of Centre for Cultural Partnerships, Faculty of the VCA and MCM, was talking about this at a Street Art Round Table on the 22/4/16 at Melbourne University is evidence of the institutional phase.

Not that this institutional phase is necessarily bad for the ecology of street art. The archeology of this phase will reveal a layers of better quality paint with more durable pigments as spray paint is now being manufactured to suit the needs of aerosol art. In this phase the wild street art and graffiti is not being buffed to extinction but at times, facilitated or conserved. And unlike any of the other phases, the institutional phase understands the place of street art and graffiti in the urban ecology.

The Street Art Round Table was a one day forum present by Asialink attended by students, academics, street artists, curators, collectors, creative directors, arts managers and civic administrators. It was a series of short talks about a variety of aspects about street art, including a talk about street art’s hipster brother the resurgence of sign writing. I was particularly interested in hearing about street art in Singapore presented by Jasmine Choe from Singapore Youth Arts (see my earlier posts about street art the city state of Singapore). Further proof, if it was needed, of the institutional phase of street art.

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Unknown, paste-up cans, Hosier Lane, 2016

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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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