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Graffiti’s Bonnie and Clyde

Over the last decade in Melbourne there has been a change of attitude about many kinds of graffiti and street art, what once was reviled is now celebrated. One man who knows about these changes is Gordon Harrison, the city engineer who created and runs the City of Melbourne’s graffiti management policy. Harrison knows about the changes because he wrote the city’s current graffiti policy.

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The current graffiti policy is to remove graffiti only when it is obscene or racist or when  requested by the building owner. Otherwise it would be left to survive in the organic process of the street. Harrison does not believe in protecting graffiti or street art. The City of Melbourne does keep a photographic record of significant work and it passes on its record of tags that it removes to the police.

According to Gordon Harrison $900,000 is spent each year in the removal of tags. All graffiti writers and even some street artists tag but then there are some people who just tag. Some prolific taggers like Nost and Pork have nineteen images removed per month from just the small area of the centre of the city administered by the City of Melbourne. Harrison explained to the Street Art Round Table, 22/4/16 at Melbourne University.

Unlike many people Harrison doesn’t hate taggers. He understands that there a blurred line between tagging and graffiti pieces. Harrison would prefer tags to violence or suicide, he removes the tagging but respects the free spirit behind it, wishing that it was directed differently.

The free spirit of taggers makes them not just vandals but sometimes audacious urban outlaws. They are risking their liberty and life. For there are the industrial scale dangers of the railways and rail yards. The dangers of climbing up to the heavens just to leave your mark, to show that you have existed in the city and made part of it your own.

Along with the dangers hardcore taggers also experience the most violence. There are fights between them over walls and other issues. They are also likely to be beaten up and abused by the railway’s Asset Protection Officers or even vigilante citizens taking the law into their own hand.

This brings me to the American graffiti writers and lovers, Ether and Utah who were in Melbourne earlier this year. It was here that Ether’s self-titled “Probation Vacation” came to an end on a Fitzroy sidewalk in a fight with a vigilante citizen. Charged with attempted robbery, recklessly causing injury, unlawful assault, possessing a controlled weapon (a knife) and four counts of criminal damage. He received a six month sentence, less the 27 days he was held in remand. On his release he will be deported to the US where he faces another six months for outstanding graffiti offences.

A six month stretch at the notorious Rikers Island in New York goes someways but doesn’t completely explains Ether and Utah leaving the USA in 2011 for a five year intercontinental graffiti spree focused on that most traditional graffiti site, the train. Neither does Utah & Ether’s Probation Vacation, in book and video format, which is available online along with limited edition zines, t-shirts, poster, sticker sets and box sets. There is a weird post-modern romance about deciding to live the life as an international outlaw with your love while creating “a dialog between the safety of the gallery setting and the vitality of painting in the streets illegally.” (Utah & Ether about page)

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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

2 responses to “Graffiti’s Bonnie and Clyde

  • Eucalypso

    Thanks for a fascinating article. I wonder if the graffiti management policy changes with the Mayor (not speaking specifically about Melbourne)?

    I really don’t understand the intolerance towards tags. It’s all out of proportion to the actual paint on the wall, and says more about controlling visual space than actual vandalism. If tags were instead seen as artist signatures would they have value instead of attracting a criminal record? Being jailed for painting on public property (owned by the public) is the sort of sentence you’d expect in a country like North Korea.

  • Mark Holsworth

    Glad that you enjoyed the article, Eucalypso. Graffiti management policy depends on someone pushing because, as you note, it is not actually a big problem even on a local level. In Melbourne Mayor Doyle has changed his mind about graffiti with his experience of being mayor, he was anti-graffiti when he was in state politics.

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