Category Archives: Street Art

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)


Moving Sculptures In Melbourne

Although stone and metal sculptures might appear to be permanent and stationary they do move. They are slow to start moving but once they start they move with surprising speed. Sculptures move around the city, even around the world, climbing down from the tops of old buildings to go to university. Urban Melbourne has a page about sculptures that have moved generally due to demolitions. So now that Strata has found a safe new home, out of hands of Melbourne University to the MONA in Hobart, it is time to look moving sculptures in Melbourne that may be soon moved.

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John Cummins has an audio report in The Citizen about preserving Melbourne’s public art where he interviews Adrian Doyle of Blender Studios, Ken Scarlett author of Australian Sculptors, ghost sign expert Stefan Schutt, sculptor Petrus Spronk and myself.

On Collins Street Stanley Hammond’s 1978 statue of John Batman, one of the alleged founder of Melbourne, is keeping his head down these days. He can still just be seen from behind the temporary building hoarding. His companion sculpture, another early Melbourne land owner, John Pascoe Fawkner by Michael Meszaros is outside of this fence.

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Jackie Ralph, Horse with something to say, 2013

Another sculpture with an uncertain future stands in the roundabout on Siddeley Street out the front of Melbourne’s World Trade Centre is Jackie Ralph’s Horse with something to say, 2013. The black expressionist work by Ralph has remained in the middle of the roundabout since it was installed at a temporary sculpture exhibition. It is not uncommon for a sculpture to remain after an exhibitions because of the expense of transportation, another sculptural gift of this kind is Ship to Shore at the Coburg Lake Reserve. Ralph’s horse will not be difficult to move as it is made from wood, wire, fiberglass, polyester resin and enamel paint.

Brunswick-based sculptor, Ralph wrote, in an exhibition statement; “When sculpture leaves the gallery and becomes part of the landscape, it not only reaches a larger and more diverse audience, but people seem to have a much more unguarded, unrestrained approach to it and interact with it more informally and naturally.”

I saw some new sculptures in Melbourne by an unknown artist. These sculptures will be very temporary and the creators of these works of street art knows that.


Why does a Tree need a Sweater?

The man in grey on the footpath to Jewell Station has opinions about yarn bombing that he is loudly expresses to his girlfriend.

“A sweater for a tree! What the fuck does a tree need a sweater for?”

And a little bit further on: “A sweater for a pole!”

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I’ve never seen someone who hates yarn bombing with such passion, obviously he had practiced this routine. The focus of his anger was Yarn Corner’s work around Jewell Station.

For the length of the whole block between Barkely and Union streets, every pole, tree and rail was wearing a blue and yellow sweater. There are diamond pattern, bees on hexagonal patterns, spider webs patterns and the faces on poles. It has a complete artistic vision and the knitting is now amazing. The work of 24 women who are part of the enormous Yarn Corner collective.

There is the contrast between the careless fly tipping rubbish at the carpark and the careful knitting that covered the poles. There is so much long neglected space, derelict factory space and crude carpark, around Jewell Station.

Last year I was on a panel discussion about public art when I discover why it was being conducted in a tent outside Jewell Station.  It there was because there are big plans for the area around Jewell Station. The new micro park with the urban bouldering and the two massive murals at the end of Wilson Avenue is part of these plans. Another part is street art projects like Yarn Corner’s project.

So to answer the question posed by angry man in grey: why does a tree need a sweater? It doesn’t and that is, paradoxically, the reason why trees and poles around do need sweaters because art and design are a way of organising some of the excess generated in society.

There is a lot of excess in society, excess time and excess stuff, it can be art or rubbish. Knitting for yarn bombing is excessive, spray painting a wall in the street is excessive, as is the excess of the vinyl couch and other trash that has been dumped around Jewell Station. The disorganised excess, the rubbish is often ignored. The organised excess is intended to attract attention, to enhance a neglected space and create holding power in the place.

For more on Yarn Corner’s project at Jewell Station see Open Journal.


Graffiti Alley in Toronto, Canada

Graffiti Alley in Toronto is also known as Rush Lane or Rick Mercer’s Alley. It runs between Queen and Richmond streets and west from Spadina Avenue to Portland Street. It is an alley in every sense of the word, a single one lane access for services, parking and deliveries. There might be fashion shoots in Graffiti Alley but it still is full of rubbish and delivery vans. It is mostly low, one story with the occasional multi story building, a couple of full building commissions but mostly just piece after piece, on back wall after back fence. There are so many pieces that it goes for almost a kilometre.

I know nothing about Toronto’s graffiti and street art. I’m from Melbourne, as the subtitle of this blog indicates and I want to see something like Hosier Lane. One distinct difference is the community garden off Graffiti Alley.

It is the first place that I go in the city, it says something about me but also the attraction of graffiti for a jet lagged international traveller as it is there when you are, a twenty-four hour seven days a week spectacle. I walk to Graffiti Alley from my central hotel (my wife is attending a conference in the city). There aren’t any other tourists in the lane but I believe that there are graffiti tours of the area (I was just on the wrong day).

There were several pieces are commenting on former Toronto Mayor, occasional substance abuser, and currently deceased, Rob Ford. Ford is targeted because he promised to stamp out graffiti. Graffiti culture is frequently a reaction to its most prominent opponents.

Graffiti Alley is in a cool neighbourhood of Toronto with interesting shops, places to eat and band venues. There is the “hug me” tree on Queen Street. There are a full more murals on carpark walls around the area and a few other small concentrations of graffiti.

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Graffiti Alley is not the only place to see graffiti and street art in Toronto I saw more murals in the Kensington Market area. Lots of cool things in the Kensington Market, marijuana dispensaries and Sth American food. This is Canada in the twenty-first century and not Australia stuck in the past and aspiring to be another Singapore. Maybe I should just live in Toronto, after all I am a Canadian.


Chelsea Gallery Crawl

Chelsea is a neighbourhood on the west side of Manhattan Island that is currently the main gallery district in NYC. It has been three years since I did a gallery crawl through Chelsea.

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Walking back and forth between 10th and 11th Avenues, up and down the streets: West 25th, 24th, 23rd. It is so easy to find a gallery on these blocks, just go to the next door, the next room on the floor of a warehouse, they are in almost every space.

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In Chelsea you have to put up a sign to say that it is not a gallery.

Often my gallery crawls are endurance walks, hours of the touring around galleries, climbing up stairs in old warehouses and in newly furbished gallery spaces. Often I was looking at third rate commercial art, or second rate work by established artists. At times I wonder why am even here looking at pointless commercial art suitable only for the lobby of a three star hotel. I’ve never heard of any of the artists exhibiting at the Agora Gallery’s “Out from Down Under & Beyond – Fine Art from Australia and New Zealand.” My guess is that Agora is renting the wall space by the metre.

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James Turrell installation at Pace

Wondering is Cindy Sherman too old to play dress-ups and what will happen if she lives into her 90s? There are other veteran established artists continuing to blandly do their trademark thing; David Hockney is drawing Yosemite National Park on his iPad, Richard Serra has large pieces of steel, and James Turrell working with space and light. Then I see art that really works and I know why I am on this gallery crawl.

The highlight of visiting all of these galleries had to be an installation by a duo of Canadian artists, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, “The Marionette Maker” (2014). The installation, at Luhring Augustine, included a caravan with robotic marionettes, audio, and lighting. It was such stuff as dreams are made of; amongst the miniature scenes in the caravan was a tiny scene of the caravan in a field by a lake. (For more see Hyperallergic’s review.)

Another exhibitions that caught my attention was Anthony Adcock, “Marks of the Trade” at Lyons Wier Gallery, has painted aluminium to look like sheets of plywood and carved wood that looks like steel, it is very impressive while remaining almost too subtle.

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Aiko at HG Contemporary

And at HG Contemporary a group show of street artists from around the world; Retna, Swoon, Olek, Aiko, Pixelpancho and Jay West. There is so much variety in styles, and techniques from Aiko’s stencils to Olek’s crochet world.

There is some good street art on the streets; street artists like to put up work near art galleries, perhaps because there they find an appreciative audience. I see a couple of low relief panels by Kai (tying in with my special interest in street art sculptures).

I pause briefly for lunch but then I keep going until 5pm as I don’t know when I’ll be going around the Chelsea galleries again.


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


Street Art Sculpture 7

I was aware of the dangers as I wrote about un-commissioned three dimensional works of street art in the final chapter of my history of public sculptures, Sculptures of Melbourne. Placing a current trend at the end of a history is almost predicting the future and that is always open to error.  The danger is that a trend can simply fizzle out and the artists involved have no real influence on the future such that future readers will be left wondering why.

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GT Sewell, Tinky, Kranky in Presgrave Place

Of the street artists that I illustrated in my book about half are still active. Junky Projects is currently exhibiting more of his bottle-cap-eyed figures made of found rubbish at Melbourne gallery, Dark Horse Experiment. GT Sewell has been more active both exhibiting and adding more of his series of works based on the form of a spray can on the streets. Work by Will Coles can still be found around Melbourne but Nick Ilton, Mal Function and CDH are no longer active on the streets.

However, in the last year new artists have made their mark on Melbourne streets. Kranky assembling art from plastic rats, Barbie dolls and other toys. Tinky Sonntag works with miniature figures, toy soldiers and model on a very small scale. Tinky makes uses the infrastructure of the street, drains become rabbit holes, missing bricks become crypts, reusing favourite locations in Presgrave Place for different installations. These assemblages are easily disassembled on the street but missing parts can be replaced or a new work added. Kranky makes up for their work’s lack of durability by being prolific.

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Addition to Delkuk Spirits by Kelly Koumakatsos

Un-commissioned street art sculpture includes the non-destructive augmentation of existing permanent sculptures. Recently on Gertrude Street someone put a knitted dress on one of the Delkuk Spirits by Kelly Koumakatsos.

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It is still too soon to tell almost a year since the book was published and well over a year since I finished writing it. However, I remain confident that street art sculptures will continue as there are still street artists producing three-dimensional work in Melbourne’s streets and lanes. There are still plenty of unknown anonymous artists assembling or casting sculptures for the street. Another reason that I am confident in my predictions for street art sculpture is because it is not isolated to Melbourne; last year I wrote a blog post about street art sculpture in the Whitechapel Area.

For more street art sculptures (and I hope that this won’t be the last in this series of articles) read my earlier posts:

Street Art Sculpture 6 2015 

Street Art Sculpture 5 2015

10 Great Street Installation 2014

Street Art Sculpture III 2012

More Street Art Sculpture 2010

Street Art Sculpture 2009


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