Tag Archives: graffiti

Piecing in Burnside

Way out in Melbourne’s west, in the suburb of Burnside there is an industrial park. Constructions built from reinforced concrete walls fill up half of the blocks. Lots of big concrete walls covered in graffiti facing empty blocks. It is obvious from the graffiti pieces that Kame and the Boogaloo Bros had been doing a lot of painting on the industrial estate.

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At 11am last Saturday three cars rolled into the empty block loaded with spray cans, paint, rollers, and step ladders. There were four guys piecing: Jamit, Kame and the Boogaloo Bros, Suer and Rise. Forgetting their tags, these are just four middle-aged guys in daggy old clothes; the Boogaloo Bros are wearing fluro jackets.

These middle aged guys were all painting in the eighties, the initial hiphop graffiti phase in Melbourne but this was the first time that Jamit had actually met Kame and the Boogaloo Bros. The internet has brought these guys together, it has also given a new life to Kame’s painting. Kame had lost interest in graffiti many years ago and was completely unaware of how Melbourne’s scene had developed until an old friend got in touch with him just over a year ago. They are not a crew; the idea of graffiti crew has morphed into an online network.

These are all legal walls that were being painted. The Boogaloo Bros have permission to paint from the building owners, a folder of signed documents sits in their car, just in case. So they have invited Kame and Jamit to join them for a day’s painting.

The first order of business was buffing the wall black. The black paint was watered down so that it would go on faster. Suer kissed goodbye to an old piece as they efficiently roller painted over the wall.

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Next the guys started their outlines. Jamit and Kame were working from sketches but not the Boogaloo Bros. they just start on geometric underpaintings. Suer and Rise do sketches but they just do them for their own sake. As they are out painting most weekends they have plenty of practice and confidence.

Three different styles of pieces start to emerge from the black wall: Jamit is doing a big blockbuster piece taking up two of the concrete panels, the Boogaloo Bros are working up two wildstyle pieces and Kame is doing something more character based in a rock’n’roll tattoo style.

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Jamit hasn’t painted in ages and is struggling a bit. He is running out of paint, using a tape measure to get the letters the right size and buffing out mistakes.

Kame’s curving lines are loose but well planned. He has a beautiful almost traditional sign writing calligraphy, his mother is into calligraphy. Kame has talent and it is not surprising to learn that he is off to paint in the Meeting of Styles in San Francisco in September.

The Boogaloo Bros are confidently and methodically filling in their outlines. Rise does run out of one colour and has to improvise. Suer loves his colours. “Wait till you see this Derby with Fuchia.”

It is all the guys do; apart from a couple of bottles of Pepsi, Kame documenting his painting with a camera and Rise sucking on some cancer sticks.

The wind blows across the wide western plains bring in the grey cloud fronts. It is about 10 degree Celsius out of the wind and there is nowhere out of the wind, the wind chill is freezing. You can see the rain closing in for about thirty minutes; plenty of time for Suer to stand on a small hillock and to try blow the clouds back west. Only Kame kept painting through the rain.

“This is the worst day I’ve ever painted” Kame says.

Perhaps because of this Kame is the first to finish while the others still painting. After another couple of rain fronts the others had finished their outlines and highlights. Finally they sign off with crew affiliations, tags and tributes to the people who were there on the day. Then it was time for photographs to be uploaded to Instagram.

It was just after 4:30 when the graffiti writers drive out of the industrial estate; cold, hungry but happy with their day’s painting.


Medieval Graffiti

Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti – The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (Ebury Press, 2015)

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The justification for the study not just medieval of graffiti, but all graffiti, is the same. The need to understand the ordinary people through their mark making culture and not just the official version created by the church or civil authorities. In the medieval world this includes marks by merchants, marks by stone masons, and marks by women. Although there was graffiti on all kinds of medieval buildings it is in churches where most of the medieval graffiti can still be found, there are over 5,000 inscription in Norwich Cathedral.

The book shows that the study of graffiti started in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as various antiquarians started to study the marks on the walls of their local churches. The problem with an antiquarian examination and speculation about graffiti in their local church is there isn’t enough evidence to understand the marks, or the church itself might just be an odd example. This book is based on a very broad geographic survey, conducted by teams of volunteers, of medieval graffiti in churches around England.

Medieval graffiti in churches exists in limbo, clearly tolerated, as it was not painted over, but not official. The graffiti was cut into the paint that once covered all the interior walls of pre-Reformation English churches and would have stood out as pale lines on a coloured surface. It now survives as scratches on the stone.

Predictably for there are chapters on heraldic graffiti, pictures of knights and plagues but the medieval world is a very strange place. Along with graffiti in churches medieval Christianity had strange beliefs about demons in churches, curses, witch marks and pentangles (yes, all you neo-pagans it is a Christian symbol).

Champion doesn’t think that we can understand the medieval minds that created the graffiti and is cautious about all interpretations. With chapter headings that include “Swastika and the Virgin Mary” to entice you, the cautious approach of the author is warranted. The evidence is carefully considered. Interpretations are never certain and explanation after explanation is debunked often until none are left. Even with this approach it is still a lively read, and even as Champion debunks another theory, it expands my understanding, not just of medieval graffiti, but of the rest of medieval world.

The final chapter goes from the Reformation through to the end of graffiti in churches in the late 19th Century. It is here where something familiar to contemporary graffiti writers emerges in the form of tags and RIP pieces.

The book includes a list of “Selected Sites to Visit”, giving details on the best churches in England to see medieval graffiti.

I read this as an ebook on a Kindle, it was the first time that I have read a whole book in that format. I’m not so sure how helpful having an appendix of terms is in that format.

For more on this book see Jessica Hope “Medieval graffiti: the lost voices of England’s churches in the Middle Ages”.


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.


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


Nost Thoughts

A couple of thoughts about Nost’s massive tag/bomb capping all the tags and bombs that had accumulated along lower section of the 30 year old Smith Street feminist  mural. I haven’t been out to see or photograph the wall, I doubt that I will ever have time for that and I trust that others already have digitised it documenting it for history.

Tagging on this massive scale becomes a kind of buffing. The amount of block colour covering the wall makes it essentially buffing. This makes Nost in this case a kind of grey ghost, the anonymous men who in response to graffiti and street art unofficially buff walls.

Towards the end of the Fitzroy Flasher’s post there is a critique of Megan Evans and Eve Glenn’s original mural. Arguing “a faded, neglected and in my humble opinion, outdated public mural” that need to be refreshed. Fitzroy Flasher’s points out that the original mural is “poorly painted”, “the perspective is wrong, shadows not true to where they should fall” and that it was not as good as the work of Adnate or Kaffeine. They could have added faded to the list.

Fitzroy Flasher’s critique demonstrates the different priorities between street art and the Melbourne muralists of the 1980s. Clearly there differences in aesthetics, perspective, subject, politics and the work’s place in history between the muralists and graffiti writers. It would be good to examine these differences but that would mean going over the history of Mexican muralists, Union banners and I don’t have the time to go into all of that right now.

Expectations of progress on the part of the mural artists have not been fulfilled by the last 30 years of history, consider domestic violence or the gender pay gap. On the other hand graffiti writers, like Nost expect their fame to be instant and temporary rather than historical. The fresh novelty in graffiti and street art demands that the viewers, to some extent, forget the past. Popular culture, from television series to popular politics, assumes an ephemeral state of memory


Graffiti and Street Art by Anna Wacławek

All art history students would be familiar with the Thames & Hudson World of Art series. These paperback books with their black spines are authoritative accounts of various art movements, styles and histories. When Thames & Hudson launched its World of Art series in 1958 it aimed to produce low cost, high quality art books. Now with over 300 titles in the series ranging from Aboriginal Art to Internet Art it is not surprising that there is Anna Wacławek Graffiti and Street Art (Thames & Hudson, 2011, London).

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In the book’s introduction Wacławek notes that: “a major study of graffiti and street art grounded in visual art analysis has yet to be published,” and that she intends this book to fill that gap. Most of the words about graffiti and street art have being written in sociology or criminology rather than from the discipline of visual arts. The lack of a serious book on the art of graffiti and street art is surprising given that in 1984 Thames and Hudson published the some of the first documentation of graffiti art, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s Subway Art. But Subway Art, like most of the earlier books on graffiti, is a collection of photographs.

Graffiti and Street Art certainly fills that gap. After reading so many short articles and interviews with artists it was relief to read in an organised and systematic order in one book rather than gleaming the same information from diverse sources. Wacławek’s precise language can pack many ideas into a single sentence. The many photographs in the book are used as examples and each one is referred to in the text.

The first question about such a book is if graffiti writers do not consider their work art then what is point of an art book is actually an irrelevant question. Apart from some contemporary English speaking artists the same can be said about almost everyone currently called an artist. But trivial categorisation disputes aside the art of graffiti needs to be included in this book. Describing the structure of graffiti writing and the genealogy of graffiti is necessary, at the very least to distinguish it from street art.

Later the question, ‘is graffiti art?’, allows Wacławek to distinguish art history from visual culture studies. Distinguish between art history and visual culture history removes the aura of excellence around in art history and allows the examination of  popular images. This is an important distinctions not just for graffiti and street art but for any examination of popular images.

The popularity of graffiti and street art is not dismissed but examined. It is looked at in the collaboration of the public in the creation of street art. When Wacławek examines the dissemination of street art in photographs and online she raises the question: where do you see the most street art and graffiti on the streets or online?

Examining graffiti and street art from the perspective of art history is important that issues of style, subject and signature key to both art history and graffiti. Wacławek gives context to Haring and Basquiat as a sidetrack in the history of graffiti. There are also occasionally references to contemporary artists, like Andy Goldsmith, in perspective with street art

Sometimes I felt that Wacławek was being too subtle with both her arguments and the examples that accompanied them rather than doing something more obvious. Vexta and Nick Walker are the examples in the section titled “Identity Politics”. However, if the average reader can think of the more obvious arguments and examples is it necessary to writing them?

At the University of Melbourne has CCDP20001 Street Art can now be studied as part of the breadth subjects for undergraduates studying Science, Music, Commerce, Biomedicine and Arts. I am surprised that this book is not one of the prescribed texts.

The prescribed texts for the subject are:

Cubrilo, Duro et al (2010), King’s Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti – Melbourne 1983-1993 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press)

Schacter, Rafael (ed.) (2013) The World Atlas of Graffiti and Street Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press)

Alison Young’s Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination.

Anna Wacławek Graffiti and Street Art is a book that is needed by the many high school students and university students who are and will be studying graffiti and street art.

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December 2015

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Exit 2015, Friday 11th December, Brunswick Arts

On Friday night across Melbourne many galleries and studios were holding their end of year celebrations. But it wasn’t just the end of another year at Brunswick Arts (aka Brunswick Art Space, Brunswick Art Gallery), it is closing permanently. Eleven years ago Joel Gailer established the gallery in a building that featured an old house at one end and a factory space that opened onto laneway at the other end. On Friday there was a final one night only exhibition using the whole now empty building.

I like the tradition of the end of the calendar year but every year I write these terrible end of year blog posts. Barely coherent rambling pieces of writing but what do I expect? As if I could sum up a year in a few hundred words.

Normally in these end of year posts I write that I won’t be posting anything for another month but the Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei has just opened at the NGV and Julian Rosefeldt’s brand-new thirteen-channel work Manifesto has just opened at ACMI. I anticipate that I will slow down my rate of writing but you never know what will happen. I hope I will take a break, part of being a self-employed professional means taking holidays, otherwise you will burn yourself out. (There is also professional development, or you will decay over time.)

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Personally 2015 was a great year, a real point of self actualisation as my first book, Sculptures of Melbourne was published. I had two book launches, conducted several walking tours of Melbourne’s public sculptures (one of these was part of Melbourne’s Writers Festival) and a book talk at Brunswick Public Library. So support a local publisher, your local bookshop and buy my book.

Consequently I am being invited to visit a lot more sculptors at foundries or in their studio, however there has rarely been a story in it. In other public art new this year Mr Poetry on Fitzroy Street had his leg broken by a truck, nobody celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Burke and Wills Monument and Alex Goad’s Tethya was installed on the corner of Fitzroy and Jackson streets in St. Kilda.

This year I missed covering the story of Makatron’s Kama Sutra Burger at Land of Sunshine. Censorship, street art and Brunswick, it had all the elements of one of my blog posts, but I can’t write about everything. I also missed the story of the guerrilla exhibition about tagging in the Alexandra Avenue underpass under St. Kilda Road; I finally saw it this week and it had been systematically tagged.

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Grit, an exhibition of tagging, Melbourne

Next year I will be celebrating my 1000th blog post (this is number 992) with a psychogeographical walk in Brunswick on Sunday the 31st January. In March I will also be exhibiting a few of my paintings for the first time in many years. Doubtless I will also be doing a few tours of public sculpture too. (See my events page for more details).

Seasonal greetings and thanks for reading this terrible end of year post.

Live Christmas Decoration 2


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