Writing still on the wall for graffiti artists

Posted on: February 4th, 2019 by
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Since it hit Australia as part of the broader hip hop scene in the early to mid 1980s, graffiti art has spread from coast to coast.

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Never short of critics, its often confronting, usually illegal, and generally anti-authoritarian nature has irked many a property owner and local newspaper.

But still, graffiti writers keep putting their work on the wall.

Melbourne’s laneways are testament to the vibrancy of the Australian scene, showcasing talented locals and international artists in a legal setting.

But for every person admiring intricate ‘pieces’, or masterpieces, another will balk at the suggestion that the work is art.

One important part of the subculture is tagging – the marking of an artist’s signature on the wall. Proponents say a tag is often a highly stylised form of calligraphy.

But it is frequently a crude marking – and a long way from what most people deem worthy of illegally being scrawled on a wall.

To tackle it, there’s been a trend to curate legal graffiti spaces in some local government areas.

“We’re very much encouraging of curated street art, because it’s an outlet for our young people. It gives them a place to express themselves”, says Fiona Byrne, Greens mayor of the inner-Sydney suburb of Marrickville.

No distinctions

But graffiti writers say a blanket distinction between legal and illegal graffiti is impossible. Just because a patch of wall can be painted on, they say, doesn’t mean illegally painted graffiti is less valid artistically.

“Some vandalism is actually good art as well, just because it’s done without permission doesn’t make it any less worthy”, ‘Caib’ says.

Caib has been painting on both sides of the law since the mid 1980s, and he’s more concerned with how the face of graffiti is changing, than with the old art or vandalism argument – especially now that mainstream art galleries are taking note.

Over the last decade, spearheaded by UK celebrity graffiti writer Banksy, stencil art, along with ‘paste up’ posters, has grown in popularity on city streets. But ‘old school’ graffiti writers, many of them masters of the spray can, hold their fashionable contemporaries in low esteem.

Amongst this crowd, there’s an antagonism that goes deeper than a pure envy at the mainstream art world’s interest in this new street art.

“With a lot of stencil art and things like that, it’s often just someone printing it out, blowing it up and sticking it on a wall – it’s not necessarily their art”, Caib says.

This antagonism, often fuelled by the macho side of graffiti, has even seen the term ‘art fag’ develop, used to denigrate stencils – often created by a more middle class, art-school crowd, as compared to the gritty hip hoppers who claim a connection with the graffiti subculture.

For others though, the very speed with which the subculture is shifting – whether it be stencils and posters or simply new styles of graffiti lettering- means that documenting the spectrum of work in it’s ‘proper’ setting is the most important thing.

Croatian-born Tugi Balog runs a framing business, and Sydney’s renowned May Lane graffiti project.

He’s replaced the windows of his business with panels which that are painted, preserved, then toured around the country. And he’s done it so that an underground movement is properly remembered.

“Throughout history, there were lots of these subcultures which basically disappeared and never existed because there was nothhing to prove their existence”, Balog says.

But despite support from many of the neighbours who have allowed nearby walls to become part of the space, the nature of graffiti means the project hasn’t been trouble free.

“They don’t mind artworks but they don’t want tags”, says Balog, a long time admirer of all aspects of the graffiti scene.

“They don’t understand that they go together”

But after three decades in Australia, it’s unlikely to go anywhere any time soon.


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