Sightseeing in Melbourne: A Lesson in Street Politics

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When the Melbourne City Council launched its new Lose Yourself in Melbourne tourism campaign in 2006, one of the highlights mentioned was the city’s thriving street art and graffiti culture. Just a year later, the state government passed new laws that made graffiti punishable by two years in prison.

The Melbourne government has historically had contradictory views on the legitimacy of graffiti. Politicians have equally praised and denounced street art and the publicity it generates. “I don’t think graffiti is what we want to be displaying overseas,” Australian politician John Brumby said. “It’s a blight on the city.”

As I walked down Flinders Street in the heart of Melbourne — the Central Business District or CBD — I came across dozens of the city’s most touted tourist attractions, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Federation Square, and the Flinders Street Railway Station. The legendary Melbourne Cricket Grounds were in plain sight, right across the Yarra River. Herds of tourists were clicking pictures of everything, posing awkwardly, reading their little brochures as they searched for wherever they were headed.

But the map on my phone told me to keep walking, past all of these. I could come back here anytime. No, today I wasn’t interested in museums or galleries. Melbourne had something else to show me, a part of the city I hadn’t seen anywhere else in the world. I turned left, got off the main road.

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Hosier Lane is a one-of-a-kind tourist spot in central Melbourne, removed from the urban thoroughfares and main avenues. Tall residential buildings rise up on either side, and the lane itself is a narrow, cobblestone alley that, in any other city, would be a nondescript entrance to a small cafe or lower middle-class tenement building. Except for the huge murals and exquisite splashes of colour that cover entire buildings, snake up switchback staircases against the sides of residential complexes, and fill drab walls with a rambunctious fit of energy.

Where graffiti and street art are normally at odds with civic sensibilities, Hosier Lane is a place where the two more than just tolerate each other — they thrive on each other’s presence. The street’s central location offers easy access to tourists who are just getting done with the cursory visits to Federation Square and the famous metro station, and the freedom to use someone else’s walls as their canvas gives street artists around the world a safe, positive environment to showcase their craft.

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One graffiti artist was in the process of creating a new mural on the wall to my right, a box full of spray cans at his feet, as several onlookers watched. As I walked further down the alley, my eyes were drawn upwards by something I saw on the side of a building. A painting of a boy, almost photorealistic in its perfection, stood more than 4 storeys high, staring down at us irreverently. His eyes had a soft, reflective shine to them, the way they do in the light, and his hair fell in light strands across his cheek.

When you see something like that for the first time, you can’t help but ask if they’re the same graffiti Mr. Brumby was referring to as a ‘blight on the city.’ Why is the Mona Lisa a work of art and not this? Does the absence of a canvas, an easel and a paintbrush rob these artists of their legitimacy?

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Hosier Lane is one of the few exceptions in a world still very unwelcoming of street art and ‘tagging’, and it’s totally legal to spray-paint there—encouraged, in fact. But the vast majority of neighbourhoods—residential buildings, business centres—don’t take kindly to having their establishments covered in bright, unsightly paint. When they haven’t specifically commissioned or permitted it, even painting a Van Gogh under their windows would still count as vandalism.

It’s this deviant nature that gives graffiti its notoriety—and its perverse appeal. There’s an everyman accessibility to street art, a situational relatability to the medium that stems from its ‘ghetto’ nature. Street art pieces are rarely timeless or relevant beyond their specific context in the way many other works of art are. They instead seek to speak truths most people aren’t willing to say in public, or attach meaningful imagery to an idea. The anonymity of the artist lends itself to a mystique that generates publicity with little to no interference from the artist themselves.

In the past few years, the anonymous British street artist Banksy has gained widespread popularity (and infamy) for his satirical graffiti pieces. He’s gone on to become a cultural icon in England, with younger people in countries around the globe naming him, along with such personalities as Shakespeare, JK Rowling and the Beatles, as someone they associate with UK culture.

The approachability of street art makes it perfectly suited to the current culture spawned by the internet and social media. We’ve gotten used to consuming constent in small, easily digestible chunks of information—short videos, thousands of images, 280-character tweets. Topics go viral and trend among millions of internet users worldwide, then seemingly wink out of existence as the next new craze catches on.

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In many ways, street art has morphed into the darker, more subversive cousin of the fast-paced social media reality show. It’s immediately pertinent, and perhaps will cease to be so in only a few months. It’s an artistic choice informed by the impermanence of the medium. The art is constantly changing and evolving—just like the cityscape itself. With graffiti routinely being removed by municipal authorities or defaced by other artists and, ironically, vandals, street art is necessarily short lived in its relevance. And there’s always more where it came from.

But for street artists, the trade-off between relinquishing their works to powers beyond their control, and displaying their art where thousands of people will see it everday is a price worth paying, and it shows. Even as Melbourne passed new, far stricter laws against graffiti vandals, the number of reported graffiti incidents increased by as much as 57%. As law enforcement gets tighter, the sheer deviant allure of the act itself gets too great to resist.

The adjoining road to Hosier Lane, a short stretch called Rutledge Lane, was just as colourful and messy, though not so inviting. Huge garbage bins stood in the middle of the narrow path, every inch of them covered in riotous paintwork. It’s this part of the area that reminds you that Hosier and Rutledge Lanes are adjoining poor tenement buildings and some small, shady pubs. The smell of garbage, though slight, pervades the senses, distracting somewhat from the sights around you. The lively, pleasant air of the wider Hosier Lane closes about you, and it’s not quite as bright, either. In recent years, the twin lanes have gone from vibrant tourist attractions to drug dens, and it’s not hard to see how.

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Cities around the world have struggled with figuring out how to deal with these issues, with a burgeoning street art culture that only really began a couple of decades ago. Marking buildings with a permanent coat of paint would under most circumstances be vandalism. And yet, labelling street artists as vandals would be oversimplifying the issue. Many cities and people associate their culture and artistic spirit with the freeform graffiti they host on their own walls. When São Paulo’s mayor — decrying the city’s street art as ‘dirty’ and labelling its purveyors ‘criminals’ — began spraying grey paint over graffiti murals on the city’s walls, the citizens staged several protests against him, and a judge passed a ruling prohibiting him from covering up any more street art without consulting the civic department of historic preservation.

When responses to graffiti are this disparate, there’s really no rulebook to play by. No one knows how to deal with street art. Should it be made legal in some select places? While that would increase participation in graffiti artwork, there’s a lot of debate going on about whether encouraging it is even a good thing. And what about the graffiti already present? Removing some and not others would be tantamount to creative discrimination, removing it all would be tyrannical (and practically impossible to enforce), and letting the matter lie would be unfair to home and business owners who’ve had their property illegally tagged.

Graffiti, like any other art form, has its admirers and detractors. But unlike traditional art, graffiti foists itself onto others by making someone else’s property its mode of expression. Walking through Hosier Lane and Rutledge Lane, I found myself in awe of the artists’ creativity, the skill with which they manipulated aerosol colours to form spectacular images that seemed to dance on the walls. And yet, in that same moment, I knew that I would absolutely not want any art of that sort on the walls of my house. I’m only able to appreciate this art because someone else decided to welcome graffiti artists to paint on their walls, whether out of generosity or bravery.

As I left Hosier Lane, and as I read more about the art form that is graffiti, it became more clear what a complex issue it is, a problem whose solution requires more than just ham-fisted legislation to send some kids with spray cans and a misguided sense of purpose to prison for two years. There’s a culture surrounding street art, both among the locals and the tourists, that cannot be ignored. Whichever way you cut it — whether it’s for creative enrichment in a dreary urban landscape, or for the commercial prospects — street art is a valuable resource to the people who make it and consume it.

There needs to be more care and thoughtfulness that goes into policy and decision-making when bringing ideas to the drawing board, and those ideas can’t come from just the politicians themselves. Because in the end, it’s not the lawmakers insulated in their luxury sedans and million-dollar penthouses who spend any real time in the streets, and who must either appreciate or endure the city’s freshly painted edifices. It’s all the rest of us who do.

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