Thursday, October 3, 2013

Spray it loud, spray it proud

The small Australian city of Ballarat is a gold-rush town that was built on the boom of the mid-1800s. It is a deeply conservative place, divided down the middle between those with money and those without. Rural, semi-rural and urban in one - it is middle Australia. In Ballarat, beneath the main thoroughfare of Sturt Street, there is a whole underground streetscape of shopfronts, walls, laneways, cellars and tunnels. A new street was built over the old street. The ghost street below offers a suite of bare walls and surfaces waiting for messages from the new world to be daubed on them. But they never will. There is a trapdoor down into this netherworld from one of the working premises above, yet all is empty, all is quiet. There are no parables, messages or symbols of how we live, what we think and what things might mean pasted, sprayed or painted in freehand.

Down there it is Australia before street art. It is a dull place. It reassures us of conformity, sameness, prohibition, old-fashioned values. It reminds us of the fallacy that ''the city'', both literal and symbolic, is somehow sacred. Meanwhile, above ground in real-life Ballarat, the debate about art versus vandalism is just heating up. One business owner was featured in the city's Courier newspaper after he commissioned local artist Cax to paint a shipping container on his property. The resulting work is spectacular, yet the community is divided in a scenario that has been played out so many times before in cities everywhere; even 90 minutes down the road in Melbourne, where prison terms are still handed out for ''graffiti'' offences.

Tourists visit Melbourne to see the street art in cobblestoned Hosier Lane, in the same way that they visit Newtown in bustling, inner-city Sydney. Most days Hosier Lane is an outdoor gallery full of clicking cameras; you can even see people in wedding dress posing next to the walls. In this laneway and many others, you will find the Australian masters: Meggs, Rone, HA-HA, Lush, Kid Zoom (Ian Strange) and Anthony Lister.

Art attack: Ben Frost's <i>World War 3?</i>, Brisbane, Australia 2011.

Art attack: Ben Frost's World War 3?, Brisbane, Australia 2011.

The state government of Victoria profits from Melbourne's art, yet it still penalises the artists. This is no different from most local governments elsewhere in the world, even in the most enlightened places. As a Ballarat Courier reader wrote, in correspondence with the paper during the ''debate'': ''This rubbish scribble is vandalism.''


Australia, however, is different because it has a great history of writing and drawing on walls. Aboriginal rock art, of which there are about 125,000 sites throughout the country's states and territories, dates back 30,000 years. Look at the work of Kaff-eine, from Melbourne; one of her motifs is a human figure with a stag's head.

Coy, lustful, raw, but also very primitive and in tune with this incredible history of rock art, her work is in part about spirits and humans intermingling.

Swoon's <i>Bicycle Boy</i>, Brooklyn, New York, 2005. From <i>The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti</i>.

Swoon's Bicycle Boy, Brooklyn, New York, 2005. From The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti.

Reko Rennie, an Aboriginal artist of the Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay/Gummaroi people, pursues similar themes: his early works featured kangaroos and Aboriginal spearmen in hypercolour. More recently, he has painted a landmark building in central Sydney in stark, geometric, pink, black and blue lines in reference to the ancient drawings of his people. The words ''Always Was, Always Will Be'' are written across the building. ''This was Gadigal country,'' Rennie says, ''and always will be.''

Sydney was also home to a man named Arthur Stace. His juncture in this story lies between indigenous rock paintings and the contemporary art of Reko Rennie. Over a 35-year period from the 1930s, Stace wrote the word ''Eternity'' on footpaths and train station walls all over the city, starting every day at 5am and stopping when the city woke. He was arrested 24 times. On New Year's Eve at the start of 2000, the Sydney Harbour Bridge was lit up with this word, the most famous in Sydney, but a word that was only ever written by Stace illegally in chalk.

Today, Perth's Kid Zoom works in the urban wastelands of the United States, in Detroit and in Alabama, where he is taking ''Australian street art'' to a whole new level.

He has bought up repossessed, post-industrial homes, painted and set fire to them. The message is about consumerism and decay. His images and his ideas about the modern city can be traced back to ancient times.

Australian artists continue to make a significant contribution to this vibrant yet contentious art form. The earliest examples of Aboriginal rock art were lines created with a finger in limestone caves. Later came concentric circles, figures and female spirits drawn with ochre. But the finger started it - the finger that is still used today with the aerosol and the stencil-cutter's blade.

This is an edited foreword to The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti by Rafael Schacter, published by NewSouth at $49.99.
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