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Graffiti: art or vandalism?

In some places in Melbourne "graffiti" and "art" are synonymous. Final-year Media Studies student Florencia Liguori looks at the evolution of Hosier Lane's Melbourne Stencil Festival, which opens on September 25.

Walking through Hosier Lane in Melbourne’s inner city is like an experience from Alice in Wonderland. 

With so many colours in one place, it’s like walking on a rainbow – into a world that is much friendlier than ours. 

The elderly lady standing next to me one morning was taking photographs with a bulky old camera. 

“Just charming,” she whispers. I agree with her, and ask if she is a tourist. “No, no. I have lived in Melbourne all my life,” she says. “But I come here once a month or so to see what’s new.” 

Hosier Lane, between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane, is the best known graffiti-prone spot in Melbourne.  In recent years, it has become a favourite for brides in puffy white dresses tiptoeing on their designer heels to have their photographs taken, and high-profile fashion shoots for magazines such as Vogue

Because Hosier Lane is so well respected, graffiti can stay on the walls for months without being vandalised by scribbles in thick black spray paint. 

They are called tags.  They are everywhere across the city, and are costing the Yarra Council over $100,000 a year to clean up. 

The tags – which are mostly just nicknames – are on trains, billboards, walls and buses. Vandals are even getting smarter, and are using a technique called ‘scratchitti’ where they scratch tags into metal with knives and other sharp objects so they can’t be removed.  These tags are what give graffiti a bad reputation. 

A Yarra Council graffiti cleaner, who did not want to be named, tells me that Fitzroy is the worst hit area. He suspects that that is because there are so many laneways and small streets. 

And the laws that were put into place last year have made the problem even worse.  A $550 penalty he says, is just a slap on the wrist, and tougher fines are needed for those who vandalise. 

“If we clean it today, you can bet if you go back tomorrow it’s been hit again,” he says. 

Just recently, an old couple from Clifton Hill contacted the council to complain of tags all over the front of their house.  Because it was on brick, they couldn’t paint over it, so they had to remove it with chemicals, and the council’s team spent over four hours scrubbing. 

The following day, the couple called the council screaming because it had been hit again. 

“I just feel sorry for the person that owns the house,” the cleaner says. 

But he reluctantly adds graffiti can be a form of art.  Sometimes, it even looks good. 

“I must admit it looked alright,” he says of a mural that two 13-year-old girls painted in Gertrude Street.  Graffiti and tagging is not the same thing. 

The City of Melbourne conducted research that revealed people don’t like seeing the ugly, illegal practise of ‘tagging’, but they like colourful ‘street art’.  Tagging takes five or six seconds. Graffiti takes guts as it’s five to 10 minutes of looking over your shoulder. 

In an effort to educate Melburnians about street art, stencil artist Satta and filmmaker JD Mittmann teamed up in 2004 to establish the first Melbourne Stencil Festival.  After an unexpectedly strong turnout, it has been running ever since, and is held for 10 days each year. 

This year’s festival commences September 25, and brings a combination of colourful exhibitions, live artist demonstrations, talks, panel discussions and workshops to the general public. 

Inspired by this, many stencil artists graduated from graffiti to galleries. Two years later, galleries specialising in street art were starting to emerge.  Dickerson Gallery in Collingwood was inspired by street art and began to exhibit work by Vexta, Haha and Al Stark in 2006. 

And slowly, over the past five years, graffiti culture has been flourishing and transforming into something different to put Melbourne on the map as the street art capital of the world. 

David Hagger, the Dickerson Gallery manager, tells me that they made the risky transition between being a conventional and traditional gallery –exhibiting work like landscapes and portraits – to breaking the mold and exhibiting “vibrant” work. 

The somewhat new concept of exhibiting street art has been “smashed” Hagger says, and the rise of Banksy “really put a rocket up.” 

John Buckley Gallery exhibits it.  So does The National Gallery of Victoria. And The National Gallery of Australia has bought collections. Prices range between $100 and $3000, and the buyers are mostly architects and designers as graffiti fits in perfectly with modern architecture, as well as adding a contemporary twist to art-deco homes. 

But the transition between spraying a Connex train at 3am and painting a 60cm canvas in a quiet studio is a difficult one for the artists, and many of them continue to do illegal work because the gallery scene is not challenging enough. 

But even in doing this, the artists, who are now older and more experienced, don’t tag, and their street work still maintains the same beauty and vibrancy it shows in galleries. “Tagging is vandalism,” Hagger says, “it’s a cry for building one’s ego and there is no thought process behind it.” 

Haha still loves doing illegal “stuff,” and admits getting his name from Nelson Muntz, The Simpson’s bully with the signature laugh. 

When I ask him if he considers himself an artist or a vandal, he says both, then changes his mind and says: “I consider myself a student of the universe”. In these risky midnight missions, he has been chased many times but says he doesn’t know how he got away because “I’m kind of overweight,” he chuckles. 

Haha’s real name is Regan Tamanui, and he is, if you like, Australia’s own Banksy. In early 2000, he started doing stencils of Australian icons like Ned Kelly and Don Bradman in a conscious political move to make stencil art more popular because everyone could recognise the faces. Ned Kelly eventually became his trademark. 

He recently got paid $6000 to paint a large stencil. He has already spent most of the money – bills, new shoes and a huge new tattoo of Ned Kelly on the back of his leg. 

Although Tamanui was one of the first stencil artists to graduate into galleries, he explains that galleries pay the bills, and his real passion is on the streets because you can make a name for yourself. 

The 37-year-old has a boyish charm.  As he smiles he reveals a gap in his front teeth big enough to fit a two-dollar coin. He says “if you’re gonna do something illegally, graffiti or whatever, obviously it’s gonna get cleaned”. He’s had his work cleaned many times and although he was “shattered”, he knows it’s part of the ‘job’. 

Although graffiti is becoming more accepted and officially seen as a valid form of art in galleries, tagging isn’t. 

Tamanui agrees that tags are vandalism because they have no meaning and no one can read them. But although he feels bad for people who have had their house tagged, he says it’s part of living in a city and there are more important issues that the council should be addressing. 

One thing is for certain. If you’re going to get into the graff scene and want to make a name for yourself, make your work look pretty. Chances are it won’t be cleaned. Respect homes and public transport. 

And take Tamanui’s advice: “Sure you can do a shitload of stuff on the streets, but if it’s crap, no one is going to take much notice.” 

Florencia Liguori is a final-year Media Studies student at La Trobe University.  Her blog is called Fashion Gal.

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