Archive for September, 2008|Monthly archive page

On tourism, street art, and Melbourne

Well, this topic certainly deserves a long post, which sadly I don’t have time to write at present. More later, I think. But I did want to note the latest instalment in the continuing saga of the State Government’s conflicted attitude to street art and graffiti in Melbourne.

On Monday, I noticed a story in The Age (our local broadsheet newspaper, for any non-local readers) which reported on how a recreation of Melbourne is the centrepiece of a food and wine festival at Disney World in Florida. Laneways painted with street art and graffiti are the location for small cafes serving different kinds of food – so far, so Melbourne, right? Well, today (Tuesday) a friend (thanks, Esther!) sent me a message with a link to a story in the Herald Sun, which is all hot under the collar about this, on behalf of Tim Holding, the Victorian Minister for Tourism and Major Events, who has apparently criticised his department for allowing Melbourne to be associated with graffiti: ‘graffiti is not the way we want Melbourne to be promoted to a global audience’, he says.

Tourism Victoria is, sadly, admitting that it has made ‘a mistake’ in allowing the graffiti panels to be included. I say ‘sadly’ because, for one thing, I would have preferred Tourism Victoria at least to have been consistent in its expressed views, given that it features street art in much of its promotional material. And for another thing, I would like the State Government to actually consider what it objects to about the association between Melbourne and street art. It seems so short-sighted and blinkered: street art in London has brought large amounts of money into previously cash-strapped areas like the East End and Shoreditch over the last 8-10 years. If the State Government here could at least participate in a discussion about the cultural value of street art and graffiti, it might not need to engage in such self-righteous huffing and puffing about a food and wine festival. Makes me wonder if Minister Holding has ever wandered around the laneways of Melbourne – spending time on such a pursuit might show him that, for many, food, wine and street art combine very nicely in this city of ours.

If you would like to read the Herald Sun story, it’s here.

There’s a forum for posting comments, too.

Heading to London

I’m off to London this Thursday for a couple of weeks – to photograph some more street art, to check out the Cans Festival mark 2, and to meet some artists and gallery folks.

I’ll try to post while I’m away, but I also wanted to ask if anyone would like to suggest artists I should be trying to meet, or great stuff I should go and photograph, or any exhibitions I should catch while I’m there (there’s a new D*face show opening this Thursday, for example)…. please let me know!

Clamping down: the Graffiti Prevention Act 2007

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Australian state of Victoria just can’t make up its mind as to what it thinks about graffiti and street art. On the one hand, it uses images of graffiti and street art to promote tourism, showing images of Melbourne’s laneways (well, Hosier Lane, usually) on television and in its information guides (have a look here). On the other hand – well, it has recently passed a new statute called the Graffiti Prevention Act 2007, which creates a bundle of new criminal offences and gives the police new powers of search, which hardly seems to fit with its marketing of Melbourne as the city of cool street art.

So, what are the new offences? Well, there’s one of ‘marking graffiti’ – creating graffiti that is visible from a public place and done without the property owner’s consent. Another one is ‘possessing a graffiti implement on transport company property or an adjacent public place, or a place where you are trespassing’. What’s meant by ‘graffiti implement’? It’s pretty broad – it means any tool or object or implement or substance that you can use to mark graffiti. So… what does ‘mark graffiti’ mean? Spray, write, draw, mark, scratch or ‘deface’ property by any means so that the result cannot be cleaned off with a dry cloth.

So one thing that’s clear from this is how legal language likes to bind one definition up in another, so that interpretation of what this statute will actually mean is the product of a chain of associations, definitions and meanings (making it hard, sometimes, for non-lawyers to realise that they might be actually breaking the law in what they are doing).

But what else is clear is that this Act has really broad scope. The title of the Act and its fixation on public transport property make it sound as though it might be restricted to tagging and so on. It isn’t. It includes stencils. It includes paste-ups. It includes all kinds of street art as well as conventional graffiti. It applies to everyone who puts up on a wall  on or near public transport property, if the image they make can’t be rubbed off with a dry cloth (and since walls aren’t really anything like whiteboards, I’m a bit at a loss to think of what you can put on and rub off a wall with a dry cloth and leave no mark).

These new offences come with new penalties, as you might expect. Marking graffiti – up to 2 years’ imprisonment, and a fine of up to $26,428. Possessing a graffiti implement on or near public transport property, or while trespassing – a fine of up to $2,753, or an on-the-spot fine of $550. Pretty serious penalties, and remember that the police may well be looking to charge people with a number of counts, which would increase the total fines. (It’s through non-payment of fines that many people end up in prison, so imprisonment is a real possibility under this Act.)

And in order to assist the police, the Act creates some new powers of search for them. A police officer can search any person, vehicle or thing if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ for suspecting that person is in possession of a graffiti implement on or near public transport property or while trespassing. What does ‘reasonable grounds’ mean? It means that if you are at or near a place that has recently had graffiti put up on it, the police officer is entitled to take that into account in deciding if it’s reasonable to search you. If they search you and find an ‘implement’ (like a spray can), they must ask you why you have one.

So, suppose you are stopped and searched by the police? You’re at a train station, or on a tram, or waiting at a tram stop, or walking down a laneway near a train station. The police find a spray can in your bag and ask you why you have one. It’s up to you to convince the police that you have the spray can for a ‘legitimate’ purpose – like a school art project, or that you are on your way to your studio where you are working on your next big gallery show.

The thing is, this means that the ‘burden of proof’ has been reversed. What SHOULD happen is for the police to prove there’s reasonable grounds to suspect that you don’t have a spray can for a legitimate purpose – this is part of the work of policing and it’s what the police have to do for most offences. The burden of proof has previously been reversed in relation to drug offences – does that mean that a spray can is being equated with heroin in terms of the amount of social harm caused?

So what will be the consequences of this new legislation? Well, one of its stated aims was to make it easier for the police to arrest graffiti writers and artists, and it seems very likely that we’ll see an increase in arrests once the police get into the swing of using it (at the moment they are still being trained in its implementation). Another consequence is the erosion of legal principles: the burden of proof is supposed to be one of the cornerstones of criminal justice, a basic safeguard against the abuse of power by the state and its agents. If the State Government can create an Act which reverses the burden of proof in the context of graffiti, simply in order supposedly to address ‘community concerns’ about graffiti and to facilitate the arrest of graffiti writers by the police, then that seems to indicate that legal rights are not taken as seriously in this State as they should be.

What the Act won’t do is deter people from tagging, of course, no matter what the Department of Justice and the public transport companies are hoping. What the Act will do is create the risk that many more people – and especially many more young people – will be brought into the criminal justice system, acquiring fines and a criminal record as a result.

And on top of this, the Act is about criminalising artists. It’s all very well for the Department of Justice to make claims about graffiti being a social problem (which they do on their website, here), one major consequence of the Act will be that artists are subjected to the criminal law for putting up work on the streets. The result could well be be a kind of ‘chilling effect’ on many of the great artists who live in Melbourne or who visit the city, so that it could seem too risky to do work on the street.

It makes me sad and frustrated that a city so well known around the world for its urban art should be the site where laws like this get implemented.

And if you are one of the folks who get arrested and charged under this new legislation, you can get legal advice from organisations such as your nearest community legal centre or from Youthlaw.

An image to drive by…

I have no photograph with which to illustrate this post. Last Friday afternoon, I was in the car with my partner. I’m sitting in the passenger seat. We drive down Hoddle Street and take the entrance to the Eastern Freeway off Hoddle Street. Just as we whizz at some speed around the corner to join the freeway, I glimpse what I’m sure is an Invader artwork, positioned on the wall next to the freeway entrance. My memory says purplish-blue as the main colour, perhaps with a few key tiles in red?

Invader is a French artist who makes mosaic tiles and attaches them to walls. Usually, they take the shapes of ‘space invaders’ from that proptypical video game back in the 1970s, although some of his more recent works have involved Rubik’s cube designs. The mosaic tiles are attached to street walls, and often sit quietly unnoticed by passers-by.  I don’t know when this tile was put up, but unless it’s very recent I’m pretty sure that I have driven past it a number of times without realising it was there.

If I ever get up the nerve to walk round the corner of the freeway entrance and take its photograph I will certainly post it. Or perhaps, in summer, I could get up at first light – when that road might be free of cars – and photograph it then.

But I also like the idea that it is hard to photograph, so that it exists in my memory rather than as a thumbnail on my computer. In my memory, it has the shimmer of sudden colour against concrete, as the car sweeps past – an image appearing out of the stone.

Shaking Hands with a Legend….

It’s not often you get to shake hands with a legend. That’s the thing about legends: by definition, they tend not to hang out with us mortals. So imagine the thrill of being introduced to an honest-to-god legend of graffiti: Doze Green.

Doze, as many of you will know, is one of the original members of the Rock Steady Crew. He started putting up on the walls and trains of New York City in 1974; in the mid-80s his work was being exhibited in galleries such as Fun and Tony Shafrazi. And he is still working: check out his website HERE to see some of his recent activities.

Doze was in Amsterdam in June, collaborating with Fefe Talavera for an exhibition at K-Space Gallery. Fefe is a 26 year old Sao Paulo artist, who also has credits to her name of opening for Missy Elliott on tour. Her artworks often feature monsters and fabulous, vaguely terrifying creatures, like THESE. For the K-Space show, each artist produced some solo works, and collaborated on a huge piece, which blended Fefe’s monsters with Doze’s characters using a palette of rich, lush colour:

Check out some of the detail in this work:

The K-Space site contains many great shots of the artists working on this piece together. The exhibition opened with a big party, with both Fefe and Doze present. I had been standing around quietly taking photos, when one girl asked who I was and why I was taking pictures (she thought I must be a journalist). I explained about my research, and she asked if I would like to meet Doze and Fefe. Like to!!??!

And so I was introduced to them – one of street art’s new stars, and one of hip hop’s pioneering legends. And here they are together:

Also present at the party was Orlando Reyes, someone else with an illustrious hip hop career, and now running the 58 Gallery in New Jersey. While we were chatting, standing in the small area outside the gallery, Orlando’s attention suddenly was distracted by something happening inside the gallery. ‘Excuse me’, he said, ‘I have to go tag’.

And he rushed inside to join Doze, who was tagging the sound equipment set up for the opening. Here they are, hard at work:

As you can see, a fun time was had by all…  And if you are in Amsterdam, apparently Doze and Fefe did some works under some of the canal bridges too. What better reason to rent a pedal boat and head up and down the canals than to search for the work of a legend?

Good timing…

It’s always so great when, just sometimes, you are in the right place at the right time. I experienced a little bit of that when I was in Amsterdam in June this year, which is when several artists got together to paint a huge piece known as the Mikosa Mural.

Amsterdam is a small city with a long tradition of graffiti and street art, thanks to the radical politics of squatters and others throughout the last few decades. But in recent years the city has become more conservative. Although the red light district and the coffee shops are flourishing (and as such Amsterdam seems to be a liberal, progressive, hip city) political shifts have taken place which mean that there are tensions within the city about ethnic differences, about ‘anti-social behaviour’, and so on.  In such a climate, getting sponsorship for a gigantic graffiti mural to showcase the work of several artists is quite a feat.

The ‘Mikosa Mural’ was created through the efforts of the Mikosa Foundation, founded in Amsterdam in 2005 by Marco Galmacci, Rocco Pezzella, Claudius Gebele and Henk Kramer. Check it out HERE. Mikosa supports the work of artists ranging from graffiti writers through street artists, internet designers, and video artists.It organises exhibitions, has a clothing range, and produces a ‘magazine’, which as a term just doesn’t do justice to their extremely cool and classy publication.

But the Mikosa Mural was something different – a much bigger project than before, involving a lot of sponsorship – that is, basically schmoozing not only to get the funds to pay for a ton of paint and scaffolding, but also to get permission to undertake the project in the first place.

The site that was selected was at Baarsjesweg 200, in an area called Des Baarsjes, which lies outside the main canal belt where most tourists spend their time. The mural was to be on a wall at the end of a block of apartments and on the adjoining, lower, wall, and it overlooked a small (concrete) soccer pitch. Here’s the wall before the project began. As you can see, it had already received the attention of some local artists:

Painting the wall would take ten days. Its height meant that six levels of scaffolding were required (one of the things that Mikosa had to organise was insurance for the artists working on the scaffolding). The artists taking part were Zedz, Lordh, The Boghe, Morcky, Wayne Horse, and The London Police. Some had been featured in a 2006 exhibition at GEM, the Museum of Contemporary Art in The Hague, which was the first street art show in a contemporary art museum in Holland. All of them are amazing, and very different, artists.

Each worked on different sections of the wall, but the aim of the collaboration was to create a unified piece that would not look ‘bitty’ to the spectator. Here are some of the different sections worked on. The bull with gaping mid-section shown here is by Wayne Horse:

Easily identifiable behind the scaffolding is the work of The London Police, of course:

In the next image, the amazing hand puncturing the balloons is by Morcky, and to the sides you can see some of Zedz’s intricate geometric work:

For more of Zedz’s work, check out the adjacent wall:

For me, the timing was so good because I got to observe the mural as it took shape. I turned up at the site several times during the ten days, and watched the artists paint, and paint. And on one day, I turned up to discover them repairing the images, which had been heavily tagged during the night (the scaffolding of course made it easy for anyone passing to climb up and tag over the work).

While something like this on the one hand is part and parcel of graffiti, on the other hand there were a couple of things that made it seem so frustrating. First, the mural was clearly the work of artists at the top of their game, and tagging over it just seemed so… so… disrespectful. And second, the guys who had bombed the mural had stopped by the site during the day before to chat to the artists and in fact came back the day after the tagging to say: ‘nothing personal, it’s just graffiti’…. But it seemed to feel pretty personal to the artists who were now forced to repaint their work.

Anyway, the tags got painted over and the work repaired. If you want to see ten days’ work compressed into a three minute video, watch this:

And here’s what the mural looked like when it was finished. Fantastic!