The walls of Fitzroy: a love letter

When I first moved from England to Melbourne, in 1995, I lived in Carlton North but I spent a lot of time in Fitzroy, and I was struck by what I could see on the walls there. Not stencils (they would come later), not tags or pieces (they were on the trains, and the walls adjoining the train lines), but a kind of conversation taking place on the walls. Sometimes the conversation was between the authors of the comments, but oftentimes the addressee was me – or at least any individual who was walking, or taking the train, or driving, or sitting on the tram – any individual who happened to be looking. I saw graffiti that said: ‘subjugate thyself to the screen’; ‘this is the wrong site for the museum’; and ‘corporate whore’.

I became fascinated by the ways that these comments addressed the passer-by. Some seemed to simply express a view (for example, ‘this is the wrong site for the museum’); others seemed to be seeking an object of denunciation (for instance, ‘corporate whore’). And one day I passed by a wall, on which weeks before I had seen a piece of writing that said ‘Real Men Don’t Rape’. It had been edited, either by the original author or by another writer, and it now read ‘Dead Men Don’t Rape’. Something in that moment, which caused me to pause and think about the difference in the politics of each of the two statements, made me realise that the activity of writing on walls generated an encounter with the spectator (me, or anyone else), which can be educational, emotive, perhaps even transformative.

Over the years, the walls of Fitzroy hosted a huge range and number of statements, the majority being intensely political: ‘Refugees ain’t got fleas’; ‘Save Goolengook’ (an old-growth forest in Gippsland that was being intensely logged for woodchipping), and the myriad comments made by members of grrr, an all-women collective whose aim was to comment on and critique the narrow range of acceptable body types and identities depicted in television: ‘more fat women on tv’, ‘more dykes on tv’ and so on. (I was living in Northcote by this time, and I was delighted that one of grr’s comments, ‘more hairy women on tv’, was painted on the pavement in my street.)

After the explosion of stencilling in Melbourne from 200o onwards, the walls of Fitzroy became more known for its stencils than its political slogans – although many stencil artists used their medium for political ends, exploiting the stencil’s ability to catch the eye of a passerby, and using its combination of word and icon to provoke critical thought, as you can see in these examples:

And nowadays? Well, Fitzroy is still synonymous with the communicative and creative use of wallspace but now it’s the diversity of styles and media that is most remarkable. There are entire painted walls, such as the ‘Welcome to sunny Fitzroy’ wall by Everfresh (the subject of an earlier post on this blog). There are amazing paste-ups like these:

It’s worth taking a closer look at the details here. Rone has made each image slightly different, and has placed them under a ‘BILL POSTERS PROSECUTED’ sign:

There are plenty of tags, of course, and some of Fitzroy’s laneways have some very old tags, such as this 70k one:

And stencils: there are certainly still stencils around, and, once again, some have been there a long time:

The history of the appropriation of the walls in this area by artists has been on my mind a lot recently, because I’m now living in Fitzroy, so these walls provide the backdrop to my everyday life, and when I walk past them I get a strong sense of the layers of street art, visible and invisible (through the effects of time, weather, buffing, and other artists), that have become part of the very geography of this suburb.

And it was while I was walking home the other day that I came across this piece: a stunning work by Al Stark, wrapped around the corner of a house, intricately painted, simultaneously evocative and elusive:

It’s almost fifteen years since I came to Melbourne, and I wanted to write a love letter to the walls of Fitzroy (and the artists who have transformed them), providing me (and many others) with so much pleasure. Long may it continue.

3 comments so far

  1. SPARCS on

    When I started reading this post I was prompted to begin thinking about the conversational graffiti that occurs in public areas such as playgrounds (usually on the play equipment) and public or near public toilets (such as those in cafes and pubs). I find the playground variety quite amusing, more in a laughing at then with kind of way. With a limited range of topics such as “…. is a poof/slut/dog/prick” or “… sucks … …” or ” … + … 4 eva” or a drawing of a dick, one can not help but think these may be the expressions of boredom, turmoil and lack of impulse control. Toilet scribblings on the other hand…well there is some pondering. Did the person purposefully take a marker or pen in there just to write it? or were they having a longer than expected poo and with mind wandering were suddenly struck with the passion to record their thoughts. Is it in large part to do with the secrecy of the closed cubicle??? I can not for the life of me work out why the people responsible for these facilities ever take any measure to remove these. The university where I work is almost completely bereft of any such lavatory conversation and I feel it is the poorer for it. There is of course the inane markings as in the playground, but also the passionate slogans that you speak of too. Here too one can often find responses to these impassioned outpourings, then responses to the responses…

    oh and I see in one of your posted pics one of my augmentations to one of the RONE paste-ups… 😉

  2. happyunderground on

    I’ve noticed a bit of a ressurgence in plain written slogans around North Melbourne, Kensington sort of area. I know what you mean, I’ve watched various kinds of street art unfold around me (living in Melbourne all my life) and its always brought me wonder and joy. I’ve recently started writing around graffiti and various interactions in public space. There’s some weird new trends happening north of the city that you should look out for.

  3. imagestoliveby on

    Thanks for visiting the site, Happy Underground, and for your comments, which are most interesting. I’ll keep my eyes peeled!


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