Archive for the ‘graffiti’ Category

Update on the Graffiti Prevention Act…

Back in 2008, I posted an entry about the newly introduced Graffiti Prevention Act here in Victoria… The State Government created that Act as part of its ‘get-tough’ stance on graffiti: the Act expands the definition of graffiti (so that more activities are now classified as graffiti), gives the police greater powers in responding to individuals they suspected of writing graffiti (increased powers of search and seizure, for example), and gives powers to councils to enter properties in order to remove graffiti without requiring the property owner’s consent (previously that was impossible).

It also created a raft of new and harsher penalties for those convicted under its provisions, and was constructed so that individuals facing a charge under the Act would be likely to pay an on-the-spot fine rather than try to contest a charge through the system (and in ensuring that on-the-spot fines were the preferable option for individuals facing a charge you could almost say that the Act engages in a bit of revenue-raising, like parking fines, for the State).

Contesting charges was made harder by virtue of the Act reversing the burden of proof so that anyone suspected of being a graffiti writer has to convince the police officer that they are carrying, say, an aerosol can for legitimate purposes rather than for writing graffiti. (Previously, and in relation to most offences rather than ones involving the possession of drugs, police officers had to actually do some detective work and ensure that they have evidence proving that the person charged had committed the offence.)

Back in 2008, I commented that it was likely that the Act would increase the number of individuals being criminalised by the system, and, since it facilitated police reliance on stereotyping in relation to who might be a graffiti writer, would have a disproportionate effect on young people. At the time I was writing, police officers were being trained in the implementation of the Act, and there was no information about how they were going to put it into operation. But now, thanks to an article in The Age newspaper recently, we can finally get a sense of what the police are doing with their new powers.

And the news is not good: what they are doing is more or less as I predicted, at least according to the article, ‘Graffiti tags help police put names to offenders’, by Andra Jackson in The Age on 22 December. The article describes a police operation, apparently in one municipality of Melbourne (Kingston) rather than city-wide or statewide, in which police have ‘raided the homes of 53 teenage suspects’ over the last year. The Act gives police the power to apply to a magistrate for a search warrant ‘when they have reasonable grounds to suspect’ that the individual has been writing graffiti. In the resulting raids, police have taken possession of aerosol cans, sketchbooks in which tags are practiced, and any other item which has been tagged.

In the article, the author states that the police ‘acted on intelligence’ to carry out the raid. I presume this means they obtained sufficient information to go before a magistrate and get a search warrant. It’s not clear how much information a magistrate would require before granting a warrant but if one year results in 53 warrants being granted in this one municipaility, I’m thinking that the local magistrates aren’t being overly strict with their interpretation of the Act).

The article doesn’t go into details of what actually happened to these 53 teenagers, but simply says that ‘usually’ they are given a community-based order by the Childrens Court. (Subsequent offending under the same Act will result in being sent before the Magistrates Court where higher penalties will apply.) So it would appear that one of my speculations about this Act was pretty accurate: would these 53 individuals have been brought before a court prior to the inception of the Act? Maybe some, but I would doubt that all of them would have, and so the Graffiti Prevention Act is proving to be a clear instance of what in criminology is called ‘net-widening’, where people who would otherwise not have been at risk of acquiring a criminal record and facing punishment within the system are now included within its ambit.

In terms of my other prediction – that the Act would facilitate the steroetyped targeting of young people – well, that seems to be coming true as well. This particular police operation was directed at two groups of people: the first involves teenagers, as already mentioned (because no-one other than teenagers ever does graffiti, right??), and the other is retailers who sell spray paint to teenagers. This other part of the police operation even involved sending under-18 year olds posing as would-be graffers into shops to attempt to buy aerosol paint during one week in December. Any retailer who sold paint to the kids was arrested. According to the article, 24 shops were approached, and ‘half willingly sold the students paint cans and other tools’. Throughout the last year, 120 retailers were charged with 1310 offences of this type. The penalty is an on-the-spot fine of $234 (hello!), and any subsequent offence sees the retailer in the Magistrates Court facing a $2000 fine.  But even though this second group involves retailers, what’s striking is that the concern is with retailers who sell paint ‘and other tools’ to under-18 year olds, meaning that this issue has acquired its currency only because it relates to graffiti by young people. And it’s in this way that the Act is proving to be a powerful and flexible tool in the criminalisation of young people and others associated with their (illicit) activities.

It’s interesting that there’s been so little information until now about how the Act has been used since its implementation. I would very much like to know what is being done by the police in other parts of Melbourne and Victoria. It’s possible that perhaps the Act isn’t being used to criminalise more and more young people – but, I have to say, I doubt it. The State Government created the Act for exactly these purposes (against the advice of many individuals and groups), and it looks, sadly, as though the Act is doing what it was made for.

Art and the senses

I’ve been thinking for some time about the ways in which we experience an artwork, whether it’s located in the street or in a gallery. The most conventional way in which to think about this would emphasize vision – after all, we are used to the idea that an artwork is something that we look at.

But this leaves out other sensory dimensions, ones which are not so commonly talked about in relation to art. Is it possible to hear an artwork? Can we taste it?

In some works, image and sound are certainly inextricably combined, so that it’s not really possible to think in terms of simply looking at it or listening to it: Bill Viola’s work is a great example. Some artists entirely ignore the visual in favour of the auditory: in 2008, for example, an artwork called Speed of Sound Nau Interactive Bells was installed in Union Lane in Melbourne (this laneway was mentioned in a previous post, Street art and ‘authority’): the sound of bells, chiming at irregular intervals, played from speakers installed at different heights along the laneway walls, so that the sounds increased and receded according to one’s progress along the laneway.

And I’m also pleased to be able to report that I have had the experience of eating art. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a Cuban-American artist, created installation pieces in which lollies (or candies, or sweets, depending on which continent you live on) were strewn across a gallery floor or piled in its corners. Spectators were able to dip their hands into the artwork and pull out a handful of sweets to take home or to eat. You can get a sense of what Gonzalez-Torres’s wonderful work looks like if you click here – the tiny golden objects piled against the walls constitute one of his works, Untitled (Placebo – Landscape for Roni). I can still vividly recall how transgressive it felt, to pick up a piece of an artwork and put it in my mouth and taste it (it was lemon-flavoured, in case anyone is interested).

The spectator’s relationship to that particular artwork involved touch as well as taste: touching art is definitely something that is actively prohibited by most museums and galleries as illicit behaviour in relation to art: think of all those signs on the wall, saying ‘Do Not Touch’.

One of the most memorable instances in which I was able to touch an artwork certainly had a sense of the illicit about it. I was visiting a gallery overseas to chat with its director, and was informed by him that he had just received a shipment of works by one artist who would be featured in their next show. The director was hugely enthusiastic about this artist and invited me not just to look at the works but in fact to touch one. As I ran my fingertips over a tiny section of the work’s surface, I felt acutely aware of how forbidden such an act usually is.

In addition to the simple transgressive pleasure that came from touching a painting, I also felt a strong sense of how much my relation to the image was altered by the act of touching it: instead of standing facing it, as it would hang on a wall with me looking directly at it, it was brought towards me and held close to me, lying at an angle, slightly tilted from the horizontal, the light slanting off its surface, my gaze directed downwards, and my hand drawn towards it. Much later, I realized that part of the extraordinary charge that arose for me in this moment derived from the experience of relating, momentarily, to the artwork as if I was in the position of the artist. I don’t mean that I experienced a sense of acquiring any of the artist’s skills or abilities, but rather simply some of the privileges that come with the position of the work’s creator: the ability to touch it, the ability to stand close to it (rather than behind a white line in a museum), the ability to look at it from different angles.

(Of course, anyone who buys an artwork acquires the rights and power to do all these things too, but it’s interesting that it is the artist that was evoked by my altered position in relation to this work, not someone with sufficient financial resources to purchase it.)

What about smell? Does art have an aroma, an odour? Artists themselves are usually well acquainted with the olfactory dimensions of their work (from spray paint, oils, acetone, lacquer, glue, and many other substances) but it’s something that isn’t often discussed when we think about spectatorship. And yet those smells can have a powerful affective impact on the viewing of an artwork. When I went to see an exhibition by the wonderful Jose Parla at Elms Lesters Painting Rooms in London last October, many of the works on display were recently painted: as a result, the gallery rooms were filled with a perfume of oil and varnish, which made me, as a spectator, feel extremely conscious of the works as things which had been brought into being through the artist’s exertions with canvas, and paper, and paint.

It was on the same visit to London that I had the good fortune to meet the charming Nick Walker (you can see more about Nick here). As we finished our conversation about his work, in a small room at Black Rat Press, Nick indicated a neat pile of prints sitting on a trestle table, awaiting his signature before sale. He removed the protective cardboard from the pile, so that I could see the image below. But when the cardboard was lifted, an amazing smell drifted from the pile of prints: it was an intense, concentrated smell of paper, and it was strangely beautiful. I’ll never forget standing next to that table, under a low-hanging spotlight, gazing at these prints and inhaling their smell – a potent reminder that artworks are utterly material, not ethereal images floating free of the world of things.

Much of what I’ve been describing relates to the phenomenon of gallery or museum display, in which the smell or feel of an artwork is rarely encountered. When an artwork exists in urban space, the commonplace prohibitions of gallery spectatorship usually don’t apply – if you can reach it, you are perfectly free to run your hands over a paste-up, or, if you wanted to, there’s even nothing to stop you having a good sniff of a stencil.

That freedom is definitely an important part of how we look at street art and the sense of democratic spectatorship that often attaches to it. But this freedom of access comes with a downside, of course, as the artists belonging to the AMF crew from Sydney discovered, when they were arrested painting trains in London last year. The six guys have been given prison sentences ranging from 8 to 16 months (click here for more details about the case). How did they get caught? Police officers said they were alerted to the artists’ presence by hearing the rattle of spray cans and smelling aerosol paint. When it comes to art, our senses may lead us to an encounter with the sublime, but they can also be the means through which the force of law comes to be exercised.

Street art and ‘authority’

Once again, it’s been a long time between posts. The main reason for this is that I contracted whooping cough just before Easter: it turns out that whooping cough is a highly nasty illness and there’s good reason why we vaccinate kids against it. Anyway, while convalescent, I spent a lot of time online: reading blogs, browsing through some great street art websites, and, of course, spending a bit of time on Facebook. Amidst the productive procrastination of all those mad quizzes, recently there’s been some fascinating reading provided by the responses to questions being asked on Facebook by the Wooster Collective (questions which range from ‘what’s your favourite hangover cure’ to ‘what is the best city for street art’). One recent question asked respondents to say what impact they thought it would have if street art were legal. Reading the comments (most of which indicated that something would be lost if street art were legalized) started me thinking about street art and its relation to authority and to the various government bodies and organizations that we might call the ‘authorities’.

Around the same time that the Wooster Collective were asking this question, I received an email from Russell Howze, stencil artist and author of Stencil Nation (it’s also well worth checking out both his blog and Stencil Archive, his fabulous resource on stencil art). In the email, he described the Anti-Graffiti Super Huddle (website here), a recent initiative in San Francisco designed to reduce, contain and eliminate graffiti in the city. Russell’s concerns were that the anti-graffiti strategies seemed to be coming thick and fast, and he asked whether any arts organizations were participating in these debates (to provide a counter-voice) and whether any politicians might want to develop initiatives that recognized the positive value street art could have for a city.

So here we have a great example of how the encounter between street art and authority is usually configured (the Anti-Graffiti Super Huddle with its objectives of zero tolerance and graffiti prevention) and we can also see how difficult it is to imagine ways in which that encounter might be transformed – an enterprise which would certainly be challenging but which could have many benefits for artists (perhaps reducing the chances of being fined or prosecuted) and for inhabitants of urban spaces (in allowing street art to flourish rather than struggle in the periods in between massive buffing exercises).

Certainly of relevance to the possibility of transforming the encounter between street art and authority is the news that recently the Wooster Collective were invited to the White House. Earlier in May, Marc and Sara, along with around 60 representatives from grassroots arts organizations, attended a briefing session with aides from the Obama administration and participated in workshops focusing on a range of key issues to do with the arts. As they say in the post on their website recounting the event, the issue they wanted to raise was ‘the need to better understand the issues around public and private space’ (for the full post, look here and scroll down to the entry for 13 May 2009).

In some ways, it’s no surprise that the Obama administration would invite individuals interested in street art to such a meeting. The Obama campaign demonstrated that it understood the positive capacities of street art – particularly so in relation to the widespread appearance in public space of the image of Obama created by Shepard Fairey. (You can read about this image and its role in the campaign here.) Fairey talks about his creation of the image in this video:

But in other ways, of course, it’s nothing short of mind-boggling that a government would engage in this sort of outreach towards individuals who have championed artwork that is oftentimes illicit. After reading about the Wooster Collective’s visit to the White House, I tried to imagine the equivalent in other countries – Gordon Brown including Banksy in a round table on the future of the arts in the UK, say, or Kevin Rudd inviting the Everfresh boys to Canberra for a discussion about arts funding.

The comparison isn’t quite an exact one, however: the Wooster Collective are not artists themselves; they are enormously supportive of street art in general and have promoted the work of a wide range of artists in many countries, and have generally raised awareness about street art in the community on an incredible scale. But they are not themselves known for engaging in the production of illicit images, and I’m guessing that this distinction is still important for those in authority, when they issue invitations to participate in such debate.

I am only speculating here – I don’t know who else was invited to the White House: there may have been a street artist there as well (but I’m guessing that Marc and Sara would have said if there had been). But once we get over the surprise and delight that such a meeting took place, what are the outcomes that we might hope for when street art, like Mr Smith, ‘goes to Washington’?

It’s an interesting question – partly because I’m still unsure of what this could lead to. I can see that there are a lot of things that can be gained in terms of the symbolic support it gives to street art(ists) and the potential for parlaying this kind of recognition into all sorts of consciousness-raising efforts. It’s hard to think of concrete outcomes partly because we really haven’t seen an encounter like this, at this level of power, and with so much potential. But I’m also pretty sure that there are some risks too, and this is because there are so many instances of the encounter between street art and authority at lower levels of government making things harder for street artists or leading to some pretty strange results.

Here’s one example: in Melbourne, a few yeas back, the City of Melbourne agreed to support a project whereby artists would be permitted to paint the walls in Union Lane, in the city centre. Union Lane is a narrow lane that connects one of the major retail thoroughfares (Bourke Street) with another shopping street running parallel to it, Little Collins Street. Many of Melbourne’s laneways possess great charm and character; Union Lane does not – it was a forbidding, gloomy stretch of laneway, its unrelieved concrete walls were plain grey on one side and on the other had been painted with an uninspired, bland mural which pictorialized various civic virtues (and which had been heavily tagged).

The Union Lane project was a fantastic idea, in many ways, and it was brought into being through the hard work of a lot of people. Several well-known, highly respected artists and experienced artists were commissioned to paint in the massive work that was to cover both walls for the entire length of the laneway (which is pretty long – a city block). These artists also mentored younger artists on the project. Visiting street artists joined in. The result was a collage of styles and images produced by dozens of individuals. Passers-by took photographs; tourists visited the site; many talked with the artists and learned something about street art as they watched it being carried out. You can see the lane as it was before, and the process of developing and painting the laneway in this video:

It sounds brilliant, and in many ways it was. Surely this would be an example of the encounter between street art and authority working at its best? Well, a few unexpected problems arose. Although the presence of a high quality piece on a wall usually inspires respect from other writers or artists (that is, they don’t go over the work), the Union Lane paintings have quickly been tagged. Some people have speculated that the stencilled words ‘Street art permit: City of Melbourne’ might imply to some that the site is one where anyone can and should put up, rather than a site to be looked at.

It’s also my suspicion that the initiative demonstrates how easy it is for there to be a clash between the expectations of those in ‘authority’ and the norms and practices of street art culture. The City of Melbourne put time, effort and money into the project, and as such, wanted to protect their investment and preserve the result. Graffiti writers and street artists, however, did not necessarily view the site or the project as one which deserved permanence and preservation (two things which are not really high on the list of priorities for many graffiti writers anyway) beyond the recognition of the skills of various artists who contributed to the project.

And so, as time has passed, Union Lane is gradually becoming shabbier. Because of this, there’s a risk that it will be held up some day as an example of why such initiatives fail to achieve any positive results. Could this have been avoided? Well, one possible strategy would have been to have recognized at the outset that permanence isn’t highly valued in street art and graffiti cultures and that a range of temporary surfaces (such as hoardings) could be attached to the walls of Union Lane for artists to paint and re-work over time, with the hoardings being removed and replaced periodically.

Such an approach would no doubt bring with it its own particular issues and potential problems, but at least it would demonstrate that those in ‘authority’ are not just dispensing largesse (which can be revoked) but are actively trying to understand how street art and graffiti work.

So I guess my main point is this: in any encounter with authority, street art and street artists need to expect that all will not go according to plan, and that any plan needs to incorporate contingencies as to what might happen down the track, when the expectations of those in authority are not met.

And I think, at the moment, this will always happen, because there’s such an asymmetry between the positions of those with power (councils, the Obama administration) and those without it (graffiti writers, arts organizations, street artists). (And it would be great if the Wooster Collective’s encounter with authority could lead to a discussion as to how street artists might work to render that relationship less asymmetrical.)

I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but over the years I have seen many instances of street artists or graffiti writers trying to engage positively with ‘authority’, and I have had some experience of trying to do so myself. If someone loses out, it’s usually the artist. (And I would love to hear from anyone who has had experience of trying to work with ‘authority’ – whether successful or unsuccessful.)

So when street art ‘goes to Washington’, it’s going to be essential to have a clear idea of what street art can gain from the encounter, what ‘authority’ can offer street art, and what risks might lie ahead, even with an administration that has shown remarkable understanding and appreciation of all that street art can offer the community.

On tagging, again: Cheyene Back’s appeal

It’s been a while since I have been able to write any entries – many apologies. I am trying to finish a book on cinema and have entered what is hopefully the last few months of that process. So I have my head down, working hard on that, and that means there’s a bit less time in the day at present.

But I did want to note what’s happened in Cheyene Back’s appeal against the sentence which was imposed upon her after she was caught tagging the outside wall of a cafe in Sydney, as previously written about in this blog. A magistrate in the Sydney Local Court had sentenced her – in a total rush of blood to the head – to a three month prison term. She appealed against this to the District Court and Judge Greg Hosking reduced her sentence to a twelve-month good behaviour bond with no conviction recorded. He commented that the previous sentence did not take into account the fact that terms of imprisoned are intended to be imposed only as a matter of last resort.

All good, yes? Well….. not quite. Judge Hosking said that it was unusual in the extreme to impose a prison sentence on a young woman with no prior record for the crime of putting graffiti on a wall – “as serious as that matter undoubtedly is”. The key issue for Judge Hosking, then, is the age and prior record of Back, rather than the issue of whether or not imprisonment is an appropriate sentence for writing a tag on a wall (and we are not talking about ‘bombing’ the city of Sydney with hundreds of tags, but rather a single tag written on a wall).

In case anyone might interpret his reduction of Back’s sentence as a wildly pro-graffiti move, Judge Hosking commented: “I’m not condoning what she did for a moment. People in Sydney are sick of graffiti, there’s no doubt about it”.

And Greg Smith, Opposition spokesperson for Justice, leapt into the media fray by adding his two cents’ worth: he thought it would be unfortunate if Judge Hosking’s reduction of the sentence meant that others were not deterred from ‘defacing property’. As The Age reported, when Mr Smith was asked if Back should be behind bars, he said: “Personally, I think she should. I think graffiti is a very serious offence. I understand that the culture hasn’t been to [imprison offenders] and we’ve got to change that culture, otherwise our city is just going to be … an eyesore.”

I know much ink has already been spilled (or many keyboards tapped on) in relation to this case, so I just want to say this. It’s amazing how graffiti can ‘press the buttons’ of – what would you call it? – ‘mainstream culture’ or ‘the dominant order’ or whatever. Clearly, the idea of a girl tagging a wall is irritating or infuriating to such a degree that both a relatively senior judge and a politician can feel able to comment that they would like to see her in prison rather than risk her (or others) tagging the walls of the city.

Two things: first of all, prisons are full. Why add to their overflowing population by sending Cheyene Back or any other graffiti writer there? Second, it is now well-documented that imprisonment can have hugely negative impacts on people’s lives – in fact, in the case of women, it would appear that imprisonment affects the mortality rate of women who have been to prison. So why do these powerful individuals – a judge, a politician – feel so comfortable saying that they would like to put this young woman in prison?  What is it about tagging that drives out both reason and reasonableness?

Tagging, part 2: how a signature can lead to prison

The previous entry was about some apects of social attitudes to tagging; however, it didn’t mention one of the most important aspect of how people think about tagging – that it constitutes a crime.

Precisely which crime depends upon the jurisdiction you are in. In Victoria, it could fall under the Summary Offences Act, or if you are caught carrying something like a marker pen or a spray can, you might be prosecuted under the new Graffiti Prevention Act (see my previous post in September 2008, called ‘Clamping down’). Some jurisdictions have graffiti-specific legislation, like Victoria’s new laws, while others prosecute tagging and other graffiti activities under more generic headings.

But of course the thing is that calling tagging (or any other graffiti-related activity) a crime sets off a whole series of consequences. First of all, it categorises the activity as something that ‘society’ should be concerned about, should condemn, and should try to prevent. Next, and directly following on from that, it perm its the involvement of the police and other crimino-legal agencies and institutions, and authorises them to ‘respond’ to graffiti. Relatedly, it allows councils to create local laws which authorise the removal of graffiti (consider the fact that councils are compelled to have ‘graffiti management plans’, mainly because graffiti is considered criminal, but not ‘public urination reduction plans’, or ‘bag snatching abatement plans’). Subsequently, if an individual is discovered engaging in a graffiti-related activity, such as tagging, by these crimino-legal agencies (most likely the police), then the categorisation of tagging as ‘criminal’ means that they can be arrested, charged, and prosecuted. Once that’s done, then further consequences follow: an on-the-spot fine, perhaps, or an appearance at the Childrens or Magistrates Court.

Many people assume that when individuals get prosecuted under laws prohibiting graffiti-related activities the punishments available are not harsh. Some might assume the penalties are ‘lenient’.  (After all, it’s only a property crime, right? It’s not as if we are talking about interpersonal violence.) Others might say that the available penalties are ‘not harsh enough’ (and would argue that the effects of property crimes accumulate such that their overall effects are considerable).

So perhaps it’s useful to be reminded that the punishments are not ‘lenient’ or ‘not harsh enough’. A couple of days ago, an 18-year old girl, Cheyene Back, in Sydney was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for writing on a wall in a cafe. (Check out here what the Everfresh boys had to say about this. And click here to read a thoughtful opinion piece about the case by Kurt Iveson.)

According to one news report (thanks for sending the link, Noah!), she wrote her ‘nickname’ (which I presume means her tag) on what’s described as the ‘public wall’ of the Hyde Park Cafe. I’m not sure what ‘public wall’ means – is it the outer wall, or does it mean something else? ‘Public’ wall sounds like ‘legal’ wall, but given that the action led to her being ‘caught’ with ‘a black texta at the scene’, that surely can’t be right. (Perhaps someone from Sydney who knows the Hyde Park Cafe could enlighten me as to what the ‘public wall is…)

Whatever it is, Cheyene has been convicted of the offence of ‘intentionally destroying or damaging property’, and she will go to jail as a result. And all through the chain of consequences set up by the categorisation of the act of writing one’s name on property belonging to another as ‘criminal’.

On tagging

I’ve been on holiday for a few weeks, and on my first night back in Melbourne I watched the ABC’s broadcast of The Eternity Man, a filmed version (directed by Julien Temple) of an opera which has been performed in London and Sydney, among other places. The music is by Jonathan Mills, with a libretto by the late poet, Dorothy Porter (information about The Eternity Man here).

The Eternity Man tells the story of Arthur Stace, whose name will be familiar to many Australian readers of this blog as the man who chalked the word ‘Eternity’ in meticulous copperplate script on Sydney’s streets, walls and buildings for decades. The identity of the word’s author was for many years unknown, and the reality of Stace’s existence – a formerly homeless alcoholic who was almost certainly schizophrenic – came as a shock to many who had speculated as to what individual might have such perfectly flowing ‘penmanship’. Stace’s handiwork, although initially decried as ‘graffiti’, was eventually recast as an idiosyncratic aspect of Sydney’s identity, with this process of redefinition reaching its apotheosis, long after Stace’s death in 1967, in Sydney’s Millenium celebrations for the arrival of the year 2000, when the Harbour Bridge was lit up by thousands of fireworks spelling out the word ‘Eternity’ in Stace’s handwriting.

The Eternity Man continues this investment in the figure of Stace, representing him as a melancholic, enigmatic loner, hallucinating his memories and anxieties around Sydney, calming his fears and uncertainties through the repeated inscription of one single word.

While watching the film, it struck me that what Stace was doing was ‘bombing’ the city – the word ‘Eternity’ is like a tag, written over and over, and Stace’s nocturnal wanderings and indiscriminate interest in any urban surface was a version of going ‘all city’, covering urban space with the author’s tag. A few decades ago, when Stace was writing ‘Eternity’ all around Sydney, his actions were regarded as graffiti. But now, it would be hard to find any contemporary examples of his activities being described in this way. What prevents Stace being viewed as a ‘graffer’ and the word he wrote being thought of as his tag?

Well, of course, an obvious answer would be that Stace clearly didn’t belong to any kind of crew and was not interested in graffiti culture. Well, yeah, of course not. But that doesn’t really answer the question why it is that a clear separation is now being made between Stace’s writings and ‘graffiti’.

That Stace is to be regarded as a kind of artist (rather than as a ‘graffer’ or as a ‘vandal’) is signalled to the spectator through the film’s construction of a thoroughly aestheticised frame for Stace’s compulsion: when he is shown walking through the city at night, significant events from twentieth century history are projected onto walls around him, in a manner that evokes the artwork of Shimon Attie (if you’re not familiar with Attie’s wonderful artwork, there’s a nice summary with some examples here). The opera thus constructs him as eccentric and possibly mentally ill, but certainly not as a criminal.

And watching The Eternity Man got me thinking about others who write words on the city walls but who are not portrayed in mainstream culture as enigmatic but admirable figures. The copperplate script used by Stace is in many ways as exacting and as particular a way of writing as the calligraphy used by taggers, who often spend a great deal of time refining and perfecting their signatures. Despite the complexity of their lettering and despite the time put into the development of a tag, tagging is certainly the aspect of graffiti which tends to be the most reviled. It is often called ‘scrawl’ or ‘scribble’; it is condemned for being illegible. Taggers are similarly criticised: some news articles compare taggers to dogs urinating on lampposts, and taggers often get called ‘vandals’.

So it’s interesting to imagine taking the admiration directed at Arthur Stace and his copperplate script and turning it towards the effort it takes to develop and execute a good tag. A few years ago, Melbourne artist Xero wrote a piece called ‘In Defence of Tagging’ which put forward a detailed argument as to why ‘putting up a tag is not mindless. It represents imagination, dedication to an artform, and the willingness to take a risk in a public place to achieve an aesthetic outcome (even if it is one that we don’t happen to like)’.

In Xero’s view, all tags, even if some don’t look aesthetically appealing, are worthy of our thoughtful consideration, because their very existence says something about the author’s commitment to making an image (out of letters), in public space, often at some risk to themselves (of injury or arrest). I think there’s a lot of validity to that argument, but I also want to mention here some particularly interesting tags.

For example, Doug Pray’s documentary Infamy showcases Earsnot tagging around New York City, in broad daylight, unfazed by passing pedestrians.

Then there are ‘celebrity’ tags, put up by famed writers such as Twist/ Barry McGee(whose tag is elegant and elaborate) and Neckface (whose tag’s status derives both from a certain mystique around its author and from the vast number of places it has been inscribed).

You can see Neckface’s tag towards the top of this image (taken at the tagged-all-over Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco):


The work of Melbourne’s most prolific taggers, the 70K crew, can be seen in this image (taken by Ben Pederick):


A decade ago in Melbourne, anti-consumerism slogans were written around Melbourne, accompanied by the author’s tag in the chunky lettering of a thick black marker pen: ‘SHUT UP AND SHOP’.

There are of course stencils which act like tags, so that the spectator, on seeing a particular icon, might recognize the image as a kind of signature (Banksy’s rats have this function; so do the robots stenciled by Ha Ha in Melbourne).


And some tags may be calligraphically audacious, unconventional, or simply pleasing for their symmetry and form. Here’s one of my favourites, taken in a street near where I work:


I don’t think anyone is going to be composing an opera about any of these artists any time soon (sadly), but perhaps looking at the incredible heterogeneity found within the apparently homogeneous category of the tag will contribute to a conversation about what tagging means – both to those who do it and to those who look at it.

Learning to dislike graffiti?

I have sometimes wondered where some people develop the unshakeable conviction that graffiti is ‘wrong’…

Well, today I discovered one possible place: they learn it in school. My daughter is in the first grade of primary school (which in Australia is called ‘Prep’), and she is learning to read. Every night she brings home a reader, and she reads it to me or to her dad. Today’s reader was called Tammy Toodlepepper Paints the Town (by Tracey Reeder, 2000).

The story in this book involves Tammy waking up and wondering what to do today. She decides to plant flowers, but in her garden she discovers ‘there was graffiti all over her gate’. So instead of gardening, Tammy paints over the graffiti. She paints purple and red flowers instead.

She is so inspired by the experience of painting out this graffiti that the next day she decides to do some more. She gets a little cart and puts her tins of paint in it, puts on overalls, and drags the cart all over town, painting out graffiti wherever she sees it – on walls, on the side of a building, and on a bridge. The illustrations show graffiti as a black squiggly line covering each surface, and, we are told, Tammy replaces the graffiti with what are clearly supposed to be lovely pictures – black and yellow bumblebees, green and brown trees, a truck and two buses. Each time she finds new graffiti, her reaction is the same: ‘oh dear, what a mess!’, she says. At the end of the day, she heads home, saying, ‘That’s it for today. No more mess to paint.’

I guess there are bits and pieces of ideology threaded through the majority of kids’ books: things to do with heteronormativity (the frog turned into a prince and married the princess), or with race (I can well recall growing up with Noddy books, and the later furore about the character of the Golliwog, who has since been excised from most modern Noddy stories). I hadn’t realised kids are also being taught that graffiti is always ‘a mess’ and must always be cleaned off or painted out. As with many bits and pieces of ideology, it’s depressing to see the poverty of imagination revealed in Tammy Toodlepepper Paints the Town.