Subversive graffiti culture: Lack of mainstream recognition prompts identity crisis
The City of Melbourne said it was a strong supporter of "legitimate street art" but the painting of roads was not permitted. So came to an ignoble end Vincent Fantauzzio’s painting, featuring warped black and white chequered squares on the ground of Strachan Lane, as council cleaners armed with high pressure hoses moved in early one April morning last year to strip out the illicit work.
Town Hall appearing somewhat conflicted, based its decision on its concern for public safety – apparently the forgotten, freshly painted dead-end laneway posed a risk to pedestrians – and in support of its view that stencils, paste-ups and murals are viable street art. By its actions, the Council as the self-appointed final arbiter on good and bad art was equating the famous artist to a street vandal, associated more with illegal graffiti or tagging and other crime.
Vincent Fantauzzio in Strachan Lane as Council cleaners set to work Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald
Yet despite Town Hall’s best efforts unruly street art covers almost every nook and cranny of Melbourne’s burgeoning city, with even the once putrid Hosier Lane now celebrated as one of top places to see the city’s “much-loved street art”.
But while the enormous impact of street art on the urban landscape seems to show little signs of fading, the Fantauzzio incident does highlight street art’s complex legitimacy problem.
There has long been debate about the merit of street art, hailed by some as one of Australia's most important cultural movements and condemned by others as vandalism, an urban blight epitomised by the mindless tagging of public spaces.
Hosier Lane, Melbourne
The debate often focuses on the divide between illegal graffiti and legitimate street art and whether any of this rightly belongs in the public space, particularly when the conversation shifts to a societal perspective?
But I prefer to ask, how did street art rise so quickly from the gutter so to speak to be regarded as such an intrinsically valuable art form? Can street art free itself of its subversive, one-dimensional form and often scratchy, fast-paced, aerosol-dependent technique to take a (more permanent) place on the walls of our finest galleries?
Certainly, street art is not without its merit or short on sponsors - as what began as illegal and anti-establishment art now generates not-insignificant business in mainstream galleries. Back in 2012, David Hurlston, curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, claimed our street art, recognised internationally mainly for stencilling works, is arguably "the most distinctly identifiable cultural and contemporary artistic movement to have occurred in Australia over the past 30 years”.
NGV's David Hurlston Photo: Wheeler Centre
While Hurlston may be forgiven for hyperbole, Jaklyn Babington, curator for international prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Australia was reportedly more restrained saying that while street art has been hugely popular internationally, "within Australia it's still growing out of its infancy".
It is acknowledged that New York hip-hop style graffiti began to swamp Melbourne in the early 1980’s, with stencil art emerging in 2002. I recall its claim to success as street art appeared to gain acceptance beyond its subculture was peculiarly based on the fact that street artists were finally being paid for their work, albeit somewhat piecemeal. But this surely cannot alone be the reason for the success of artists like Drew Frank, Ha Ha (Regan Tamnui), Tim Phibs, Adnate, Juddy Roller, and Anthony Lister just to name a few.
The high prices earned by some of these artists and of course the infamous Banksy over the last 10 years highlight the commercialism that is now part and parcel of street art.
Tim Phibs at work at City Westlink, Melbourne Photo: NGV
But does this creeping commercialism have an adverse effect on the art itself; that derives its raison d’état from its anti-establishment bias?
Unlike movements such as cubism, which inspired artistic innovation for decades beyond its peak in the early 20th century, street art today in my view is staid, mimicking what has already been done in the hope of once more peaking public interest and raining income on its artists.
Often too work displayed by some commercial galleries attempting to cash-in on the rise of street art is simply not very good, and does more harm than good to the reputation and commercial viability of street art at large.
Adnate (right), installation view at Benalla Art Gallery
In my view then, street art continues to occupy an uneasy place in the art world. Attempts to legitimise and demystify street art by Australia’s public galleries holding large-scale inventive exhibitions have met with mixed reviews.
We have seen such displays of institutional support lead to a backlash from members of the broader graffiti community, who resent that so-called "street artists" can be cherry-picked as the crème of the graffiti art subculture, and pop up overnight and without the credibility that comes from years of consistently putting work up on the street.
Even exhibiting in galleries causes debate for the strongly context-driven art form as many feel it should remain in the street, consciously limiting its appeal to its particular underground sub-culture.
Therein lies the problem. Street artists deliberately define themselves as part of a movement that thrives on and promotes social controversy, often reflected in their art’s subject and seek to perpetuate as the only legitimate art of its movement that art one cannot buy - graffiti, urban art, public art, street art, however described. In doing so, turning their back on those that stray into the realms of commercialism.
Hosier Lane, Melbourne looking north
Juddy Roller, Fitzroy
This seedy civil war clouds an assessment of the artistic value of street art both on the streets and in our galleries. Add to this, a palpable sense many art buyers simply cannot get a handle on it all. It should not be this way. In my view street art and the greater arts community is the poorer for it.
Regrettably, few street artists gain the supportive, mentoring and disciplined environment that come from art schools, and from being part of a gallery’s stable of artists, where teachers, curators and gallery owners can guide their protégées in refining their technique and composition towards a certain oeuvre; perhaps earning a living along the way. Without this, much street art too often risks continuing to lack in quality and longevity, unable to blossom into adulthood.
While laneway art may continue to grow in popularity, I sense street art will but only struggle in the mainstream without a change in thinking all round.
Postscript: Street art no doubt struggles outside its context, and to me that is both its strength and its essential difficulty. That dilemma is at the heart of this article. It is about moving beyond the strictures of society and defiant subcultures and developing a sustainable, practiced art form. It is not intended as an attack on street artists, whose work I stress should in many instances be seen as legitimate - if not now, then yes perhaps with time.
Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia
Main Photo: Strachan Lane, Melbourne Photo: The Age