The graffiti culture in Melbourne is undying and unavoidable; every street corner is covered in tags, burners, pieces and throw-ups. It’s a culture that has coined a language, fought the law and become an addiction and a lifestyle. Sound dramatic? Well, it is.
The graffiti movement began in the 1960s with writers CORNBREAD and COOL EARL in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who wrote in simple script. This quickly appealed to New Yorkers, and by the 1970s the young art form had begun to move from dominating the streets to the subways. The trend of ‘bombing’ started when writers realized they could go to a train yard and ‘tag’ multiple train cars in a small amount of time. In the morning, the trains would leave the station and the graffiti would be visible across the country. The appeal of this was overwhelming. By the 1970s there were so many writers that the heart of creativity became distinguishing yourself from others. Wayne Roberts, or STAYHIGH149, was the first artist to do this in 1971 by incorporating ‘the smoker,’ a stick man from the TV series The Saint, holding a joint. STAYHIGH149, who assumed the name VOICE OF THE GHETTO after he was arrested, was admired for his style and his domination of the city.
VOICE OF THE GHETTO inspired a more unique style of graffiti, and styles quickly developed to be more complex, bigger in size, and multi-coloured. Each style developed its own name, with fonts like straight letter, Philadelphia hand-style, abstract, and wildstyle, among many others, contributing to the growing and rather convoluted scene. Different styles therefore became attached to different identities and groups of people, transforming graffiti into not only markings on walls, but a way of life for artists. The development of personal styles spawned the beginning of a new form of expression, considered as art by some, and as vandalism by others.
The domination of this new breed of street art did not go unnoticed. Hugo Martinez saw the artistic potential writers had and founded UNITED GRAFFITI ARTISTS (UGA), a crew of the most renowned writers of the time. Martinez went on to further challenge the prevalent attitude that graffiti was defacement by creating The Razor Gallery. This art gallery provided writers with the space and the opportunity to legally showcase their art and have their voices heard. As proof of Martinez’s lasting and respected influence, Melbourne today has a crew named UNITED STREET ARTISTS, or USA, no doubt a spin-off of the original American guild.
Regardless of Martinez’s efforts, the citizens of New York still considered street art a form of vandalism. By the 1980s, control of graffiti took hold as the Metropolitan Transit Authorities spent millions on removing the markings in what became known as “The Clean Train Movement.” Writers moved to the streets and used building walls as their new medium, yet artists still faced the police and potential jail time if caught. At the same time, Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s book Subway Art and the film Style Wars by Tony Silver served as part of a dominant pro-graffiti movement that began arousing people all over the world. While the hammer may have been coming down hard on graffiti in New York, history was only just beginning.
The rise of graffiti in Australia in the 1980s was accompanied by the emergence of hip-hop culture. The focus of graffiti moved from the significance of the message towards visual appeal. One of Australia’s earliest practitioners, the mysterious elderly man Arthur Space, had anonymously written Eternity in chalk in elegant copperplate throughout Sydney almost 500,000 times during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1987 and 1988, Melbourne was struck with a massive influence of new artists focused on aesthetic appeal as the marks of crews CW and DMA, among others, became visible throughout the streets.
In the late 1990s, graffiti became more political – especially with motivators like Banksy in England – as wheat-paste posters and stencils became popular in Melbourne. Artists HAHA, DLUX and VEXTA used posters soaked in political affairs. RONE and PHIBS utilised bright colours and intricate designs with paint, dazzling city dwellers and tourists alike. Writers like TAME reinvented letters and painted renowned murals while allegedly wearing 3D glasses to produce a unique effect, while crews like CAVE CLAN started their own newsletter Il Draino. Today, 70K crew is arguably considered public enemy number one, with affiliated writers like BONES, RENKS, MEOW, and STAN seen as ‘bombing kings,’ their tags visible across Melbourne.
There is no doubt that graffiti has taken hold of the city since its introduction in the 1980s. For some, this graffiti has grown to be a quintessential part of Melbourne, contributing significantly to the city’s unique culture. For others, graffiti is simply vandalism, associated with misdemeanour, disrespect, and defacement of public and private property. As stated in the City of Melbourne’s “Graffiti Management Plan,” most graffiti is on private property, whether governmental, residential, or commercial. The cost of removal and its reflection of an “unattractive” city pose issues for the government; in November 2006, 11,300 square meters of graffiti covered the city, and approximately $700,000 was spent on graffiti control. Subsequently, the city devised a removal plan where a “dedicated removal vehicle” travels the streets and removes any tags and murals that do not have the lawful consent of the property owner. In addition, the City of Melbourne has started a “Do Art Not Tags” campaign, a graffiti education program for those in Year 5 and Year 8. Students are taught the difference between graffiti, defined in the “Graffiti Management Plan” as “writing or drawing on walls without permission,” and street art, defined on their website as “larger more artistic pieces or murals in appropriate locations with the required permission.” Unfortunately for the government, it is not that simple.
To many artists, graffiti is not just about the art, but the associated lifestyle. As stated in the documentary Infamy, “the egos, the beef, the jealousy, the law, the sicknesses, the injuries, the hatred, the violence… That’s graffiti.” When approaching the art, it’s easy to try and categorise it: separate the ugly tags from the beautiful murals, relate the tags to unlawful teenagers and gangs, and the murals to artists. But for many writers, graffiti is the whole package. If you don’t bomb or write your tags all over the city then you aren’t supporting your name. “Graffiti is marking your name everywhere, to let everybody know this is me, I was here, fuck off;” in other words, it’s about domination.
Graffiti artists are known to become so tangled in the lifestyle that violence and petty crimes become the norm. SABER, a major writer in Los Angeles, has had brain hemorrhaging, short-term memory loss, and major injuries to his knees and shoulders that cannot be repaired due to violence between the writers, and also being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In large cities, the undesirable crowd that inhabits the streets early in the morning is something most people try to stay away from, yet writers routinely find themselves amidst this. ENEM from North Philadelphia went to jail six times in one summer, yet continued painting upon release. While graffiti in the United States may be more dangerous than graffiti in this city, the mentality is the same: it is a lifestyle that becomes a sickness, is highly addictive, and happens right beneath our feet in the wee hours of the morning.
Undoubtedly, the debate about whether graffiti should be categorised as vandalism or art will continue long into our future. A survey conducted by The City of Melbourne found that citizens don’t like tagging but appreciate street art. However, tagging has been proclaimed as the “buttery essence” of graffiti to writers. With this in mind, it is arguable that despite the government’s efforts, non-endorsed murals and tagging will continue to exist, as a significant part of graffiti culture is rebellion. The street corners and fences of Melbourne will remain stained with markings which symbolise a sickness, a lifestyle, and personal and political ideologies. Whether we enjoy it or are disgusted by it, graffiti is, for the time being, here to stay.