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Art by and for the lost

  • 01 December 2010

What I noticed, after we arrived in Melbourne from our small Oregon town, was the sheer density of it: how much graffiti there was. It was everywhere, in carparks, railway stations, on bridges and in alleyways, on trucks and trains and park benches and rubbish bins.

It was overwhelming, part of the blinding newness of Australia: an Antipodean light shined in my eyes, or the afterimage of that light, coruscating behind the eyelids.

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But in time the vibrating colors faded to particulars, and the particulars became familiar. The spots faded from vision, leaving a landscape that seemed strange and bright and new.

Riding the Cranbourne/Pakenham line to the State Library, I memorised the shadow destinations between the official stops: in the tunnels and retaining walls between Malvern — Armadale — Toorak — Hawksburn — South Yarra — Richmond — Parliament were fanged clown in agony, naked girl reclining, hieroglyph with eyes.

In time, walking around the city, I began to recognise the work of individual artists; and with that, I began to appreciate the vast spectrum enclosed by the word graffiti, from undeniable vandalism to undeniable art.

At one end of the spectrum, a black slosh across a dry-cleaner's window, and a sneaker print, where the artist stepped in his own paint: no message, only a mess.

At the other, the Martian-green man on the side of a defunct Richmond warehouse, brooding on a thought as immense as himself and strange as the color of his skin.

In between was a vast middle range of expression, violent, incomprehensible, arcane: words twisted and folded like proteins, icons plucked from an unknown rebus. Crowns, winged hearts, weapons. Hell's emoticons. Frescoes of the profane. Art therapy, by and for the lost. Obscure confessions. Unwritten laws. Splintered codex. Illuminations for the encyclopedia of Babel. Pictures that were words, words that were pictures.

Looking at them, I felt as if the city had bled in an intelligible form, as if the bricks themselves had opened up and told a secret. But I had no idea what the secret was.


The characters depicted in Melbourne graffiti fall, roughly, into four categories:

People in agony.

Aliens with weapons.

Men, laughing at the viewer.

A hot chick named 'Deb'.

The word 'Deb' is written in bubbly letters, the kind