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Art by and for the lost


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 you'd expect in a young girl's diary. 'Deb' is ubiquitous in Melbourne, in pastel colors — pinks and ochres — that stand out from the aggressive neon favoured by the painters of aliens.

One day late in the year, walking around Collingwood, I came across a series of lizards rendered in earth tones. They were precise, rendered from above, as if the artist were a predator, an eagle descending. A wedge-shaped head; the living curve of a tail, ornamented with a devilish triangle. The lizards breathed on the wall, a sketch in spray paint.

The painting rendered a thing in the world, and it was a thing in the world unlike most graffiti, which is a thing in the world, but also seems an obsessively rendered map of the interior of the artist's skull.

But there were occasional clarities too. Once, waiting at a bus stop, I saw a plain message in block letters on a concrete wall: THERE IS NO EMOTICON FOR EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR.


As the year went by, the graffiti faded back into the texture of everyday life. Australia was our home, if only temporarily; and being at home entails a certain blindness of habit.

One day, on train platforms around the city, poster-sized warnings appeared: mere possession of a spray can meant a $500 dollar fine. I knew it would be less than a day before the warning was tagged, and I was right. I smirked and enjoyed the scrawled tags, but I knew that in the end I was on the side of the official signs: the neatly labeled stations in their predictable order, the rails guiding the train in its sparking, certain path.

I was on the train, not in the tunnel. Each day I went to the State Library to write. I sat on the brightly printed fabric of the seat and watched the graffiti go by like a single composite dream, the figures naked and agonised and sullen and smiling with unpleasant secrets, and when I arrived at Parliament a printed sign told me where I was. 


George EstreichGeorge Estreich was born in New York City. He received a BA from the University of Virginia and an MFA in poetry from Cornell.
His collection of poems, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, was published by Cloudbank Books in 2003. The Shape of the Eye, a book about raising his younger daughter, Laura, who has Down syndrome, will be published by SMU Press in 2011.

Topic tags: George Estreich, melbourne, graffiti



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Existing comments

rubbish is not art - that is what I read and I accept that it is right.

and I think there are main-streamers who don't want to understand new window of art.

I think they should find a common-ground.

Azure | 01 December 2010  

nice piece. graffiti could make melbourne an even more beautiful, artistic, expressive city if people/government weren't so obsessed with keeping blank walls blank.

louise | 02 December 2010  

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