Tribute to the non-defeatist graffitists


'Graffiti' by Chris JohnstonGraffiti is grouse. I delight in the chunky overlaps of New York decoration applied to the surfaces of my city. I enjoy the Escher-like detail that artists exhibit when, cans in hand, they are confronted with a developer's bland exterior. I marvel at the ornate hieroglyphic badging left on underpasses and bus stops by black marker pens. I moon over expressions of love brushed hastily onto corrugated fences beside railway lines, or sun my thoughts with the bizarre slogans left in bluestone backlanes by nimble youths in search of meaning.

Not all graffiti is of the same calibre, a swathe of it slapdash at best, or as excessive as a eucalyptus, but it never ceases to catch the eye and prompt feelings of companionship with anonymous makers. This is both protest and celebration, signifier and signified, public evidence and popular artform.

Luckily I live in one of the great graffiti cities of the world, though not all city councils in Melbourne look upon it benignly. In my local area of Heidelberg the council has had some of the most restrictive and punitive attitudes toward graffitists or, as the authorities call them uncharitably, vandals. Unsurprisingly, this seems only to encourage the graffitists to greater heights of daring and expression.

We know why they do it: to resist boredom, to challenge conformity, to strike out at a world that is not listening, to leave a mark when all other avenues are closed.

Illegal it may be, but I harbour a quiet pleasure at seeing dull square buildings of grey concrete slabs, all this post-modern philistinism, scintillatingly covered with outlandish swirls of colour and a signature resembling a space probe. These members of the new Heidelberg School bring life to the neighbourhood: they are aching to be seen and to be known through their work.

Occasionally I find myself on the squashy Johnston Street bus through Collingwood and in heavy traffic have sat stationary gazing at the 1984 wall mural on the Old Tech Building. The image conjures all sorts of ideas. A centipede with a computer head is being ridden by a couple of cowboys, prophetic of the American last frontier of the digital revolution. This beast has the two forepaws of a sphinx: the dumb gaze of the computer screen that would tell us 'everything' but still leaves us alone pondering the riddle.

A mass of outlined figures could be tumbling or dancing or skating. Maybe they are the chance group of Facebook friends the computer brought together into a shaky alliance.

Sometimes they remind me of the public pool on a summer afternoon. Another time they are the passengers on the bus, if only we could break free of dailiness and be thinking of something more energising than 'Is this my stop?' Thrown together, only to be thrown apart again. The mural conjures different responses each time. Soon the bus gets moving, again, but the ideas remain.

Actually this is a celebrated mural in Melbourne. It was painted by Keith Haring, a now famous American artist, who died in 1990. Fame confers a credibility not instantly given to the new Heidelberg School. Art curator Hannah Mathews has written that the mural 'celebrates Haring's key themes: life, vitality and the power of joining together to face an unknown future'.

An unknown future is in fact the reality of the mural itself as different parties argue over its proper preservation. The Victorian Government would spend one million dollars to stabilise the mural and preserve it as is. But others dispute the wisdom of this course of action, saying it ignores Haring's own directions, which were very simply that a professional signwriter repaint the original image in consultation with an arts conservator.

When you consider that he created the original in one sitting over one day, the extensive attention given to keeping it permanently in its weathered state for posterity seems a waste not only of public money but of collective intelligence.

It is plain as day that Haring's work should be preserved according to the directions left by the artist. It means everyone, graffiti devotees included, can continue to see the work, which won't happen if it is preserved in a worn-out state like some peeling antique fresco. Distressed furniture, it ain't. The artist understood better than his 21st century protectors that his work has to be seen and as anyone can tell you, that means a new coat of paint every ten years or so.

This situation prompts another issue too, the propagation and promotion of local mural art. The Government can spend over a million saving a Haring when across the street, or over the hill and faraway, similar, even better works are going up on walls all across Melbourne.

Some councils order the men in overalls with their canisters of grey spray paint to start the cover-up at nine in the morning. Bright and early, they are. New artists are slapped for even having an imagination.

But other councils have developed programs to get their abstract expressionists and super-realists to cover lone hoardings and abject carparks with the full grandeur of their inner worlds. While salvaging the Haring is a decent project, to be done with minimum fuss and cost, what tempestuous, idiosyncratic and sublime works wait to be exhibited, at very little expense, from our own non-defeatist graffitists?



Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is Eureka Street's poetry editor and head of the Carmelite Library of Spirituality in Middle Park, Victoria.

Topic tags: Philip Harvey, graffiti



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Existing comments


LiNkEdUp | 28 November 2011

Graffiti in Canberra is even more welcome than in Melbourne, I would suggest. It shows there are people out there, somewhere. People with cans and ideas.
Penelope | 29 November 2011

I, too, appreciate a good graffito when I see it. In Marrickville we have some excellent examples, not all of them by Mistery. However, I do not like it when persons inflict thoughtless scribble on buildings which need no embellishment. My church, built in 1883, is no St Peter's basilica, but random paint sprays will not turn it into the Sistine Chapel. Street art I like, mere scribble offends my soul.
Gwilym Henry-Edwards | 30 November 2011

Philip, you might well be right about the subliminal needs of the graffiti artists and the reasoned legitimacy of there activities. However, much of their stuff is destructive of expensive attempts to deal with our noisy world of such as highways and railways.

We are going down a worrying gurgler if our social sensitivities go unchecked and unpenalized, allowing such often offensive, selfishly expressive, 'somebody notice me',signage to become acceptable. Surely there are more constructive and collaborative energies energies in our social construct to mitigate the mentioned dehumanising tendency of present day living.
Paul Goodland | 30 November 2011

There is a Commandment that requires respect for property, both private and public. It is implied under the directive, thou shall not steal. This self indulgence is a moral as well as a legal problem.
grebo | 30 November 2011

I don't think I have ever felt as unaligned. With anything in Eureka as this article .I wonder why the elderly couple on the corner should have to pay what they can not afford just so some idiot vandals can tag there front fence ,what did they do so wrong ? If a group of people feel that all this is ok and should be preserved then raise the money but don't expect the taxpayers to pay ,we work hard to pay our tax to support the community needs not to support those that hate us and what we stand for.
John crew | 30 November 2011

There is no Commandment that requires respect for property, Grebo, though Number Ten is very clear about how we handle our desires for other people’s property. Nor is such an expectation implied under the directive, thou shalt not steal. Stealing means stealing, the last time I looked. Thou shalt not paint on thy neighbour’s wall is nowhere in Scripture. Is graffiti a graven image (Fourth Commandment)? It may well be all in the eye of the beholder. Speaking as an historian, graffiti and wall murals are as old as civilization. They’re not going to go away. But you have raised issues here that Philip Harvey has chosen, for whatever reason, to skim over. What is public and what is private? Where does graffiti go over the line and cause personal unhappiness to the owner of the wall? It puts in mind a much more central Commandment than those other ones: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It would seem that Harvey is happy for graffiti to continue, but what if it was painted on his own wall?
Desiderius Erasmus | 30 November 2011

I agree entirely with you about the hypocrisy and waste of money proposed to be spent contrary to the artist's wishes. Far better, as you say, to encourage current artists with appreciation and acknowledgement of their gifts.
Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 30 November 2011

Philip seems to confuse murals with graffiti. I am reminded of the imaginative, colourful mural(s) stretched along the retaining wall at East Newcastle beachfront, between the surf club and the skateboard arena. Graffiti – mindless black scribbles – later defaced it, prompting the muralists' message on the shelter wall, asking the vandals to desist.
Gordon Rowland | 02 December 2011

Thank you for your thoughtful responses to the writing. Some comments invite conversation, so here are some weekend replies.

To Paul Goodland, you seem to be saying what I am saying. My view is that we are witnessing an incredible outpouring of energies and ideas and that the way to handle it is by affirmation and legitimisation. Our society should have the skills to turn this creativity into a positive good for our urban environment. There is no use fighting it in a place like Melbourne, it’s everywhere, a natural expression of its inhabitants. What is asked for, I think, is appreciation and an ability to make something new out of this expression, this activity.

To John Crew, my article does not encourage or condone vandalism on the homes of old people “on the corner.” The plain meaning of your remarks is that graffitists deliberately target the fences of old people with malice aforethought. This is fairly questionable and unprovable, not to say an emotive argument that seems to want to close down broader discussion. It is true that graffiti is anonymous and can be random, but the amount that is personal attack is, I would venture, very small. All the old people of my acquaintance would not treat overnight squiggle on their fence as someone getting at them, but then perhaps I don’t mix with paranoids. Some of them would be mighty annoyed, but intelligent enough to know it doesn’t have anything to do with them personally. The graffiti I believe should be publicly preserved does not include badging &c. on a suburban fence, but the article discriminates from the outset about the spectrum of this work.

To Gordon Rowland, I don’t know Newcastle, but in Melbourne there are literally miles of wall paintings beside railway tracks, main roads, vacant lots and yes beaches that one person will call mural art and another will call graffiti. If Keith Haring was an anonymous graffitist doing his work in Collingwood, it would be obliterated sooner or later either by the Council or by other graffitists painting over the top of his work. My view is that with a lot of this work artists are being condemned because their work is treated simply as graffiti, where if they were given freedom to create works like Haring’s it would be a cultural triumph. There are cities in the world where this is now recognised, as well as in some parts of Australia. My article is prompted first by aesthetic and realist interests, by the wonder of the urban world in which I live. I am not unaware of the differing attitudes in our society toward the spectrum of wall work, but I believe that a lot of it can have a positive effect and even change our understanding of art in the public space.

PHILIP HARVEY | 03 December 2011

I am one of the authors of the conservation management plan commissioned to examine the conservation status of the Keith Haring Mural.

Fact 1. There is NO plan to 'stabilise the mural in its current condition'. This is just not correct. What was recommended was a far more nuanced stabilisation and regeneration of the deteriorated acrylic paint film, which will reinstate much of the original colouration. ( which has not faded, by the way... it has chalked out, a completely different deterioration process. READ the CMP and recommendations and you will see that this is not what has been recommended, despite the misrepresentation of the 'saveharingmural' lobby group.

Fact 2. There has been no mention of cost for the conservation treatment by any party. This was not part of the scope of the CMP and the figure of a million dollars is complete fiction. It would be great if people actually read what was articulated in the extensive evidence based report before going public with their opinions.
Caroline Fry | 07 December 2011

An article by Nina Rousseau in this weekend's Age that shows how quickly this issue is moving in Melbourne.
PHILIP HARVEY | 21 January 2012

Here is an online film of over an hour on Melbourne graffiti artists:
PHILIP HARVEY | 27 February 2012

I wonder if you would be so benign if a gang of these puerile illiterate thugs sprayed their "artworks" on the walls of your Library.
Sharon | 14 May 2012


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