Street art, hand in hand with street culture, is evidence that the streets belong to us all. In the words of Brisbane artist Pen Donovan, ‘it’s evidence that our society is based on democratic principles’. In Australian cities like Brisbane, there’s little visual evidence of this in our streets.
Walking around the streets of European cities, you’ll frequently encounter bands of people standing around in small groups, having animated conversations. Sometimes they’ve dragged a few chairs from their nearby apartments, making themselves at home in the street; maybe some of them are nursing a beer and a cigarette. These gatherings are spontaneous, but here they’re embraced as being as valid a catch up as the Saturday morning brunch date so common amongst urban Australians.
The streets are where a non-hierarchical interplay of society can unfold, irrespective of private property, land ownership, or whether you’re a paying customer. It’s the most democratic setting of civilised society, which is why street culture is important, and can be so empowering to the socioeconomically marginalised.
Cue street art. Street art offers a visualisation of this interplay, and it’s accessible to all whether that’s the artist or the viewer.
Pen Donovan is a Brisbane-based artist involved in Right to the City, a group objecting to the lack of people-friendly spaces in the city. I caught up with her to chat about the myriad reasons for why mark making is important to society at large, and also to individual artists. ‘An artist’s life is hugely lonely, we are expected to be invisible until “gallery-worthy”’.
Public walls have long been adapted as canvases for the works of those not yet ‘gallery worthy’. This is great, because the artist does not have to be endorsed by a traditional art institution to be exhibited. It also allows for an uncensored exchange of ideas, consumable by everyone who walks the streets. Messages get wider organic distribution (until an authority censors and removes it), and the art is able to trigger a wider incidence of thought on a topic, than if it was hanging in a gallery.
Perhaps most importantly, street art offers a political, communicative purpose; a platform for the disenfranchised, says PLNU Art Professor Dr. G. James Daichendt.
Daichendt discusses the worldviews present in street art, claiming that “A lot of times, like human beings, [street art] fights each other. [Street art can] have contrasting worldviews. But this conflict can be restorative, creating community while simultaneously building up each artist and artwork.”
While autonomous marks defined as graffiti or tagging remains a criminal offense in Brisbane, cities across the world have effectively allowed street art to restore and rebuild communities after conflict. Simon Arms of SmashingMag tells of Berlin’s history of the medium, from when former West Berliners enjoyed their newly found liberty, expressing on abandoned parts of the city what it means to be free.
With the topic of freedom being surely one of the most poignant conversations street art has the power to evoke, visual stories over time demonstrate how the medium becomes a vehicle for unity amongst those cohabitating in large, otherwise isolating cities. In 2003, the walls of Berlin started seeing diary-entry style insights into the life of a character whose girlfriend Linda had broken his heart.
The developments of the story had pedestrians intrigued, and became the talk of local rags and radio programmes. Nobody knew if the miserable fellow was real, and citizens were genuinely moved by his candid chronicle of an experience we can all identify with. Although Linda’s Ex eventually turned out to be pure fiction, the storytelling phenomenon experienced through the streets effectively offered some affinity between those dwelling amongst them.
The fact that German authorities don’t remove these pseudo-illegal markings indicates a certain degree of respect to the citizens of the city; a right to impart something of their own choosing on the walls in which they live, and a culture that offers the right to question society. Their priority is in containing violent gang culture and the harm it represents to citizens, rather than prosecuting innocuous mark-makers.
Mirroring Berlin’s wall dialogs, Melbourne-based artist David Booth (aka Ghostpatrol) equates tags with conversation. In a feature published by inflight mag TigerTales, Booth recounts the joy in interpreting conversations seen in tags across his home city’s walls. He acknowledges the merit in what many dismiss as delinquency, describing all markings as the visible evidence of a subculture and a community. This artistic subculture is community-strengthening, in itself a form of spatial storytelling; place-building culture creation.
The problem in Brisbane is that the authoritative eye deems all autonomous markings in the same, illegal way. Earlier this year, an enormous chalk mural of the Aboriginal flag materialised overnight on West End’s archetypal intersection between Boundary Street and Vulture Street. This was followed by Mayor Quirk’s hasty ‘promise to the community’ to remove it and commence a blitz on tagging.
Pen puts it perfectly when she says, ‘Allowing voice in the visual landscape is vital to a lively city. It’s evidence that people are respected in their diversity and opinion and encouraged to speak up and be involved.’
Our Mayor ignorantly comparing this highly poignant, political artwork with tagging and its associated (debatable) delinquency is another nail in the coffin of Brisbane as a ‘New World City’. Our council’s intolerance of autonomous, individualised expression proves how short-sighted and narrow-minded their attempts to assert this progressive title are – and how serious of a hindrance to the city this attitude is becoming, creatively and equitably.
Ironically, in the last ten years Brisbane’s city council and affiliated development corps have begun contriving the ‘laneway culture’ that started in European streets and has come to characterise Melbourne, bringing tourists in droves.
Brisbane’s councillors want in on the capital of splashing the walls with colour, but it must be on their terms. While graffiti and autonomous street art is still highly illegal, the council commissions artists to paint a mural here and there, unwittingly negating the entire spirit that defines street art.
The origins of street art lie in defiance of systems that curate whose works are shared and whose are not. Street art doesn’t seek permission to make a mark on the city, because it’s about showing that the streets belong to us all and we’ll embellish them however we care to express ourselves as a democratic community of citizens.
Sometimes that involves criticising those in control of communication channels and exhibiting channels. If the only street art in a city is that permitted and commissioned by the government, what kind of a worldview is that going to entail? Probably the dominant one. The expression of ideas outside of dominant ideology is important and powerful to cultivating an open-minded community that challenges hegemony.
When asked about her thoughts on planned street art, Donovan remarks ‘To make each individual jump through numerous hoops to be allowed to make a mark is silly – it halts spontaneous voice and immediate expression of opinion.’
It’s this immediate expression, and candid projection of authentic thoughts that are necessary for shared expression of the human experience; genuine resonance as opposed to contrived, constructed meaning.
And when the ideas are contrived to the point of being commercial, you get Brandalism.
A more council-friendly (i.e. revenue-infused) form of applying paint to public walls, ‘Brandalism’ sees advertising opportunists jumping on the street art aesthetic, leveraging this to afford their clients’ brands some street cred. The visual appeal of street art isn’t compromised, but the message certainly is.
Advertising agencies in Brisbane have begun deploying this about the place, with multi-storey, painted ads for Jameson Whiskey and Hollywood blockbusters endearing consumers with artisanal methods and the novelty of a mural where there previously wasn’t one.
Melbourne artist Adrian Doyle criticises the trend, acknowledging that without political content, murals become merely ‘a competition of who has the prettiest picture’.
Most graff-artists would probably agree that when street art is funded by corporations, the core anti-capitalist sentiment is obliterated.
While advertising agency director Danish Chan says ‘[A street mural] is the kind of work people want to watch and see and spend time with, instead of the ugly, yelling at you advertisement’, the point remains that a painted ad is still yelling a commercial message at its audience. Along with exploiting audiences’ appreciation of artistic methods to sell a product present in this approach, genuine street art typically manifests an anti-commercialist, anti-establishment agenda, so marrying the two is inherently paradoxical.
Despite the undeniably icky aspects to commercialised street art, Booth views it as a necessary income stream for those fortunate artists commissioned to do the works, ultimately enabling them to continue their practice. Of course this is a realistic point, but if councils are going to permit commerce to piggyback on the resonant qualities of street art, it’s hideously hypocritical of them to outlaw the autonomous art inspiring the aesthetic.
Although there’s nothing wrong with murals and public art, it’s important that we distinguish between commissioned art and the kind of uncensored street art offered by the likes of Banksy, Basquiat, Lister, et al. Because one thing remains fundamentally different: the permission granted by a body to broadcast a message. While organised street art transforms dull spaces into beautiful, stimulating ones, an undeniable improvement; what lacks is the uncompromised, uncensored expression of individual (and often counter-mainstream) ideas. Furthermore, the process becomes hypocritical on the part of the council allowing some art and not other art.
It’s our obsession with private property and capitalist ownership that bars organic street culture from properly flourishing here. The sharing of public spaces in built up cities is in direct contrast to our ‘Australian dream’ of individual land ownership and the isolated, suburban sprawl that accompanies it. Socialising in the streets joining our properties is a past time relegated to kids, so we adults can dwell in our brick silos that we work so hard to repay the mortgage on.
Our answer to creating a vibrant street culture in Australia seems to focus on gentrifying urban spaces into trendy café precincts, often leveraging council-permitted public art to inject a sense of visual diversity. Unfortunately beneath this spray painted surface is the antithesis of street culture, forcing out those who need street art most and telling them to go elsewhere unless they would like to buy a $28 burger and fries.