Peter Drew knows the street art of Adelaide like you know the back of your hand.
On a beautiful afternoon in Adelaide during April this year a group of six street artists came out of artistic obscurity to paint two large murals on the pavement of Rundle Street, arguably the city's busiest cultural hotspot. But after months of negotiations, application forms and a day’s painting, the artists had their murals destroyed less than 12 hours after they were completed by the same council that had approved and paid for them. Why? Because the council simply failed to tell the workers who clean the streets that the murals weren’t graffiti.
It’s a story that’s repeated time and again in varying forms and contained within it are some valuable lessons for any underground artists who are considering sticking their neck out above the surface. In short, gaining legitimacy can just as easily mean losing the freedom, authenticity and dynamism that only the underground can provide.
But the Rundle Street blunder has really just been a small stumbling block in a larger flourishing of Adelaide’s street art culture over the last year. From tags and pieces to stencils, paste-ups, stickers, knit graffiti and any other weird medium - it’s all there with characteristics emerging that distinguish Adelaide from the street art styles of other cities. After all, every city is different and while Melbourne has its city laneways as tourist 'attractions’, Adelaide’s street art still exists well within the underground.
‘That’s something I love about Adelaide. The game is still fresh,’ says Simon Loffler who’s one of the organisers of Adelaide’s biggest urban art festival Street Dreams. ‘We’d obviously love to have our own designated street art laneways like Melbourne,’ he continues ‘but not at the price of losing what’s individual to this city. Basically, we’re getting there the hard way.’
Beginning as the ST5K festival in 2006, Street Dreams has grown from a small group of artists who meet regularly to make street art into an expansive creative community. This year the festival went over five days in March with hundreds participating in street art tours, open-air exhibitions, mural painting and workshops in street art techniques. ‘We’re keeping things going through the year but we’ve come to realise that the (street art) community needs a flagship event,’ says Loffler.
'Street Dreams' is a good example of how the growth of global street art is largely due to the strength in community that exists between the artists. But, as well as being for the artists to celebrate their talents, the festival gives the wider audience a chance to jump behind the scenes. It’s a difficult balancing act for underground cultures to maintain the authenticity of a tight-knit community whilst letting the audience in so that the culture can grow. The task seems doubly difficult for street art which has always had a conflicted relationship with its audience.
Leading the last festival’s street tours was the curator of Sydney’s May Lane Gallery, Chris Tamm. With over 20 years of participation in street art culture Tamm stands as a larger-than-life character who can talk non-stop on the topic for days. I asked him what sets Adelaide’s street art apart from other capital cities. ‘Adelaide’s definitely the capital for bike graffiti,’ says Tamm, ‘but more generally I think the Adelaide street art scene is ahead of other cities in the way the community organises itself using the internet.’
Tamm is referring to the worldwide explosion of street art content on social networking sites where artists trade images and gather feedback from an audience that has, until now, been excluded from the community. But specifically for Adelaide’s street art culture, social networking sites are an excellent way of playing on the city’s natural strength. Ask anyone from Adelaide what sets it apart from other cities and they will tell you it’s the web of connections between people. For underground culture this is especially true, perhaps nowhere more prominently than the growing alliance between artist run initiatives and street art.
Two ARIs that demonstrate this are Format and the TwoPercent Collective. After growing steadily from its roots as a DIY festival, Format has come to dominate the Adelaide emerging arts scene with its large and multipurpose venue making events like 'Street Dreams' possible. With a focus on urban renewal, Format is taking the lessons of Renew Newcastle and Melbourne’s laneways and applying them to Adelaide.
The TwoPercent Collective, which takes its name from the fact that only 2% of art school graduates go on to practice as artists, is more focussed on building the careers of its members. However one of its many exhibiting practices is to hold ‘flash shows’ in which gallery style works are exhibited on the walls of laneways for one night only. Guests are invited on the day and when complaints are raised everyone disappears, in a flash.
Such ingenuity isn’t necessary in cities where street art is no longer persecuted. Perhaps that’s why Melbourne street art has begun to decline, arguably since the council mooted plans to have the laneways heritage-listed. In this sense, street art is punk at its core and while council approval can make things easier in the short term it only sterilises the medium in the long run.
I put this notion to Ankles, the Adelaide-based street artist who organised the Rundle Street mural and copped the blunder that ensued. ‘Authenticity is a huge part of it for me and while it’s great that the council is now chasing us to make up for their mistake, we’ve still got to play a delicate balancing act. We’ve got to keep it about the artists and the art. If it just becomes another council initiative it won’t actually do much for Adelaide’s street culture.’
It’s an interesting point that sheds some light on why street art has such widespread, popular appeal. There’s obviously something liberating about a living culture that bypasses institutions, curators and all their obscurantist text. While institutional contemporary art sinks ever further into its esoteric puddle of post-modern relativism, street art seems to skip over that mess without breaking stride. That leaves just the artists, the audience and the exchange between the two. In short, the community and the art. What else do you need?