Sideways, always

Co-Guest Editor of WALL TO WALL Annemarie Kohn writes about how the seed for a graffiti issue of Artlink was sown, back in 1991 at the Metro nightclub in Adelaide. Twenty-three years later, this edition of Artlink is thought to be the first time an Australian art journal has been devoted to exploring graffiti as a contemporary artform.

KAB101 and ORDER55/Sebastian Humphreys, Station to Station, 2012, Carriage #421, 400-class Redhen railcar. Commissioned by Country Arts SA in partnership with SteamRanger. Photo: David Stevenson. 

In 1991 Benedict Andrews and I walked out onto the balcony of the Metro nightclub in Adelaide seeking reprieve from HMC's pumping dance floor. In the early hours of that Sunday morning we stumbled upon the sharp humour of an artist named KAB101. I sat there trying in vain to keep up with the speed of his wit, and yet that chance meeting remains, for me, one of the most influential moments of that whole decade.

Ten years later in 2001, Andrews, Patrick Cronin and Justin Kurzel organised the first graffiti exhibition in Australia held in a professional public institution. Sake of Name: Australian Graffiti Now was commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company during Andrews’ term as resident director and opened by Premier Bob Carr at Wharf 2.

Twenty-three years after that first encounter on the balcony in Adelaide, this edition of Artlink is thought to be the first time an Australian art journal has been devoted to exploring graffiti as a contemporary artform.

Wall to Wall presents examples of Australian graffiti artists working in contemporary environments, while referencing the roots of the artform and some of its historical timeline. Artist profiles include Reko Rennie, James Cochran and Ian Strange; the early days of innovation by Australian artists Merda, Duel and CAIB; and articles go back further to the New York explosion and the DIY attitudes of Lady Pink, Jenny Holzer, filmmaker Charlie Ahearn and gallery owner Patti Astor.

It can be easy to pitch one against the other – the art institution vs the outsider artist – but this approach fails to create a fertile space for interesting crossovers to happen between graffiti and broader contemporary practice. It continues to be about opposing forces, rather than inspiring conditions for more expansive or inclusive representations of the Australian experience. Through the recontextualisation of artwork created from one set of circumstances and redeployed in another, some graffiti artists are engaging with platforms that allow their work to speak to a wider audience, find new meaning and gain some critical objectivity.

Most street-based graffiti art does not aim to serve audiences in the same way as other forms of public art. This doesn’t mean that graffiti artists are indifferent to the spaces they work in. The act of writing is deeply personal, a certain kind of creativity that connects people to places in ways that many other forms of public art simply cannot. It can be argued that those who take private ownership of public space contribute more to the corrosion of public space and culture than any amount of graffiti ever will. We have deliberately omitted images of artworks that were created illegally so that those readers who are prone to respond with conversation-stopping references to vandalism can therefore turn the pages, engage with the content and appreciate the artform without taking personal offense.

Many of the contributors to this issue are extremely busy people. I offer my profound thanks that they have contributed to Wall to Wall with such a wide array of topics. Particular thanks go to Scott Coleman, Matthew Peet, Sebastian Humphreys and Lisa Slade. Limited by space as well as a scarcity of contributors who can critically write about graffiti as an artform, we could have easily explored twice as much as we have.

Annemarie Kohn is the Program Manager for Visual Art, Digital Media and Public Art at Carclew, and a Curator for the Splendour in the Grass Art Program.

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