In leafy bushland on the urban fringe of an Australian city, a full roll of domestic cling film is stretched between two large gum trees to form a canvas. Away from the natural urban setting for graffiti and also any chance of arrest or interruption, a group of writers paint from memory, using low-grade silver paint and leftover cans to produce a stylised version of their tags, with the letters carefully interlocking. Clouds of propellant shine in the sunlight through the tree's canopy and the scene is tranquil, but the writers paint quickly for the thin plastic canvas is unstable, already shaking in the breeze and threatening to be ripped apart by loose twigs from the gums, as the chemical pigments and binders of the spray paint eat away at the polyvinyl chloride surface.
Out in the bush, without an audience other than fellow writers and with the makeshift artwork soon to disintegrate, the aesthetic stakes are low, leading to lazy low-end pieces or wildly experimental ones. But like most contemporary pieces of graffiti, this one has another life, snapped and added to an Instagram feed. In the perfect square of the Instagram frame, the already-warped chrome letters bend again as a figure crashes through the plastic canvas from behind, neither a protégé of Saburo Murakami, the Gutai artist who leapt through a sheet of paper, nor an AFL footballer breaching a pre-game banner. Aside from the pastoral painting, the mammoth gum trees and the larrikin clowning, all the contradictions of contemporary Australian graffiti are in this scene: its status as an uncertain object with a limited lifespan, an activity linked to particular urban contexts but appearing in new places, a stable set of aesthetics that is always reinventing itself and hunting for ways to get up.
In Australia, graffiti has often been seen as a significant social problem, requiring substantial public resources in policing, cleaning and diversionary programs. However, graffiti also appears in a range of legitimate spaces in Australian cities, from advertising billboards and t-shirts, to walls and web pages. Over the last decade, the reception of graffiti in Australia has been highly uneven, with forms of graffiti erased or proscribed in some zones, while being tolerated, preserved or celebrated in others. This article explores how graffiti moves across these zones and how definitions of graffiti have shifted as it has negotiated the move from a marginal and illicit subcultural practice to a highly visible and popular aspect of visual culture.
While graffiti can include a multitude of forms, from small scale inscriptions and political slogans to cryptic messages and slashing defacements, the most common type of graffiti across Australia remains the modern form associated with tagging and ornamentalised murals. The classic account of the rise of this style of graffiti in Australia is relatively straightforward. Modern graffiti began in New York and Philadelphia in the late 1960’s as a form of street writing by inner city youths. Eventually the writing spread beyond small neighbourhoods, became more stylised and ornamentalised and attached to the public transport system, sending tags and murals across the city. Images of New York graffiti were transmitted internationally, first in fragments in the background of music video clips or television shows and then in the major canonical texts of the early 1980’s: Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper’s book Subway Art and the films Wild Style, Style Wars and Beat Street. Young people around the world founded the 'graffiti diaspora’, mimicking and translating New York-style hip hop inspired graffiti in their own contexts.
In Australia, graffiti found a willing audience of young teenagers. By the late 1980’s, as graffiti was disappearing on the New York subway system, Australian graffiti was entering a heyday, with subcultures of writers established in all major cities. While New York graffiti remained a touchstone, Australian writers had dispensed with slavish copies and developed distinctive styles, including highly complex wildstyles with three-dimensional effects that were picked up by a number of international imitators. Graffiti was also entering galleries, with local exhibitions often supported by youth workers and then a national touring exhibition Pump Up the Can (1991-92) and a national competition held in Heidelberg, Melbourne in 1992. Since then graffiti has appeared in galleries in a variety of ways, either through the transplanting of murals onto canvas, the application of a graffiti aesthetic to different materials such as woodcarving or ceramics (for example, PRINS and NEW2) or immersive installations. Eschewing the art world completely, many writers made successful careers as graphic designers and creative directors. Graffiti continues to be almost completely ignored by major public galleries, though it is present in traces in the work of contemporary artists such as James Lynch’s videos and Callum Morton’s sculptures and more recently in the work of artists who also painted on the streets: for example, Ash Keating, James Cochran and Ian Strange.
Since the late 1980’s, despite repeated cleaning and often punitive strategies of policing, graffiti became a fixture of the Australian landscape, its appearance reflecting a series of changes in urban culture, from the rise of gangster rap and the development of homegrown specialist spray paint, to the privatisation of public transport and the advent of blogging. In many Australian spaces, the spread of graffiti in Australia outstripped earlier criminological theories and public policies. For instance, the broken windows theory, which underpinned zero tolerance approaches to graffiti and held that small amounts of damage to the urban fabric could spread a fear of crime and social decay, could not account for the appearance of graffiti in city branding and its ability to connote cultural vitality. Similarly, the assumption in many local council policies that graffiti repulses customers and was bad for business neglected the frequent commissioned murals in shopping strips or the broader emerging ‘graffiti economy’, the network of shops, galleries and studios that depended directly or indirectly on the production of graffiti.
The highpoint of graffiti’s mainstreaming continues to expand. Alongside graffiti, the notion of ‘street art’ emerged in the 1990’s as an umbrella term to refer to a range of creative practices in urban spaces across the globe. Against previous accounts of graffiti that focused solely on the global spread of hip hop graffiti, the notion of street art stressed a diversity of practitioners, approaches and media; and a range of national and cultural contexts for graffiti. This distinction remains a complex and controversial one. Also, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, notions of graffiti and street art have been used in a new, broader sense to include any kind of creative intervention in public space, often under the rubric of ‘urban creativity’. This definition broadens the idea of graffiti as well as its forms of media, which might now include ephemeral sculptures or performances, such as laser projections or ‘flash mobs’ – public gatherings coordinated by social media. This broader framing emphasises the political dimensions of these practices, seeing them as forms of civic action and engagement. This designation also suggests that graffiti is something bigger and broader, an attitude rather than an object.
So, how to make sense of these competing understandings of graffiti? A useful starting point is the distinction between graffiti as an object – ornamentalised names that stretch in scale and complexity from small, line-drawn tags to huge “masterpieces”, and graffiti as a set of practices that includes ways of making and acting grounded in a particular subculture and also a broader attitude to the urban environment.
As an object, graffiti is spread across the surface of Australian cities, with individual instances combining to form a complex text of overlapping scales and styles. In simple terms, graffiti ranges from small tags to outlined bubble letters known as “throw-ups” to fully painted murals with varying levels of colour and design complexity. At their most ornate, wildstyle pieces and inter-connected themed walls can take days to complete. Typically graffiti murals employ a variety of formal devices to distort and interlock the letters of the pseudonymous tag and to enhance its visual impact, usually with reference to the illusion of three-dimensionality.
However, there are competing formulations of the relationship between tags and murals, with significant implications for how graffiti is understood. For most writers, particularly those growing up in the first two decades of graffiti in Australia, the line-drawn tag is the raw foundational unit of graffiti, indivisible from the largest murals. Under this model, the tag exists before the mural and is a precondition and blueprint for the larger pieces. However, in other contexts, for example in graffiti policies or some exhibitions, the tag is framed as separate from the mural, in order to preserve a key distinction between ugly, illegal and illegible tagging and the more acceptable, colourful murals, which often contain figurative elements.
While individual writers are lauded for their technical and design skills, graffiti style evolves incrementally and through collective effort. The lexicon of the early gestures of New York graffiti is periodically rediscovered and mined anew by contemporary writers. The development of graffiti styles is made more complex by the circulation of graffiti on the Internet and by the global mobility of writers themselves, both of which break down the notion of cities having their own distinctive style. Also, there is an increasing trend towards the painting of deliberately unstylish bad graffiti, either as homage to earlier styles, as a way of resisting the aesthetic of highly-finished, usually legal, murals or as part of the development of an anti-aesthetic style, that is less easily acceptable to civic and corporate agendas.
However, to consider graffiti simply as a set of objects, a collection of flexible aesthetics and visual tricks that circulate across platforms, is too reductive, removing it from important social contexts and human relationships. As an object, graffiti exists fleetingly in multiple forms as a sketch, a physical mural or most commonly, a digital photograph. In another sense, as the particles of paint hurtle through the space between the can and the concrete or steel, at a molecular level there is no single coherent object, just a series of temporary visual effects and impressions, a haze. Beyond the object, graffiti should also be considered as a set of practices that include both the kinds of skills, tricks and bodily performance that produce graffiti, and the broader acts of exploring urban space that writers engage in. Many writers have roots in hip hop, in which graffiti is one of the core elements alongside breakdancing, DJing and MCing. In this context, graffiti can be seen as a kind of visual battling akin to the verbal jousting of rap, with graffiti letters corresponding to the twisting bodies of breakdancers. In order to produce graffiti, one also has to learn a broad attitude to the urban environment, trespassing social norms, legal frameworks and spatial boundaries.
As a subculture, Australian graffiti reproduces itself through individual relationships, both positive collaboration and the often agonistic competition and battling that happens on the streets. A sense of history is developed through shared experiences and (mis)adventures, technical tricks and urban survival skills, stories and secrets and a finely nuanced visual vocabulary. And yet graffiti is a secret society with a very public face. New members can be initiated through experiencing and reproducing artwork, without direct contact with other members. Despite a sense of shared history and continuity, graffiti in Australia is divided from itself by a series of historical thresholds that are hard to breach, each changing the nature of how graffiti is experienced. The first is the divide between the early era of unfenced trainyards and painted trains and the clean train era, when train painting continues, but in different forms. Secondly, there is a divide between the analogue era, when images of graffiti were scarce, and the period after the mid-1990s, when digital cameras and public access to the Internet fundamentally changed the circuit of graffiti. In the digital era, graffiti has become an (almost) dematerialised object, its existence in time and space dwarfed by the reach and seeming endlessness of the digital audience. Thirdly, the difference between an era in which graffiti was produced with handmade and appropriated materials – shoe sprays, car-paint, hand-made markers and inks and nozzles – marks a dramatic shift from the current era, in which purpose-designed Australian made spray paint and other materials are widely available.
The subculture of graffiti is also shaped by external forces, a range of anti-graffiti strategies, to which it responds, either through accommodation or contestation. Many parts of Australia have designated legal walls, informal “zones of tolerance” or at least hidden or abandoned spaces in which writers can piece without interruption. Alongside these tolerance zones, graffiti is also the subject of active police investigations, corporate cleaning services, passive urban design solutions and ‘community-driven’ prevention strategies. In many cases, responses to graffiti reveal the extent to which everyday spaces are governed and regulated, in what Kurt Iveson refers to as the militarised city. For example, in primary schools in the City of Knox in Victoria, police enlist teachers to check school books and pencil cases. Anything resembling graffiti tags is photocopied and added to a police database, where they can be “cross-referenced with illegal graffiti activity”.
Between the creativity of practitioners and the logic of policies and policing, definitions of graffiti are far from settled. Increasingly, graffiti is defined and understood against the more recent category of street art. Ironically, the strong distinctions and divisions between graffiti and street art favoured by many writers are also supported by policy responses to graffiti, as local councils grapple with contradictory approaches: punitively removing graffiti while celebrating (and often funding) the installation of forms of street art. In this account, graffiti is a precursor to street art, taking over the streets and softening up urban spaces for street art to emerge. Graffiti addresses different audiences and has different mechanisms of evaluation that are not available to the public. Crucially, graffiti and street art have different approaches to citation and originality, also different approaches to managing professional identities and anonymity. What is simply ‘citing’ for street artists is considered ‘biting’ by graffiti writers. The postmodern citing is contrasted with graffiti’s neo-modernist focus on originality, though with a careful divide between direct copying and permissible stylistic influences.
However, this account ignores the many aesthetic and political connections between graffiti and street art, even from within the history of graffiti itself. For instance, you could argue that the origins of street art are to be found within the most creative and rebellious of graffiti writers, those that pushed the form into other areas, such as New York’s COST and REVS, who, along with pedigrees in train and street bombing branched out into wheat-paste posters and stickers, large scale tags with rollers, telephonic pranks, metal sculptures and personal diarising on the streets.
Rather than a final determination about the detaching or binding of the two categories, it is more interesting to ask what is at stake in their collapse or differentiation. On the one hand, retaining the specific and limited definition is important. Graffiti, understood as a subculture of illegal writing, has customs, traditions and styles that are distinct and can’t be easily folded into earlier forms of political sloganeering or later forms of street art without losing their distinctiveness. On the other hand, Evan Roth, co-founder of the Graffiti Research Lab who mix open source technology with graffiti, argues that graffiti should be understood in broad terms, as any kind of intervention in public space. This expansive definition is a tantalising one, even though its breadth is problematic. It does allow graffiti to exist not just as a series of objects or practices but also as a political attitude that connects traditional forms of graffiti to more recent Australian moments. The future will be determined by our ability to work across both of these definitions, embracing aesthetic reinvention in the search for fresh styles and transplanting graffiti’s attitude into other arenas.
- ^ See @dvate on Instagram
- ^ A term developed in the massive All City Writers: The Graffiti Diaspora, Andrea Caputo (ed.), Kitchen 93, Paris, 2012.
- ^ See for instance the 2001 Sake of Name: Australian Graffiti Now exhibition commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company, as discussed in Kara Jane Lombard (May 2007) ‘ “To Us Writers, the Differences Are Obvious”: The Adaptation of Hip Hop Graffiti to an Australian Context’, M/C Journal, 10(2). Retrieved 25 Nov. 2013 from: http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0705/05-lombard.php.
- ^ Alison Young, ‘Negotiated Consent or Zero Tolerance: Responding to graffiti and street art in Melbourne’ in City 14 (1-2), February-April, 2010, pp99-114.
- ^ See Lachlan MacDowall, ‘The Graffiti Archive and the Digital City,’ in Danny Butt, Jon Bywater and Nova Paul (eds.), PLACE: Location and Belonging in New Media Contexts, Cambridge, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2008.
- ^ Kurt Iveson, ‘The War on Graffiti and the New Military Urbanism’ in City 14 (1-2), February-April, 2010, pp115-134.
- ^ John Kaila, ‘Teachers Urged to Dob in Graffiti Vandals’, The Herald Sun (Melbourne), May 6, 2012, available at http://www.heraldsun.com.au/ipad/teachers-enlisted-to-fight-graffiti/story-fn6bfkm6-1226347674057, accessed 4 November, 2013.
- ^ See evan-roth.com and graffitiresearchlab.com
Dr Lachlan MacDowall is an artist, cultural researcher and Head of the Centre for Cultural Partnerships in the Faculty of the VCA and MCM, University of Melbourne. He is an internationally recognised expert on the history and aesthetics of graffiti and has published widely on graffiti, street art and urban creativity, including a contribution to Duro Cubrilo, Martin Harvey and Karl Stamer’s King’s Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti: Melbourne 1983-1993.