After years of debate, delay, conservation studies, heritage inquiries, management plans and an international search for a conservator, a 1984 Keith Haring mural on a Melbourne college wall will officially be declared “restored” on March 6 by the Victorian arts minister Heidi Victoria.
The rigmarole surrounding the restoration in Collingwood shows how far street art has come since Haring (1958 –1990) helped pioneer public art at a time when even in his home town of New York City, graffiti was regarded as a manifestation of an urban society in moral and financial decay.
But events this week in Melbourne and Sydney show that when it comes to street art, it’s an anarchic art form that still confuses, contradicts and defies simple categorisation – which is as it should be.
On Wednesday Melbourne street art blogger Dean Sunshine was shocked when he visited the Haring restored mural on Johnston Street and saw that it had already been tagged.
One corner of the work is now daubed “Pure Evil Was here ’13” by an anonymous tagger.
Sunshine, who says he and hundreds of Melbourne street artists were miffed when they only learnt of the restoration last year after reading an article in The Age, fired off an email yesterday to Arts Victoria which administered the restoration.
“It has come to my attention that the Keith Haring mural has been tagged. I have been informed that the mural was not sealed with a clear coat to protect it from these types of attacks.
After the decades of neglect and god knows how long to finally get this project funded and restored, you would think the responsible people involved would protect this iconic artwork that we as Melbournians are so fortunate to have.
Moving forward, will this tagged be removed and will the mural get the protection it deserves?” he wrote.
Sunshine, who was one of the organisers of the repainting of Melbourne’s famed street art centre Hosier Lane for the National Gallery of Victoria’s prestigious Melbourne Now exhibition, told Daily Review that there were “unwritten rules” in the world of street art.
“I understand that street art is ephemeral but one of the unwritten rules is ‘Go over, go better’,” Sunshine said.
In other words don’t tag or add to a work unless you’re going to improve it. This begs the question – improve it according to whose taste?
Sunshine said that he had large works by British street artist Hush covering his factory walls in Brunswick and these were regularly tagged but he could easily restore the works to their former glory because the original work was sealed. “Why wasn’t the Keith Haring sealed?” he asked.
As it turns out the desk jockeys at Arts Victoria were aware of last weekend’s defacing of the Haring mural – said to be one of the only 31 large scale Haring works surviving in the world – and were unfazed.
“We’ll have a contractor down there in a few days,” an arts bureaucrat breezily told Daily Review explaining that the long restoration project under the eye of Italian master Antonio Rava anticipated such tagging attacks.
“Part of the conservation project required a plan for the removal of graffiti and we just have to ensure the right procedures are followed to remove it,” she said. Arts Victoria is working with Heritage Victoria to gain approval for the removal of the tag.
Victorian leaders have changed their attitude to street art when only a few years ago it was derided as “graffiti”. In 2008 Premier John Brumby berated Tourism Victoria for recreating Melbourne’s laneways in a tourism expo at Florida’s Disney World.
Brumby said the laneways were valued for their “European” style not for the graffiti.
“It’s the openness, it’s the little restaurants, it’s the flower pots, window pots, all of those things. I don’t think graffiti is what we want to be displaying overseas … it’s a blight on the city,” Brumby told The Age.
Since then the Victorian government and the City of Melbourne have embraced and encouraged street art as they realise it’s one of the major drivers for tourism for the city and a badge of its cultural diversity.
But in Sydney this week the NSW police minister Mike Gallacher said a City of Sydney brochure promoting the city’s street art was a “deplorable”.
“The NSW Government spends about $100 million each year removing graffiti, so it is deplorable this Council would seek to legitimise the work of graffiti vandals with a slick brochure that rebrands vandalism as ‘art’,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“Graffiti is a scourge on our society, it makes people feel unsafe and it’s a stepping stone for young offenders to more serious criminal activity.”
Sunshine was unsurprised but amused by the NSW government attitude to street art. “Great, more attention for Melbourne’s street art,’’ he said.