Visual Arts

The unwritten rules of street art

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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.

8 responses to “The unwritten rules of street art

  1. GGlad to see the Keith Haring mural restored, but it is not what it originally was. I have enjoyed its anarchic cheerfulness ever since it was painted, but I am sure it was originally larger and the many-legged caterpillar creature originally had a TV for a head, not a computer. Perhaps there used to be more building out to the left?
    Now what is to become of what used to be the old Collingwood Tech School?

  2. it wasn’t a TV, it was always a computer as the head – it represented children dropping out of school with computers becoming a larger part of our lives – such incredible foresight way back in 1984

  3. I was a teacher at Collingwood Tech when Keith Haring painted his mural there. We took our art classes outside to watch him at work, going up and down on the scissor lift, painting very rapidly, accompanied by music from his ghetto blaster … It was a lot of fun. (I also had the pleasure of interviewing him for community radio.)
    He was a very obliging person. Loved talking with the students about what he was doing and what they thought, and about their lives.
    He agreed to paint the mural (free of charge, of course) after being approached by a teacher at the school. (He was in Melbourne to paint a mural on the NGV lobby glass wall.) He said he’d be happy to do it, as he related to the Collingwood area (Johnson St was a lot more down market then, and painting a mural at a school in the area appealed to him.)
    I think part of the reason the mural faded so much (& so quickly) was because he wasn’t at all fussy about the quality of the paint used (supplied by the school). I don’t think he saw graffiti as a permanent fixture on any wall. Of course, little did we know at the time that so few examples of his work would survive and that he would die so prematurely.

  4. Just before I start I’ll mention that I’m an amateur photographer and I’ve been taking photos of street art since 2004.
    Anthea, I think it has always been the computer. I’m sure the city ARTocracy wouldn’t have altered the dimensions or the content by a nanometre and unfortunately we are doomed to the horrific colour scheme until the seas and rivers rise and cover it.
    One of the other unwritten rules of street art is that if you don’t get caught, you got away with it.
    Keith Haring grew up doing graffiti in the one of the toughest graffiti environments in the world. There might have been rules but I bet he broke them if he felt he had to. Plus as a graffiti artist who morphed into a mainstream gallery artist, by street standards he was a traitor or a sellout. Even if the thing was coated there is a map/grid that makes it possible to repaint it as often as it needs. Personally I think Keith would have expected people to be a bit more creative with it. I would have liked something more adventurous than a by the numbers duplicate. It’s no longer his actual brush strokes. Why pretend it is. Enshrining these things is more than a simple act of preservation, it’s putting a barrier up and putting it out of the reach of the general public. It’s also an invitation to anyone with a shred of anarchy in them to come along and stuff it up.
    I thought that in the scheme of things, “Pure Evil” was fairly innocuous. Not nearly as bad a vandal as some of the self-appointed graffiti police who have taken a leaf out of Oliver Cromwell’s book and decided that anything colourful, imaginative, big and beautiful has no right on the street and must have the addition of a politically correct frieze of black throw ups in order not to offend the enlightened.
    Which raises yet another unwritten rule of street art. No one owns it, including the artist. Not even if it’s your wall and you paid for it.
    You may as well try and preserve the breeze

  5. Hi Sabina,
    I think you’ll find that if the wall is on, or part of your property then, sure whatever is painted on it is legally “yours”. But what does that mean? If the wall is exposed to the passing public then how can you police what is painted over it or tagged? If you commission a street artist to paint your wall then maybe do as Dean Sunshine suggests and have it sealed so you can reduce permanent damage to it. But IMO it seems to me that all street art is public art, so even if you legally own the bricks you have to accept that the work painted over them is an open invitation to admire it or add to it.

  6. I am the “architect” of the Rotary graffiti removal program in NSW (and spreading to other states) which is sponsored by Dulux Paints, the NSW Dept of Attorney General & Justice and Smart Graffiti Removal Products. I am also on the Executive Committee of the annual Graffiti Removal Day in NSW run by Rotary Down Under which has the same sponsors plus Brookfield Johnson Controls.
    To me the difference between “street art” and “graffiti” is quite simple. Street art is done on surfaces with the owner’s permission. It may or may not be to my taste but it is legal and legitimate. Graffiti – especially “tags” – is done without such permission. Another term for the latter is “malicious damage to property”.
    Under the terms of sponsorship for the day-to-day Rotary project we are restricted to removing graffiti from private residences. Overall, however, it must be noted the cost to the community of removing graffiti is enormous. In NSW State Rail alone has had to spend over $50m pa for some years now removing graffiti from rolling stock and fixed plant. That money would be better spent on services. The worst hit council areas in Sydney (Blacktown, Parramatta & Bankstown) cost those councils near $1m pa in removal costs.
    Once again, that money would be better spent on services.Including private removal costs the total amount spent on graffiti removal in NSW is somewhere in the vicinity of $150m – $200m pa.
    Personally, I consider tags (which are obscure to all except the cognescenti) to be simply wanking with a spray can in your hand as your tool.
    (I would love a Banksy on my front fence though.)

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