Gentrified Graffiti

31 May 2013

It’s almost midnight and I’m in Hosier Lane. My slick new friend Jones asks me to ‘spot’ him. He is wearing brand new Nikes and has a pair of Oakley sunglasses balanced on his head. From nowhere he produces an enormous silver roller-marker, does a lay-up off some broken milk crates, and in one movement rapidly scribbles his name on a brick wall. Jones’ pen moves fluidly as the walls of Hosier Lane are streamlined to smoothness with layers upon layers of paint. Some tourists meander into the lane and are excited to see a graffiti writer in action. They fail monumentally at being discreet as their iPhones flash. The ubiquitous sound of iMitation shutter-clicks echo softly around us.

Apparently, Hosier Lane used to be creepy at night. The wall murals, vibrant and eye-catching by day, became camouflaged guerilla hideouts–confusing jigsaws of pictures and silhouettes. You couldn’t tell if the morphing shadows on the walls were caused by the headlights of passing cars or street thugs out to steal your mobile phone. Tonight, however, the lane is cheerful and flooded with fluorescent light. Passers-by on adjacent Flinders Street–as well as patrons from the Forum and Movida–form a conveyor-belt of spectators, glancing in or even stopping briefly at the lane’s entrance to have a look at the artwork before carrying on with their business.

It seems a little surprising from a public safety point-of-view that Melbourne City Council recently proposed to install $60,000 worth of surveillance cameras at the landmark. I attempt to discuss this with a less-than-interested Jones, who is writing another variation of his name on the sill of a blacked-out window. Suddenly, a previously unnoticed door lurches open in one of the walls. “Keep that up and I’ll call the cops,” a man’s voice barks. “Calm down mate,” Jones insists. “This is a legal wall, isn’t it?”

“This wall is mine, and it’s invitation only,” the voice declares. “If you’re not gone in ten seconds you’re getting a free ride to the cop shop.” As it was unclear whether the man’s intended use of “you’re” was singular or plural, this reporter didn’t stick around to check facts. Without exchanging words, Jones and I hastily beat a retreat.

So who owns the graffiti in Hosier Lane? Last month’s committee report by the Melbourne City Council reveals some perplexing answers. Property owners appear to have control over whether or not they will tolerate graffiti (or embrace street art, take your pick) on the walls of their buildings, but must apply for council permits in order to do so. Most of the graffiti in Hosier Lane is protected by these permits.

Interestingly, however, the report states that no permits are in place for obscure, graffiti-covered Rutledge Lane, which intersects–and is virtually indistinguishable from–Hosier Lane. Under the Victorian Graffiti Prevention Act 2007, anyone found painting, drawing, stenciling or wheat pasting on the walls of Rutledge Lane faces “maximum fines of more than $29,000,” and up to two years’ imprisonment.

While graffiti gains traction as a legitimate art form in developed countries, the difficulty in distinguishing ‘art’ from ‘crime’ has resulted in preposterous ownership squabbles. A Banksy piece that appeared on the side of a small retail establishment in North London recently made international headlines after it mysteriously vanished; the wall was restored to its pre-graffiti state. As for the missing painting, it reappeared in a Miami art gallery with a price tag of US$700,000 thousand. North London residents were outraged and demanded the piece be pulled from auction, claiming that it had been stolen. But the owners of the North London building have refused to confirm ownership of the piece. The ephemeral, unsanctioned nature of graffiti means the idea of ‘theft’ is moot. How can you steal something that wasn’t meant to be there in the first place?

Eyenet, a graffiti writer who has been active since 2008, baulks when questioned over whether graffiti can be stolen and asks me to repeat myself. “You can’t own or steal graffiti,” he says finally. “For as long as it’s there I suppose it belongs to you, because it’s your image. But you have to resign yourself to the reality that once it’s up, anything could happen to it. Somebody’s going to cover you up at some point. Sometimes what you’ve put up will be gone within 24 hours or less, whether it’s in places like Hosier Lane where it’s tolerated and someone paints over you, or on a public wall where the council will send a team out to clean it right away. When either of those things happen–and they invariably will–you have to accept that ownership’s gone.”

Perhaps the Melbourne City Council’s move to tighten control over the graffiti in Hosier Lane is barking up the wrong tree. The report suggests future tolerance of graffiti in Hosier Lane will be based on its viability as a tourist attraction, but certain areas will be limited through obstruction and surveillance. Alternatives to the CCTV proposal include incorporating the existing graffiti as part of the city’s public art scene. This means annexing Hosier Lane and surrounding alleyways with an existing RMIT installation project, as well as using the lane space to host curated art exhibitions. As well-intended as this may be, these attempts at commercialisation and normalisation of graffiti are discouraging for artists. They run counter to the defiance and rebelliousness that have been firmly entrenched in the graffiti movement since its genesis in the 1970s. So, to a lot of graffiti writers, commissioned and curated street art means watered-down and de-clawed. Public approbation and micro-management essentially compromises what its producers perceive to be its unique cultural integrity.

I ask Eyenet whether this softer approach to controlling graffiti means that the movement as he knows it will die out in the next ten years. “Graffiti will never stop happening.” he replies. “If you want what you write to last, you just have to do it somewhere where it’s going to be too difficult for another writer to paint over it, or too expensive and painful for the council to send a team up there to clean it off.”

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