Melbourne’s history of street art is mysterious, with New York roots and a host of works that cross both sides of the law.
The 1980s – the birth of street art in Melbourne
Street art finds its foundations in graffiti, a hardcore underground movement which arrived in Melbourne in 1983. While local graffiti writers aimed to show their style and dedication by the volume and difficulty of their unsolicited public work, it had a fun and political side too – often expressed on a massive scale.
Perhaps the most famous local example is New Yorker Keith Haring’s 1984 mural at the Collingwood Technical College in Collingwood (now the Collingwood Arts Precinct). This reflected Melbourne’s growing appetite for vibrant public commissions, like Mirka Mora’s underappreciated mosaic masterpiece on the St Kilda Rd concourse of Flinders St Station in the CBD, lining the Clocks restaurant’s al fresco section.
The 1990s – street art innovates
By the 1990s, a grander look had emerged in street art as lettering merged with conventional illustrative art techniques. A community project by Prahran railway station drove a groundbreaking artwork called 'The Style Machine' by Duel, Mars and Pest: a three-story high mural with an environmental message showing the city as a nuclear apocalypse, as well as lettering which transforms in style when passed through a conveyer belt. The area has since become a set of apartment blocks. Simultaneously, writers like Puzle and Merda innovated the artform of lettering, with the recent Puzle artwork 'Letters of Relevance' in Evans Lane in the CBD showing how far the design of letters has come.
The famous Citylights project was born in 1996, merging the ephemeral with the permanent by installing lightboxes which could be viewed for free all day in various locations – one of which was fast becoming the nation’s street art mecca, Hosier Lane. Citylights attracted international heavyweights like Los Angeles’s Shepherd Fairey, whose recognisable works adorn a wall of Revolver Nightclub’s Colonel Tan's restaurant, and Space Invader from Paris, who adorned Melbourne with several pixel tile mosaics, a few of which still remain, including on the Princes Bridge’s northeast corner.
The 2000s – the birth of Banksy and stencil art
By the 2000s, a unique cast of eye-catching characters emerged across the city. Artists like Phibs and Reka populated Melbourne with a cast of countercultural creatures. Phibs’ 2015 mural of a psychedelic bird can be found on the corner of Perry and Smith St, Collingwood, but Reka’s paste-ups from that era are just about gone, due to the fragility of paper.
As characters expanded street art’s popular appeal, innovative materials were introduced – like fire hydrants which blast paint several stories high, used by artists like Ash Keating, whose recent 2021 'Chinatown Response Painting' sprays fiery splashes of yellow and red up the walls of an empty lot at 138 Little Bourke St, CBD – currently host to Darkfield's immersive shipping containers.
Stencils had a boom, influenced by the cultural juggernaut Banksy. Melbourne became the stencil capital of the world, in part due to Prism’s now-defunct stencilrevolution.com forum which acted as an international town square, and art collectives like Blender Studios and the Everfresh Crew. Artists like Meek used stencils to spread political and anti-capitalist messages, shunning the macho bravura of graffiti culture.
Institutionally-renowned fine artists also emerged from street art, with Stanislava Pinchuk (aka Miso) cutting her teeth in Melbourne’s alleys, moving on to be collected by the likes of the NGV and the Louvre, and now working on data-generated war commentary. But graffiti writers like Jisoe still maintained an anti-authoritarian worldview that championed illegal tags, as shown in Eddie Martin’s cult doco that highlighted the tensions of a graffiti purist’s life.
The 2010s – from the streets to the gallery
In 2010, the National Gallery of Australia held a dedicated exhibition, cementing street art into the cultural canon along with Space Invaders. The show questioned whether street artists were vandals or vanguards, and charted the transition of street art into fine art galleries. It included the likes of Aeon – now Tom Gerrard – whose moustachioed faces populate public space on both sides of the river. His latest mural brightens up the corner of Barry and Chapel St, South Yarra.
Mic Porter’s career followed a similar trajectory. His hysterical characters loom over train lines, while gallery works sell out through high private demand. A truly heritage example of Mic Porter’s heads at an unusually small scale can be found around the highway shoulder of the eastern flank of the St Kilda Cricket ground.
The 2020s – street art today
In recent years, since the rise of social media, street art has enjoyed mainstream appreciation, now seen as a benchmark of urban beauty. Humour has a newfound currency, and Lushsux’s loud face swaps – say, The Rock’s face on Shrek’s head – are everywhere. But in a scene once dominated by men, artists of diverse backgrounds populate today’s roster.
George Goodnow (aka Goodie) imbues the corner of Tattersalls Ln and Lonsdale St in the CBD, with a contemplative work 'Bending Brick', that imparts a sweeping and dreamy softness on the otherwise gritty pocket. Aurora Campbell’s pink and red suspension of provocative hands gives Ella Laneway the feeling of an international design capital, transforming the dated red highlights of the mall into framing for her commentary on transience.
Melbourne’s street art scene is taking over more public walls than ever, but the distinction between street art and graffiti is still hotly debated. No matter what side you take, curiosity and ephemeral beauty are at the core of all art on the streets. Here in Melbourne, we’re lucky to have it all.
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