Melbourne's iconic graffiti has been co-opted by corporates, writes design historian Flavia Marcello.
Graffiti is a paradox. Often criminalised with heavy penalties, it is also part and parcel of the hype of corporate promotional campaigns or as an urban stage set for wedding photos. This leaves less space and visibility for spontaneous political expression and begs the question: has political conversation moved online?
The 21st Century landscape of graffiti
The everyday urban landscape of 21st century Melbourne has been largely taken over by tags and non-political graffiti. Overt political graffiti is quickly erased, while officially sanctioned pieces or work with little or no political content is celebrated. It’s a sign of the times that you can hire graffiti artists to create corporate graffiti to promote brands and businesses.
One example is that of graffiti production houses like Everfresh Studios. Members of the Everfresh crew do a wide range of interesting (and sometimes politically engaged) work but their Instagram feed also depicts idealised women with parted lips.
Artist Scott Marsh is an exception in the street art scene - he's proudly political.
This is exactly, and ironically, the kind of advertising that used to be sprayed over by groups like Billboards Utilising Graffiti Against Unhealthy Promotions (BUGA UP) back in the 1970s.
Hunting for what’s left
Last year, Peter Dutton, became the object of “FAKEWIT” stick-ups. There’s something sweetly ironic about how much these posters resemble Andy Warhol’s screen print portrait of Mao Tse-Tung. More recently, stick ups have spoken out against Islamophobia, racism, police violence, environmental destruction and domestic violence. Stick-ups are quick and easy to produce but as ephemeral as the promotional campaigns for concerts, bars and universities they compete with. Still, at least they are there.
Recently in Brunswick, graffiti advocating for Indigenous land rights and the slogan “MAKING BRUNSWICK WHITE AGAIN”, a comment about gentrification that played on the name of a real estate franchise, were gone in under 24 hours. Yet tags on the same wall were left there for weeks.
This is exactly, and ironically, the kind of advertising that used to be sprayed over by BUGA UP in the 1970s.
In another case I witnessed in Brunswick, an expression of protest sprayed on a mural of a woman’s face that covered the side of a chemist shop: “WOMEN ARE NOT ORNAMENTS”. These words were painted over in less than a week. Whoever covered them was apparently not bothered by the tags further along the street – they are still there.
In 2016, meanwhile, the graffiti artist Nost “capped” (i.e. sprayed graffiti over) a 30-year-old mural in Northcote painted by the artists Eve Glenn and Megan Evans, which celebrated local women. Feminists responded, in turn, by graffitiing over Nost’s work, writing “FUCK THE PATRIARCHY” and “NOST IS A DICKHEAD [LOVE] THE LADIES. Nost was later charged with a range of offences including criminal damage, burglary, trespass, and theft and remanded in custody. However, while the feminist protests were quickly painted over, Nost’s tag remained on the Northcote mural.
Ironic or perverse as it may seem, the lack of political content in most of Melbourne’s graffiti means it adds up to a singular branding exercise. The city and its cultural image meld together – an image that appeals to those who like their culture free of politics.