Sydney graffiti: celebrating the artworks in Inner West suburbs

Last month, it was reported that the State had spent about $34 million removing graffiti in 2014. The massive number shows that graffiti is still perceived as significant problem in Australia, even greater in New South Wales.

The New South Wales government official website clearly mentions that graffiti (vandalism) is a “crime” with the concern of “protecting the community.” For the government, graffiti is considered “illegal and an offence” under the Graffiti Control Act (2008) and the NSW Crimes Act 1900.

According to New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research 2014, Sydney was surprisingly at the second place with the highest number of recorded graffiti incidents in 2013. They found 461 incidents at the city with Lake Macquaire at the top position and Hornsby at the least.

In response to the incidents of graffiti, the City of Sydney has established a graffiti management policy “to minimise incidents on both public and private property by prompt removal.” It arranges regular inspection of “hotspots” every day and “aims to remove any new graffiti they find within 24 hours.”

From the facts above, it seems that graffiti is granted no special place in Sydney’s public spaces. The government’s zero tolerance approach makes graffiti to be perceived as something to avoid, to against with or exactly, to report to officials. It places graffiti in a debatable position, especially where artistic aspect enters the public discussion.

However, if we wander around Sydney’s Inner West suburbs like Newtown, Enmore, and St Peters, we will eventually understand why this debate occurs. You will see many kinds of graffiti and murals spread out along King Street, particularly on the side walls of the store building. Some are perfectly maintained and positioned; some are just “harassed” by the intense and messy spray inks.

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Yes, it is what differentiates the suburbs from other areas in Sydney. The Newtown Precinct website embraces the street art by including it as something to explore in Newtown. It suggests readers to “walk down King Street and feast your eyes on mandalas, oversized people, birds with hats and plenty of owls.”

The word ‘feast’ seems to connote enjoyable experience that we can get by seeing graffiti, murals and other forms of street art in the bohemian part of Sydney. Not as something distracting, unlawful, or dangerous. The statement even ends with “If you have a blank wall, there is a perfect piece of street art for you.” So, does it mean that there is a possibility of optimistic approach on perceiving graffiti?

Tugomir Balog, the owner and founder of May Lane Street Art Project, is one of the Sydneysiders who joins the conversation.

“Well, I think it [graffiti] cheers up people going to work in the morning. It’s nice to have a bit of color rather than just gray walls. I think it could… it does booze sort of spirit. You got that kick in the morning, just something dynamic,” he said.

Mr Balog, who runs a mounting, framing and laminating service business, initiated the May Lane Street Art project fifteen years ago. In 2005, he officially started the project at St Peters and set it as an outdoor gallery space. It consists of five panels hung on the window alongside the building of his office.

Tugomir Balog or 'Tugi Balog' in front of an artwork by artist KDC Mofor Space Monkey for May Lane Street Art Project. Photo by Felkiza Vinanda Marwoto. Taken on 14/5/2015.
Tugomir Balog or ‘Tugi Balog’ in front of an artwork by artist KDC Mofor Space Monkey for May Lane Street Art Project. Photo: Felkiza Vinanda Marwoto

He established a website of his project and invited several artists “to use the entire space as their canvas, or to focus on the panels which are then kept each month as part of a larger documentation project.”

“Demand was there. The people were painting in the Lane and I just want to give them more permanent space,” he explained why he created the project.

(A documentary about May Lane Street Art Project. Created by Trazlen Video and Film Production. Source: YouTube)

According to an article published by CNN four years ago, May Lane Street Art Project was considered as one of the ‘legal’ walls for street art in Sydney. For that reason, the project has attracted a number of media coverage.

However, Mr Balog said he closed the project because “it’s not working anymore.”

“Because demography of neighbours changed. All these yuppies came in… younger people with the… no idea… they came from regional Australia, they want their peace and quiet on the weekend. And this area [St Peters] is not fringe, city fringe anymore. It’s actually… you know, cities. So, dynamic is talking different,” said the man who is currently negotiating with Marrickville City Council to restart the project.

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The creation of May Lane Street Art Project reminds us that graffiti and other forms of street art has certain relationship with people who dwell in the area. Besides it acts as “mood-booster” for the bystanders, graffiti also shows the dynamic of environment and how it influences individual’s experience of place.

Dr Samantha Edwards-Vandenhoek, a design researcher from Swinburne University of Technology and creator of Sydney Graffiti Archive, said,

“I think everyone’s understanding of the environment and the spaces that they experience whether they’re walking to work or whether they live there, whether they’re tourist is quite different. We have a different perspective. …So, my work is about challenging how people understand and experience place. They may see graffiti and got ‘Oh, that’s awful. That’s vandalism’ and yes it is. But, what if we thought about it differently and what if we try to understand what people were trying to communicate? And it may change their experience of that place and what that graffiti does.”

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Instead of being seen as “cultural damage”, Dr Vandenhoek pointed out that graffiti can be used to bring back a viewer’s “memories and experiences” of place. Her approach on seeing graffiti as “artefact” or “something in the past” may provide a practical solution to the problem of constant graffiti removals in Sydney.

In fact, graffiti can actually add vibrancy to a place especially the Inner West suburbs, where it is much more celebrated and embraced as a cultural practice.