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Outlaw art: the ruling against ‘Brisbane’s Banksy’ needs to start a debate

Anthony Lister’s street art has been well received internationally, but his home town has found him guilty of vandalism. Anthony Lister/Birdman Photos, CC BY-NC-SA

Outlaw art: the ruling against ‘Brisbane’s Banksy’ needs to start a debate

Most days, as I travel along Milton Road in my hometown of Brisbane, I pass a mural that catches my eye. It’s only in heavy traffic that you really get to see the detail and the intricate story being told.

There’s a ballerina and a business guy, and colour, and light, and movement, and joy, and sadness. It’s one of my favourite pieces around Brisbane, and until recently I had no idea who had done it.

For many years now, Anthony Lister has been plying his trade in Brisbane, as well as other cities around Australia and the world, painting murals and other works of art like the Milton Road piece (which is now a collaborative piece with artist Sofles).

The story of the Milton Road mural.

Some residents of Brisbane might recognise the surname; Lister is a tag that is all over this city. And I bet that, upon inspection of his body of work, most Brisbanites will find some piece that they recognise and admire.

In late January Lister was charged, and found guilty, of wilful damage to property because of several counts of graffiti around Brisbane. In the media coverage of this, Lister has been referred to as “Brisbane’s Banksy”.

It is a title that I can only assume makes Lister, Banksy, and every other street artist cringe, but the sentiment is well-meaning. At least he’s being painted as an artist, and not just some street thug.

Anthony Lister in front of his art. Birdman Photos., CC BY-NC-SA

Former deputy mayor Mr David Hinchliffe is one of several figures to come out in support of Lister. In an article for The Courier Mail last month, Hinchliffe was quoted as saying:

We should be celebrating the fact Brisbane has produced such an internationally-acclaimed artist […] I have nothing but praise and admiration for him […] If Anthony does not get off this charge, Brisbane, as a city, will be humiliated.

The letter of the law was followed, we now know, and Lister was charged with wilful damage to property. But there was no conviction recorded, and the only penalty was a A$440 fine and some five hours community service. According to the Queensland government website under graffiti offences, the maximum penalty for wilful damage is up to five years in prison.

One might comment that it is perfectly reasonable that Lister was found guilty. He broke the law, and many would say he did it intentionally. And to a certain extent, they’re right. Graffiti is often subversive, an engagement with the public against the wishes of whatever establishment is currently in place.

Fortitude Valley, Brisbane. JAM Project., CC BY-SA

But the thing about street art is, while it’s illegal and frowned upon by officials (at least in Brisbane), it is also a sign of a healthy and vibrant city. It is a sign that the community values art and expression. It is a sign that the community understands and engages with its public spaces.

New York, Paris, London, Moscow, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Melbourne, and so many other cities around the world are seen as cultural hubs, in no small part because of their street-art scene. They also present themselves as strong communities, ones with a sense of their own identity.

Mr Hinchliffe’s sentiments are shared by a great deal of people. Magistrate Barry Cosgrove, who ruled that the graffiti constituted wilful damage, also acknowledged Lister’s talent.

This should be an opportunity for the democratic process to work. When the law of the land comes in conflict with a possible good for the community, there should be a vigorous and passionate exchange of ideas. At the end we should all emerge different, but united under our communal strength.

Birdman Photos., CC BY-NC-SA

In a previous Conversation article, I argued that graffiti is about public space and the kinds of engagements our community can have in this space.

The Queensland government has the power to remove graffiti from private property where it is visible to the public, and where no direct consent has been given by the owner. External parts of private property are included in what is considered public space.

In Lister’s case, the definition of public space has been narrowly defined in accord with a narrow law. That law has very little to do with how Brisbanites – and city dwellers in general – enjoy and use communal spaces.

The very possibility of having communal discourse is being threatened. Both sides of this debate are actually not arguing about whether or not we consider Lister an artist; it is a given that he is. What is being argued is about where artists like Lister can engage with their communities, and under whose authority.