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Do governments know what to do with street art?

Governments have a paradoxical approach to street art. costa cobosta/flickr

Australia prides itself on its attractiveness to tourists, but for many, to the eternal frustration of Melbourne, visiting Australia is synonymous with the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney Opera House.

It may then come as a surprise to learn that Melbourne is the only Australian destination to feature in the top 10 lists of a number of international travel websites. What is it about Melbourne that is so alluring to visitors? The answer is Melbourne’s street art.

On Reuters (Life!) and Travel and Leisure among others, Melbourne is named as one of the best cities in the world in which to view street art, alongside New York, Berlin, London, Sao Paulo and Los Angeles.

The presence of Melbourne in lists like these means that some tourists come to Melbourne because of its street art – the dizzying variety of images including hip hop graffiti, stickers, pasted-up posters and paper cut-outs, objects fixed to walls, and street-based sculptures, which appear illicitly on the walls and other surfaces around the city.

Tourists are not the only individuals drawn to Melbourne because of its accomplishments in urban art. Artists from Tasmania, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Japan, France, America, Canada, Germany, Britain and Mongolia have made Melbourne their permanent or temporary home and have contributed to the melting pot that is Melbourne’s culture of street art.

The result is a large community of artists who often share resources and ideas, collaborate on gallery shows, and generally work together to create art both in the streets and in galleries.

The quality of the work displayed in suburbs such as Fitzroy, Collingwood, Brunswick, St Kilda and the CBD itself is such that the National Gallery of Australia began purchasing pieces by Melbourne street artists in 2004, and has now amassed a collection of several hundred artworks, some of which were exhibited as part of its show ‘Space Invaders’ touring nationally throughout 2011.

What has made Melbourne so successful as a home to street art? Part of the answer has to do with geography. The formal grid system of the city centre is organised around main streets cross-crossed by narrow laneways, which have become one of the main sites for street art in Melbourne.

Artists have often found it easier to put up stickers, paste-ups, stencils and tags in the privacy afforded by the narrow laneways, and their central location in the CBD guarantees a large audience for any work placed on the walls.

The rapid turnover of work on the walls makes the laneways into ever-changing outdoor galleries, accessible to all. Their proximity to the city centre means that they are easily found by tourists who imagine they are experiencing a ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ aspect of Melbourne.

Other cities in Australia lack this extensive network of laneways, and their street art tends to be more diffusely located, lacking the abundance found in Melbourne.

The association of Melbourne with street art has not gone unnoticed by the State Government of Victoria. Walking tours promising ‘art in the street’ are offered by Tourism Victoria, which has also developed a series of television advertisements featuring Melbourne’s street art as one of the reasons why it’s easy to ‘lose yourself in Victoria’, as the campaign’s tagline advises.

But Melbourne’s street art has been the object of State government attention in other, less positive, ways.

During the early years of Melbourne’s street art explosion, there was little direct regulation of the activities of street artists: police and councils initially seemed unsure as to how to respond to street art. But that early uncertainty disappeared, with street art now regarded as an activity to be policed and controlled.

The crackdown began around 2005, as Victorian authorities prepared for the upcoming Commonwealth Games being held in Melbourne in 2006. Many local councils announced zero tolerance policies towards graffiti and stencils; a number of artists were prosecuted for criminal damage; and hundreds of posters, stencils and stickers around Melbourne were removed.

Around the same time that Tourism Victoria was creating its ‘Lose yourself in Melbourne’ adverts, featuring the graffiti-covered walls of Melbourne’s laneways, the State Government enacted a new piece of legislation directed at graffiti and street art: the Graffiti Prevention Act of 2007.

Although willing to make use of images of stencil-filled laneways in their promotional materials, the authorities did not warm to the idea that urban art was now synonymous with Melbourne, opting instead to create new offences with accompanying harsh fines and possible prison sentences.

In the statute, the activities of street art are merged with those of graffiti: ‘marking graffiti’ is defined as anything that ‘sprays, writes, draws, marks, scratches or ‘defaces’ property by any means so that the result cannot be cleaned off with a dry cloth’.

The Act was designed specifically to give the police greater powers of search and arrest. Any individual found to be in possession of a ‘graffiti implement’, such as a can of spray paint, must prove to the police officer that they possess these items for a legitimate purpose: this reverses the burden of proof, since ordinarily the police are supposed to prove there is sufficient evidence that an individual possesses these tools for the purposes of graffiti.

In reversing the burden of proof, a cornerstone of the legal system, the Victorian Government has indicated the deep-seated nature of its antipathy towards graffiti and street art.

Many governments share such an antipathy: graffiti and street art are not regarded fondly by any of the municipal or State authorities in Australia.

But what’s striking in the Victorian context is the apparent hypocrisy of a government willing to deny fundamental legal principles in order to enhance the ability of the police to stop, search and arrest young people engaging in a popular cultural activity, at the same time as the fruits of that cultural activity are utilised by the government in its tourism advertisements.

That Melbourne features in lists of the top 10 cities in the world for street art indicates that its artists have not been intimidated by the government repressive legislation into eschewing the street as a location for artwork. Thus far, artists in Melbourne continue to produce high quality street-based artwork, and artists from elsewhere in Australia and internationally continue to travel to Melbourne in order to participate in the city’s urban art culture. Tourists still seek out Melbourne’s street art. Wedding parties flock to Melbourne laneways to pose in front of its graffiti-covered walls, and schools bring art classes to the laneways to study stencils and paste-ups.

The National Gallery of Victoria has in February 2011 opened NGV Studio, a site dedicated to the promotion of graffiti-derived art and street-based artists. And still the State government and many of Melbourne’s local councils continue to promulgate a zero tolerance policy on graffiti and street art. As the gap widens between those who enjoy what street art can bring to a city and those who want to arrest its practitioners, perhaps it is time to seek some middle ground that will not criminalise the young people of Melbourne who practice the art form for which the city has become world-famous.

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