The vanguard of Australian street art can be traced to a small number of artists experimenting during the late 1970s. It was not until the mid 1990s, however, that there was a voracious surge in the act of creating works of art on the street, which could be identified as the beginning of the contemporary Australian street art scene. It should also be acknowledged that the roots of Australian street art lie in the Australian graffiti subculture. Since graffiti’s appearance in Australia in the early 1980s, this subculture has undergone significant aesthetic transformation. In the last three decades, Australian graffiti, as we traditionally understand it, has grown from the internally coded expressions of notorious hardcore writers into a multifaceted scene that comprises a conglomeration of artists using text, symbols and signs. The graffiti subculture has multiplied its forces of collaborating practitioners and has spawned numerous street art offshoots that have, since 2000, revolutionised creativity in public spaces. Various and complex historical influences, peak developments and new trajectories comprise the national street art scene as it stands now in 2010.
When we speak about an work of art created in or for the street today, it is usually not graffiti at all, but its descendant—neo‑graffiti, post‑graffiti or, more commonly, street art, which includes, among multiple expressions, stencils, hand‑painted posters, paste‑ups, stickers, street intervention pieces, installations and zines. While the initial raid on Australian public space was instigated by graffiti writers and political activists—bombing the urban environment with tags, wild‑style pieces, and punk and anarchist stencils—street artists have mounted a second wave of attack, successfully storming new territory, re‑colonising city streets and, most recently, penetrating the walls of numerous commercial and public galleries. Street art now functions as an elaborate national and international communication system and is currently morphing into its next phase in which the ephemeral has become the collectable.
Art galleries have also played a role in changing perceptions about street art: acquiring posters and recent examples of street art for their collections has helped legitimise practices that have often been outlawed. In the case of the National Gallery of Australia, zines and stencilled images on paper take their place alongside earlier posters and self-published books.
Roger Butler, Senior Curator, Australian Prints and Drawings, NGA.
While there would seem to be little prospect in the near future of seeing a social or legal policy on street art that wholeheartedly affirms its cultural value and fosters its existence, it should not be too much to ask the authorities to reconsider their current punitive stance. Street art need not be seen as a crime and social problem. It is worth imagining what kind of city might be produced if all the complexities and possibilities offered by street art were allowed to flourish.
Professor Alison Young, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne.