Monday, October 28, 2013

Just the Good Bits

It is not in my nature to be apolitical and my reaction to the public perception of street art is no exception. Last week as I sat in the hub of the most left wing electorate in Melbourne, surrounded by the most tertiary educated people in Victoria, drinking a cliched cup of good coffee meters from Barristers Row and with an obligatory weekend paper in front of me I got all pent up.
I was reading an article in The Age about the "former penniless graffiti artists" who "can now command thousands", when I raised my incredulous eyebrow and said out loud "oh reeeaaally". Penniless like a single parent below the poverty line? Penniless like a recent graduate with a Bachelors degree? Penniless like someone in their first job and renting in an expensive neighborhood? Or penniless like someone in the Carlton flats ?
I recognise this post might cause offence to street artists so I want to make clear from the outset that it is not you or your work I challenge, but the romanticised notion that all graffiti writers have the desire and/or capacity to evolve into internationally acclaimed, articulate creators of art work with mass appeal. And the notion that graffiti writers wish to be perceived as street artists.  Many graffiti writers despise 'Art Fags', resent the space they have overtaken, and feel that they merely use the street as a fast track to exhibitions and fame. I know this because they email me and tell me.  And to be honest, I see their point.
Street artists do perform illegal acts that are technically vandalism on the street. Street artists have tags. But come on, lets tell the naive public the truth. Street artists are for the most part well educated and in the least savvy business people.
I can't stand the public perception that 'Street Art' is a homogeneous 'culture'.  It irks the shit out of me.  I guess the same way it would if middle class Americans starting rapping at the Opera House, being lauded for rising up from the Ghetto.  It is not 8 Miles going on here people. Melbourne has many characters and an amazing array of artistic brilliance, and Fitzroy, as you know is my area of interest. But I recognise it is Fitzroy, not Morwell. Gentri Fuct as was stencilled heavily a few years back
The second point I make (if the above rant can be deemed a solid point) is that the public is not liking pieces "once ridiculed as graffiti". It is liking the good bits that look nice on the wall, may increase in value and get a nod of approval from other "savvy investors". I can't imagine anyone is paying "thousands" for any of the pieces depicted in this post. But to be fair, I need to qualify these generalisations I am making.
The issues are muddy because there exists a dense substrate of cultures that grow on the canvas of the street and use the street for many and varied purposes. But they all use public and privately owned man-made bricks and mortar as a canvas, and unless commissioned, they all do so illegally. And sometimes they behave very similarly. But I believe that the popular culture of street art to which The Age was referring, has developed not directly from, but in parallel and with some connection to, other subcultures inhabiting the space.
It can be expected that anything that grows from such a substrate will be vulnerable to cross fertilisation, and that is a good thing, probably the best by-product is a thread of anarchism and anti-establishment sentiment, more evident in some than others.
There will be multiple faults in the generalisations I have made. Some street artists are from disadvantage. Some never set out to be recognised artists with a marketable brand. Some graffiti writers are middle class (the rumour was that Dicknose was from Camberwell or Hawthorn or something). And I further recognise that there those who are a bit of both, and will continue to be, even in their deserved success. Ironically I am sure some of the images I have selected for this post are the work of middle class graffiti writers.
Ultimately, however, I am under no illusion that all street artists are the product of the working class rising from the street, chroming as they graffed the laneways, between sessions at the skate park. And I define working class as those from under funded public schools, in low socio-economic suburbs, where 2% of secondary school graduates go to university and a student has to be a genius to get a TER over 90.
I am talking about real working class. Parents that lose their jobs when factories close, and kids that work after school not for pin money but to pay for second hand school uniforms. I am not talking about Camberwell, or even Northcotte (in the last 15 years). I am talking the slummy bits of Broady, Corio, Scoresby, Doreen, Footscray, and parts of Reservoir. Many of us suffer from the disorder of underestimating of our status so before you proudly wear your working class on your sleeve, be a bit clear about whether it accurately describes your struggle to get by from day to day in a society that disadvantages you in every way.

I want to say to the street artist audience please understand I am not taking away from the incredible avant-garde movement that is street art and not biting the hand that feeds me. I recall one artist saying to me, off the cuff, that the streets have moved on from graffiti and that taggers shit them. I disagree entirely. It is not the streets that have moved on from graffiti, it's the artists who have created a worldwide movement, who are now part of something beyond the street.  Graffers are still there and will remain, and so far as I can see they don't aspire to be anything else. But that's another blog post.