by Thomas Chambers
In political struggles - from Hong Kong to Chile and France - graffiti has been conspicuous. Even in Australia, street art is atypical of neoliberal cultural space.
Earlier this month a balaclava-clad crew, carrying fire extinguishers filled with paint, walked up Melbourne’s trendy street art hub of Hosier Lane and sprayed over all the artwork on the walls.
The Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Sally Capp, held a press conference to declare that “a group of people conducted an extreme act of vandalism” and that her best officers were on the case. She then tweeted:
The inevitable mix of outraged shock and sarcastic replies about the contradictory logic of the tweet then ensued. The culture war had reached graffiti.
Actually, that’s somewhat misleading. Street art, roughly defined as anything legal, ironic, or painted using a scissor lift, and graffiti, which could be loosely described as anything illegal that isn’t a stencil, have been waging a culture war of their own for quite some time.
Street artists paint over graffiti and graffiti writers paint over street art. However, this isn’t just mindless: there’s a convoluted logic around respect, aesthetics, and the politics of gentrification. It is more complicated than a simple tit-for-tat.
In fact there’s plenty of precedent for the great Hosier Lane iconoclash. During the mid-1980s, a punk art collective called The Grey Organisation rampaged through what was then London's gallery district on Cork Street, covering the buildings in paint. They were not well received by the graffiti scene, with the International Graffiti Times dismissing “The Grey Organization, those art vandals, who throw paint on big galleries on Court St (sic) to get publicity for their own shows.”
More recently, the street artist Blu systematically destroyed all his own work in the town of Bologna in response to a gallery removing his murals for their exhibition. What happened in Melbourne, while highly amusing, wasn’t exactly unusual or particularly daring. It could have happened at legal spots in any number of locations and joins a history of deliberate erasure within the wider urban art scene. What is interesting about it is the reaction from the media and wider public.
Pinning the blame
Scrolling through the comments underneath Mayor Capp’s tweet, it soon became clear that users were projecting their own theories around who did this, and why.
At first I assumed one user's speculation that the culprits must be ‘antifa’ was a joke. But after several other users had suggested the same, it was clear that graffiti was being viewed through the prism of the online culture war.
The logic here was that antifa, the bogeymen of the alt-right, are thugs who hate Western civilisation. Just as Captain Cook statues have been targets of graffiti on recent Australia Days, they also attack its artistic representation - in this case, street art on Hosier Lane. Some users also pointed the finger at Extinction Rebellion, “social anarchists”, or members of the Young Liberals. Others compared the painters to ‘Nazis’ whose actions were “shocking, no different to destroying museum property”. Perhaps they even went on to burn some books afterwards.
Then came the real conspiracy theorists who believed that the Chinese government had covertly sponsored the action to cover up pro-Hong Kong graffiti.
Other local politicians, such as the Liberal Party’s David Davis, also joined Mayor Capp’s condemnation, tweeting “these people are sick” and wondering how they could possibly “justify destroying such beautiful art?” The radio pundit Tom Elliot weighed in, saying that Melbourne only had itself to blame for tolerating street art ‘vandals’ for so long.
Meanwhile, the media took its cue and ran with the story throughout the following week. The Herald Sun was keen to comment on the ‘vandalism’ and by Wednesday had got hold of a video ‘unmasking’ the culprits. Daily Mail Australia sensationally reported on the “explosive claims the masked vandals… were Chinese agents” yet by the following day Hosier Lane was “returning to its gritty glory.” The New Daily chose to go with the clichéd headline “Is it art or vandalism?”. Over in the UK, an opinion piece by Sean Irving in The Guardian added some nuance to the debate essentially putting the why in to The New Daily’s headline.
The war on our walls
Ultimately, the outrage over what happened at Hosier Lane is not really about a group of people repainting it.
After all, this has happened before in 2013, when local street artist Adrian Doyle buffed every inch of a parallel alley to Hosier Lane in light blue. Although Doyle’s intervention also attracted media attention, it was much more muted and less hyperbolic.
Why this latest action has garnered such a response this time around is because graffiti is now part of the culture war. In political struggles - from Hong Kong to Chile and France - graffiti has been conspicuous. Yet, up until last weekend, even Australia’s street art scene had not remained entirely typical of a seemingly depoliticised neoliberal cultural space.
Some of the responses to Hosier Lane echo similar sentiments from fans on Twitter of the self described “world’s first meme artist”, Lushsux, in response to an apparent left-wing political attack on one of his murals. Last year another Australian street artist Luke Cornish came under heavy criticism from local politicians after painting a mural showing border force officers in front of the words “not welcome” on Bondi Beach.
Far from Melbourne, the debate over graffiti has also reignited in its ancestral home of New York. At the beginning of 2020, the NYC Police Benevolent Authority released a video of a graffiti covered train:
However, the tweet backfired when the clip was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Street art, and to a lesser extent graffiti, are now an accepted urban culture. From Melbourne to New York, the battle is no longer over whether it should exist, but for who.