In April last year I published a short post on my blog about a new (supposed) Banksy street artwork appearing in London at the site of an active protest in response the climate crisis, describing it as an activist artwork1 due to its political theme. It’s quite common for street artists to use graffiti to share their views on the state of the world and Banksy is likely most notorious of them, all while managing to keep his identity unknown for over 30 years2. While I’ve never seen a Banksy artwork in the flesh, over the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to experience some local activist street art in Frankston on the outskirts of Melbourne.
At the end of February 2020 Australia was looking at one of its worst bush fire seasons3 and calls for more adequate environmental management and climate action were increasing. Melbourne was blanketed with smoke and the news was full of misery. On the 3rd of March when I arrived to work and turned to pull into the carpark I noticed something painted on the sizeable red wall to my left, the side of a two-story Nutrition Warehouse building. I parked my car then walked around to get a better look, and was surprised by what I saw. It was a painting of a little girl standing on what appeared to be an empty burnt field, holding a brush and paint tin, and accompanied by the word sorry. The similarities with the Banksy artwork I had written about last year struck me. In the year I had been working in Frankston I had never seen an artwork on this wall, even though it was the perfect blank space for such a thing. Who and what was the apology for? To me is seemed like a comment on the future we were leaving for coming generations. Was the artist depicting what would be left of the land after so much had been destroyed by changing climates, logging, farming, and mining?
Three weeks passed and the graffiti stayed on the wall, and then two new works appeared alongside it. We were now in the time of Corona Virus, and there was no room left for interpretation on the newer works. This time the artist was reinterpreting something well known into a statement on the current times: The first used the words to the children’s nursery rhyme “Ring around the Rosie”4 while showing a family holding hands and wearing face masks, with the second artwork alongside it depicting a contemporary version of Van Gogh’s series of “Bedroom at Arles” paintings5 including the addition of a television (likely a comment on the beginnings of self isolation).
Sadly the day I saw the two new works, the whole wall was repainted red. Perhaps with the fear at the beginning of the pandemic they were considered too much, or maybe the fact that the entire bottom of the wall was now covered with graffiti art just meant it was time for a repaint. I was disappointed at their loss, the red wall back to being a massive blank space, though the art was still slightly visible underneath making it obvious the paint over was not a professional job. I spoke to a staff member of Nutrition Warehouse who was arriving at work the same time as me on removal day, and she was also disappointed they were gone. Apparently she quite liked them.
I assumed that was the end of it although now I could see the wall as an enticing canvas for any street artist. Over the next weeks some small graffiti tags appeared on the wall, and then some lines that appeared to be the beginning of an artwork. Perhaps our street artist got caught and abandoned a new work? And then, in the last week of April, two new works appeared. While these ones aren’t signed, I’d hazard a guess that they are by the same artist as the previous graffiti art. Once again the artworks are in response on the Corona Virus pandemic, this time using the imagery and text of signage to make a statement on the public lockdown restrictions in Victoria.
The last time I saw the wall a couple of days ago the new art was still there. Even though the statements made by this artist on the Corona Virus are not something that can be changed by way of protest (as they are in place due to the pandemic situation) they are still activist artworks in the way they comment on political and social issues that are affecting almost the entire planet, much like contemporary environmental issues were before this. Interestingly, the public restrictions and lockdowns in place around the globe are reducing pollution in many countries6, and the decrease in human activity has seen an increase in animal activity7. So it seems that the environmental issues the artists first artwork was perhaps commenting on are being positively affected (for a short while at least) by the public social issues reflected in the rest of the artworks.
Each day now when I arrive to work now I look forward to seeing if there is any change to the wall – whether it’s in the form of censorship by removal, or as new additions from the artist. Either way I’m enjoying watching this conversation between corporate building and public art develop, without even having to change my daily routine.
1 Tate. (2020). Activist Art. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/activist-art
4 Winick, S. (2014). Ring Around the Rosie: Metafolklore, Rhyme and Reason. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2014/07/ring-around-the-rosie-metafolklore-rhyme-and-reason/
5 Van Gogh, V. (1888). The Bedroom [oil on canvas]. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0047V1962?v=1
6 Gardiner, B. (2020). Pollution made COVID-19 worse. Now, lockdowns are clearing the air. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/pollution-made-the-pandemic-worse-but-lockdowns-clean-the-sky/
7 The Guardian. (2020). Coronavirus lockdown boosts numbers of Thailand’s rare sea turtles. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/20/coronavirus-lockdown-boosts-numbers-of-thailands-rare-sea-turtles