Almost (Il)Legal Laneway Art

Think about the term public art. Where does your mind go to first? Is it abstract sculptures and bronze statues, or is it graffiti art you’re imagining? Each time I tell someone I have a Masters in Public Arts, most respond with something along the lines of “Like graffiti?” I’ve never even painted my words and pictures on a wall in a public space. But what exactly is graffiti, also know as street art? Is it brightly coloured murals and text-works lining laneways, activist statements appearing on buildings in the dead of the night, stickers placed on discrete surfaces, maybe scribbled tags plastered across walls and fences? Across a series of posts on my blog, I will be exploring my recent experiences in viewing three styles of street art.

Right now I want to talk about Melbourne Laneway art – specifically the art in Hosier Lane. Located adjacent to Federation Square in the Melbourne CBD, Hosier Lane is a top tourist destination for people visiting Melbourne and wishing to experience a taste of its iconic street art scene[1]. With its cobbled bluestone road and visual cacophony of ever changing artworks the lane is seen as a cornerstone to Melbourne’s diverse street art scene. Hosier Lane has long been viewed as a space for free expression and experimentation, and even I have put a handful of small stickers on its walls while testing artworks during my Masters studies.

Based on the above you’re probably thinking it’s legal for just about any artist to put their work up in the lane. Like most graffiti or street art it actually isn’t. Without permission of the building owners art in Hosier Lane is still illegal[2], even in this popular tourist location where it appears otherwise. Police are encouraged to turn a blind eye from those who wish to paint there. Of course this is highly subjective to the preference of the police who happen to come across an artist in the midst of work, but some still choose do their artwork during the day with the tourists watching.

(Top Hosier Lane / Bottom: Wall detail. Images by Rebecca Westlund)

As part of the research for writing this blog post I went along and visited Hosier Lane on a weekend in early March, just before Corona Virus restrictions came in. I was meeting up with a friend in the city for breakfast, so I thought I might see what was current in the lane and if there was anything interesting or poetic to write about. Because this was also the weekend that the Grand Prix was supposed to be on in Melbourne the city was packed with people. I have only visited the lane a couple of times before, and had quite enjoyed it. But that day, to be honest, my experience was terrible.

What I faced in Hosier Lane when I arrived was an abundance of people taking photos. Phones were in hands everywhere and people posed in front of the art, in the middle of the street, and against the walls. It reminded me of the time not so long ago when I went to see Van Gogh and the Seasons at the National Gallery of Victoria[3]. I waited probably an hour to get in and once inside I could barely see a painting without someone holding up a phone up in front of it to take a picture. Barely anyway paused to absorb the essence or inspect the brush stokes of his art. One gentleman in the gallery commented to no one in particular “Why would anyone spend 5 minutes looking at a painting, just take a photo and move on”. All I wanted to do was get out of that exhibition, a disappointment to me as Van Gogh is one of my favourite artists. It was this same feeling that day in the city – I wanted to get out of that lane and away from these people and their tourist snaps.

Lately it seems that the attitude of some street artists towards Hosier Lane is beginning to change. Many are beginning to feel the laneway has become a gimmick meant for attracting tourists who just want to see pretty pictures they can talk selfies with. Some feel that it is not good for the lane to be seen as a ‘free for all’ with the overwhelming numbers of constantly changing artworks working against street art culture. Just this year there was public uproar when the lane was paint-bombed by artists using fire extinguishers. Several street artists saw it as the ultimate political statement against the direction the lane was going in, while non-artists called it vandalism[4]. In a gallery space a paint-bombed room might be hailed as a work of genius by the art world, but when it effects a tourists destination it’s quite the opposite. The fact the artists also painted the bluestone ground, which is strictly forbidden, may have exacerbated the situation. However it wasn’t long the lane was back the way it was before these ‘vandals’ painted it, as if it never happened. I certainly didn’t see any evidence of it happening.

While Hosier Lane seems the perfect place for street artists to express themselves and practice their art, I am unsure as to how effective it can be anymore as a place for art which is highly communicative in essence. Unless the work is on such a grand-scale that it pushes through the touristy and overwhelming sameness in the lane (like what the paint bombers did), I feel that any intentionally activist or poetic statement being made is just going to be passed over for a good photo-op. Recently several artists filled the lane with works which commented on Australia’s bushfire tragedy and managed to connect with the people who saw them – even being reported internationally[5] – I think this is starting to become an unusual occurrence. In contemporary times our senses and thoughts are overwhelmed almost everywhere we go and I believe that the most effective activist street art is that which is unexpected. Hosier Lane no longer has space for this – unless of course you paint the entire thing with fire extinguishers.

[1] Trip Advisor. (2020). Hosier Lane.

[2]City of Melbourne. (2014). Graffiti management plan 2014-2018.

[3]National Gallery of Victoria. (2017). Van Gogh and the seasons.

[4]ABC News. (2020). Melbourne’s Hosier lane street art graffiti painted over in weekend ‘vandalism’ attack.

[5]BBC News. (2020). Australia fires: Graffiti artists’ tribute to firefighters.

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