Wearing its art on its streets

Last updated 11:27 17/04/2012
Brunswick Street art
Street art in Hosier Lane

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Melbourne has long enjoyed a reputation for its vibrant and sophisticated arts scene with numerous museums and art galleries, but tourists just have take to the streets to see the hottest art works in town.

In the last decade graffiti and street art have evolved from being perceived as blemish to one of the most significant tourist attractions for Australia's second largest city.

Colourful corners in the central city can be found in Hosier, Caledonian and Union lanes and Centre Place and are frequented by hordes of Japanese tourists  with cameras, suburban housewives on   city visits and cool kids on  school trips.

Not as crowded with tourists eager to catch a glimpse on the latest mural, the inner-north suburb of Brunswick's transient street-art gems are lesser known and plastered around the streets like an oversized gallery.

"Brunswick has a very high density of resident artists, performers and musicians, so it is a treasure trove of creativity," curator Jane O'Neill, founder of Art Aficionados Tours says.

"Art literally seeps through the cracks on the pavement!"

Under the guidance of one of her highly knowledgeable staff the walking tour Bohemian Brunswick zigzags for two hours through the suburb and points out art work by different local crews and artists, some who have left their marks on Melbourne's walls for more than ten years.

Melbourne's public embrace of its street art as a must-see for tourists is still relatively new; like in most cities, graffiti has not always been welcome.

Graffiti, the writing or scribbling in a public place was already known in Pompeii and to the ancient Romans (Just think of the graffiti scene of Life of Brian). Contemporary graffiti - with spray paint and markers - emerged as part of the hip-hop culture in New York in the 70s. It was wildly seen as an urban blight and vandalism, given that the art works were defacing private property.  

On top of that, graffiti often had connotations of gang culture, with gang members marking their territory with paintings - or more often tags.

Graffiti became popular with Australian youths in the 80s when hip-hop, break dance and rap music swept over from the US.

There, like everywhere, police set out to catch the crews, who had left their marks on walls, trains and bridges.

But since the turn of the century Melbourne has become one of the best known places in the world to see street art, with walls not only featuring graffiti and tags but also stencil art, sticker and poster art and various forms of street installations.

While tags are still seen as vandalism, the public and local councils alike have learned to appreciate some street arts as a form of social comment and cooperated with property owners in celebrating some of the best examples.

David Hurlston, curator of Australian art at the National Gallery of Victoria, said recently Melbourne's street art - recognised internationally mainly for aerosol and stencil works - was arguably "the most distinctly identifiable cultural and contemporary artistic movement to have occurred in Australia over the past 30 years".

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And British graffiti artist Banksy, whose work sells for millions, is quoted saying that Melbourne's laneways are arguably Australia's most significant contribution to the arts since they stole all the Aborigines' pencils.

In the past few years, Australia's artistic heavyweights have also got on board. In 2010 the National Gallery showed the most comprehensive collection of Australian street art as part of the Space Invaders exhibition, recognising street stencilling as an alternative form of printmaking.

 "Melbourne's street artists are now broadly accepted as contributing to the colour of the urban environment," curator O'Neill says.

The city started to change its approach to street art, when street art started to sell for lots of money in galleries.

"It's probably a cynical view, but once street art became a recognised commodity, councils started to act very quickly in terms of preserving and celebrating the work," she says.

The rise of Melbourne to one of the world's leading street art locations is partly owed to its layout, with lots of laneways, but also because of the underlying respect for creativity within the broader community, the curator says.

"Brunswick is a standout suburb for street art, because the murals aren't tagged as quickly as parts of the city, and also because many street artists live in the suburb, so the walls are constantly regenerated," O'Neill says.

In the multicultural suburb with a still visible industrial past, a broad range of street art; including paste ups, sculptures, yarn bombs and more traditional spray painted murals can be found.

Brunswick has embraced the former nuisance as part of its local identity and many businesses commission street artists to paint their store fronts.

The façade of the Royal Nut Company for example, is featuring nutty animals by local crews AWOL, ID and SDM 2009, there are thoroughfares painted with scenes from the suburb and around every corner there is something new to discover.

Some of the works have lasted years without being touched - like a scene from Dr Seuss on the back of a house - others are painted over after a couple of months.  The tour introduces the visitor to the vast variety of art forms and stories behind some of the crews and their work.

It also passes lots of studios, and the distinctive sound of a spray-paint container being shaken is never far away.

"Brunswick is very much where the art is being made, so whilst there are maybe only 10 galleries in the area, there are at least 100 studios," O'Neill says.

During the tour there is always the chance to drop in on one of the street artists and see them at work.   

Bohemian Brunswick is one of a couple of tours O'Neill's Art Aficionados is offering to visitors and residents.

"Mostly the clients are on the lookout for something that's a bit different from the mainstream, and they tend to be very open-minded and easygoing," she says.

Each member of the Art Aficionado Team is a cultural practitioner, and directly contributes to the art community in Melbourne, so they possess a "hands-on" knowledge of the art and the galleries.

"We strive to give people on tour the privilege of this 'behind the scenes' view of the art and the galleries," she says.


Bohemian Brunswick

Run by a team of cultural practitioners, this 2 hour tour starts at Brunswick's Anstey Station at 11am and finishing at Jewell Station Fridays and Saturdays.

Contact: artaficionadotours.com  A$50 pp

Melbourne Street Art Tours
Run by street artists, the 3½-hour tours start at Federation Square and end, with a drink, at Blender Studios in Franklin Street.
Contact: melbournestreettours.com, $69

We Make Stuff Good: Melbourne Graffiti and Street Art Culture Tour
An artist leads groups on a 3 hour tour around the ''lesser-known'' streets and laneways of the city centre.
Contact: wemakestuffgood.com, $40

Walk to Art
There are two boutique options: a four-hour or 2½-hour express tour that incorporates all types of art, including street art, plus a wine and cheese lunch. A six-week session of twilight tours starts next month.
Contact: walktoart.com.au, $108/$78

Detour Guide to Melbourne Street Art
Released in December last year, this free interactive app created by Matt de Moiser gives a self-guided street tour option around the city centre. Each image lists the artist, a gallery-style description explaining the media used and a blurb about its backstory. Download it here.

For more information on Melbourne or Victoria please visit www.visitmelbourne.com.

If you want to see Melbourne's street art yourself, go to www.playmelbourne.co.nz and you and a friend could be jetting your way to this alluring city for a long weekend, you've only got a couple more weeks to enter so make sure you Play Melbourne before May 1 - go on we dare you."

You can also download Tourism Victoria's new Play Melbourne iPhone app.

Jule Scherer visited Melbourne courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

- Stuff

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