Australian Graffiti History

Discovering Graffiti

By Christopher Heathcote
Art Monthly Australia
September 2000


Vandalism is a two edged word. Usually we take it to mean wanton destruction, but it can refer to the robust visual culture of the Huns, Vandals and Visigoths.


This original vandalism was an incoherent mess to the eyes of Graeco-Roman beholders. Brought up on the idealised forms of late Hellenism, such viewers discerned no beauty in the tribal-looking knots of vandal decorative arts.


The cultural gap was just too broad - what was later to be admired as pre-Gothic whorls, appeared to them as the fumbled scratchings of uncivilised barbarians. As in third century Rome, so, too, in modern Australia.


Vandalism is again a word with a double-meaning. The average commuter is disturbed by the tangled, gaudily coloured graffiti that covers railway carriages and factory walls. Such obvious vandalism strikes him as an offence to the civilised eye, a visible symptom of social disintegration and juvenile delinquency. But is it?


Spawned in New York during the early I970s, contemporary graffiti arrived in Australia a decade later along with hip-hop, breakdancing and rap music. It was an immensely attractive visual idiom. A far cry from the political slogans and toilet smut formerly filling the category of graffiti, the bold, bright compositions executed in spraycan enamel seemed the perfect embodiment of an emerging youth subculture.


At first the only information on the genre consisted of a documentary film on Bronx street life Style Wars, the glossy art book Subway Art by Henry Chalfant & Martha Cooper, and a B-grade feature movie Beat Street. Still, this was enough for local teenagers, who formed into groups ('crews') and, armed with spraypaint, raided railyards at night to cover trains with elaborate compositions.


After a moment of curiosity, the lens of popular culture shifted elsewhere, but graffiti had taken a hold on urban youth. More crews appeared and competitively sprayed their nicknames on trains and stations, and, of course, the authorities launched campaigns to catch the offenders.


Nowadays the Australian graffiti subculture is like a weird cross between Clockwork Orange and a Jacobean revenge drama. It is a world of daring mischief, petty crime, intense gang rivalry and pumped-up youthful swagger.


Life seems to run at a different tilt, with individuals being identified only by fanciful noms-de-guerre and conversations rattled off in a speedy argot. Artists are 'writers'; their craft is 'graff'; a drawn or painted nickname is a 'tag'; a large composition on a piece of wall is a 'piece', and so on.


Graffiti offers these practitioners far more than creative release mingled with the adrenalin rush of risk. It is a highly competitive and territorial activity, a means of proving one's mettle. Each crew uses spraycans to stake their claim on a trainline or district, with 'slashing' (overwriting) their tags over other's logos being perceived as a symbolic fight or rumble.


Top of the heap are 'kings', writers who are admired for their 'burners' (full colour compositions), their 'mission pieces' (risky works), their proficiency at 'throw ups' (improvised two-colour tags), and their prolific 'bombing' (tagging districts), 'loops' (tagging rail lines) and 'panels' (tagging trains).


Bottom of the hierarchy are unimaginative 'toys': writers who either 'bite' (copy) others or whose work is just 'wak' (inept). Everyone is out to prove him or herself top dog by embellishing their name somewhere, on something, while flouting someone.

Styles, Kings and Crews

The stylistic development of local graffiti is extraordinarily difficult to plot. Writers use 1991 to divide the genre loosely into 'old school' and 'new school', although, being a youth phenomenon (practitioners customarily retire in their early 20s), active writers have at best fragmentary knowledge of the idiom's formative days, crews and kings.


Most existing works are under ten months old, earlier pieces having been lost to fading or overpainting. For instance, in Melbourne probably the oldest visible works are just two mid-1980s tags in a difficult to access railway cutting by 'Oucher' and 'Dee' of the original TFA and DMA crews.


As for finding pieces, the best railway sites are located in 'canyons' (concrete or brick-lined rail cuttings), under bridges, at the intersections of several suburban trainlines and along walls of adjacent factories. Urban 'caves' (tunnels, large drains and derelict warehouses) are a favourite target for certain crews, as famously occurred in 1983-91 at the condemned Richmond Meatworks which was filled with a profusion of works by the DMA, PBA and Claim 2 Fame crews.


Graffiti will also appear over nights or weekends on unbroken walls in industrial areas. The most renowned of these is the kilometre long Dorset Road 'gallery' on the perimeter of Melbourne's Bayswater factory precinct. Covered with several hundred sprayed pieces, and even more marker pen tags, this is probably the longest graffiti wall in the country (although the quality is uneven). And assorted local councils have commissioned graffiti murals ('legals'), such as the highly visible piece along a retaining wall at Bondi Beach executed by 'Sweat' in I994.


Much about the character of graffiti reflects a regional context. In Sydney graffiti seems connected with working-class and unemployed youth, the most prolific NSW crews reputedly working around Redfern and the disadvantaged Western suburbs. Melbourne graffiti is a comfortable-class phenomenon a leisure pursuit of insubordinate youth from the prosperous Eastern suburbs. Perth graffiti is reputed to be neither run by teenage gangs nor highly territorial, but instead is driven by a circle of mid-20s writers.


The response of the authorities to graffiti has also shaped the genre. In Sydney, stress is placed on keeping the railways dean and tidy, with considerable effort being put into maintenance. When graffiti is detected, it is promptly obliterated ('buffed') with a coat of brown paint, so works have a brief life.


The accent in Melbourne is on policing and catching the writers. As a consequence works are not quickly painted out or removed, but left up for weeks, sometimes months, so ambitious works linger. In contrast, the authorities in Perth try to diffuse the problem by promoting the use of graffiti-proof paints on factory walls, while embracing talent and running programs which encourage writers to produce legal murals and other design work for community projects.


Writers themselves speak of regional differences in graffiti. Brisbane graffiti is said by interstate writers to tend towards lollipop colours, candy pink being a special favourite. Perth writers are proficient at illustration, their compositions often including highly detailed figures.


Pieces in Sydney tend to be compact and small in scale, often fitting into a rectangular format. Writers there also have a preference for thin, elongated lettering, with 'doo-dads' and 'arrows' (ornamental embellishments running out of letters) being crisp and not overlapping.


Kings in Sydney work with solid-form lettering, where individual letters are clearly demarcated and distinct, being made of opaque blocks of colour. Sydney is also known for its deliberately corny cartoon style.


Melbourne writers see themselves as considering the overall composition, getting shapes running on and out, like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. For this reason, Melbourne graffiti is often unreadable to all but initiates.


Kings in Melbourne prefer the open-form lettering of a highly abstract Wildstyle, a sort of translucent, x-ray effect with the linear contours of letters interlacing as a screen of crisscrossing lines. And, where Sydney is oriented towards New York styles, there is a Central European accent to Melbourne graffiti due to an informal graff exchange.


It began a few years back when 'Puzzle' and 'Demote' went to Germany to work with crews there, a visit reciprocated by the Europeans 'Sweat', 'Loomit', 'Delta' and crucially, 'Duane' and 'Keats' of the foremost Bonn crew SF (Subway Freaks). The outcome was the adoption by some Melbourne writers of the razor edges, cropped letters and puffy, slightly inflated forms of German and Austrian graffiti.


Within these stylistic parameters, some writers certainly stand out. 'Dunit' is the most famous 'old school' writer in the country, being known for his 'blockies' and cartoon characters cleverly integrated into the lettering. 'Lemon', the longest practicing Melbourne king is much admired for countless daring pieces steadily produced since the early 1980s.

'Duel', 'Pest', 'Mars', 'Paris', 'Peril' and the unceasingly inventive 'Puzzle' (aka 'Eizzup', or puzzle backwards) are the Wildstyle kings of Australia, while 'Lost', 'Zero', 'Worm', 'Kem', 'Astrix' and 'Rash' are rising 'new school' kings. 'Demote', 'Tavern' and 'Tame' remain the unrivalled kings of Sydney & Melbourne, indeed, 'Tame' who refuses to adopt a set-style, enjoys the reputation of being the idiom's greatest local innovator.


Besides constantly reinventing lettering, 'Tame' has dazzled the scene by running tags across train carriages, experimenting with organic motifs, utilising drips and splatters as compositional devices, and even wearing 3D glasses while working to create pieces with quirky optical effects. The only person who has matched him for formal inventiveness is the now-retired 'Relic', a prodigy reputed to have been able to use a spraycan to do things thought impossible.


Older writers speak of 'Relic's astonishing skills, especially his knack of casually running off complex Wildstyle throwups. Some writers are valued for a specific contribution to the idiom. 'Sheam' devised the boldly graphic Newstyle that has since been adapted by Techno culture and his talented apprentices 'Diddle' and 'Death'. Then there are figures like 'Briner' and 'Drak', master imitators who specialise at pastiching and cleverly extending Bronx writer's styles.


The Perth writers 'Shimo', 'Mr Prinz' and 'Stormboy' redefined the use of figures in compositions, introducing muscle tone. 'Tavern' enjoys the title of Sydney's 'solo' king, having virtually covered the city's trainlines with his tag during the late ig8os, while 'Nasty' enjoys the solo king title in Melbourne - for a time his tag was on every significant wall in the Eastern suburbs.


'Castle' formulated a symbolic Geostyle, his dark imprisoning labyrinths expressing urban youth's feelings of alienation. And, playing on his crew's Stone Age name, the Cave Clan's 'Bob' honed a catchy Flintstones--like style, each piece resembling a scatter of cartoon sticks and rocks.


However, graffiti remains very much a communal activity, the highest profile being enjoyed by groups. Undoubtedly the foremost crew in the country is DMA (Der Mad Artists), a crew of kings including 'Prinz', 'Demote', 'Idem', 'New', 'Tame', 'Puzzle', 'Pronto' and 'Cure'. Other leading Sydney crews include TRC (The Rainbow Connection, aka T'he Revolution Crew), PLS (Players), TPR (The Piece Revolution) and RBS (Rebel Bomb Squad).

Melbourne's front-runner is USA (United Street Artists, aka Claim 2 Fame) which includes 'Paris', 'Peril' and 'Sense', closely followed by WCA (Wild Child Artists) formed by 'Puzzle', 'Reach' and 'Denim', and TGC (T'he Graff Connection) launched by 'Diddle'. Other significant crews include ADC (Anonymous Damage Comedians) formed by 'Castle', 'Galore', 'Sacred', 'Futile', 'Distort', 'Index' and 'Bacon', as well as RDC (Rock Der City), RCF (Rockin' City Funk), STR (Stands To Reason), CW (Crime Wave), PBA (Plenty'f Bad Apples), RFK (Run For Cover) and AFP (Always Fresh Productions).


The weirdest crew, the Cave Clan, exists at the margin Of the graffiti subculture, being admired solely for its daring. Set up to explore drains, sewers, tunnels and derelict buildings, the clan has a large cult following with branches in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. Besides leaving crude signpost graffitti in these locations, the crew produces a newsletter Il Draino (recent issues included details on forgotten public bomb shelters), cryptic stickers to be left in drains, tunnels, alleys, phone boxes, etc., and 'virtual graffiti', that is, material left on web-sites hacked into by clansmen.

Art connections

In some ways the graffiti subculture resembles the art scene glimpsed in a crazy mirror. The ever-present rivalry, the inflated jargon, the urge to get compositions on all
available wallspace, the desire for supremacy over one's peers - it's all concentrated there in miniature.


Even identifying artists by their nicknames is not unknown. After all, Tommaso Guidi has entered art history as 'Bad Tommy' (Massacio), Domenikos Theotokopoulos as 'The Greek' (El Greco), Barberelli as 'Big George' (Giorgione), Jacopo Robusti as 'Little Dyer' (Tintoretto), Domenico Garguilo as Mike the Knife' (Micco Spadaro), and Angelo Cosimo as 'Master Bronze' (Bronzino).


Despite similarities, graffiti is conducted according to different ground rules. There are no teachers, curators and critics who train, pick and push talent along a defined career pathway; there is not the slightest possibility of receiving public acclaim or an income for one's efforts; and while graffitists can suffer much for their art, their main fear is neither poor reviews nor neglect, but abrupt arrest followed by criminal conviction. Several kings have spent time in prison for graffiti offences.


Of course, assorted artists have been long been interested in, even influenced by graffiti in its diverse forms. Overseas figures including Antonio Tapies, Jean Dubuffet, Joan Miro, Alberto Burri, Cy Twombly and the Cobra painters, and in Australia, John Olsen, Mike Brown and Howard Arkley, have used graffiti-like notations in their works.


Inspired by New York trains, the early 1980s even saw an impressive roll call of artists (including Mirka Mora, Clifton Pugh, Les Kossatz, Merrin Eirth and Sandra Leveson) painting murals on the sides of Melbourne trams.


It has not been a one-way influence either. While they are viewed with suspicion by their peers, a cluster of the better writers have attended art schools, indeed, several leading Perth writers are graphic design graduates. Some Sydney and Melbourne practitioners have found work in design or architecture ('Panic', 'Akeem 2', 'Puzzle', 'Duro', 'Apex', 'China', 'Sumo', 'Index', 'Lemon', 'Duke', 'Flick' and 'Mesk'), while 'Kangol' was an assistant at Heide gallery.


Such writers have introduced a level of visual intelligence into the idiom, sometimes producing more historically-aware pieces. The art of the Middle Ages is often visually quoted in their graff, certain writers having a passion for such work.


For instance, 'Castle', 'Sacred' and 'Sole', devotees of Celtic design, made trips to Canberra's National Gallery to scrutinise The Book of Kells (likewise, the ig8os Bronx writers, 'Ramellzee' and 'Little Angel' studied Gothic manuscripts at the New York public library). Such writers can use elements from Gothic and Islamic decorative arts in pieces, although the allusions are not always Mediaeval.


The Cave Clan's 'Bob' uses an adroit biomorphic-abstract idiom indebted to English surrealism (his forms recall Roland Penrose, Julian Trevelyan and Yves Tanguy). All
the same, graffiti has quite a way to go before it is accepted on the art scene. There have been a smattering of shows at assorted galleries (City Gallery, Span, Sydney's MCA, Meatmarket Craft Centre, even the NGV's access space). And, of course, 'Bo-Zone' set artists gossiping in the mid-ig8os when, using a template, he notoriously sprayed his enigmatic tag outside every respected contemporary art space in Melbourne and Sydney.

But no major writer has been taken into the stable of a dealer. Not that this has happened overseas either. If the 1980s saw Bronx graffitists including 'Futura 2000' and 'Phase 2' exhibiting in Soho, while 'Crash' and 'Daze' joined the prestigious Sidney Janis Gallery, within five years they had all been dropped.


Art can be anything in the age of postmortem pluralism - except, it appears, for graffiti.

Rebels or conformists?

Despite the indifference of the art scene, exalted claims have certainly been made for the genre.


As early as I974 the American essayist Norman Mailer praised graffiti as the 'manifestation of social freedom' by the disadvantaged, a view reiterated by the British sociologist Dick Hebdige in his 1979 book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 'Graffiti can make fascinating reading,' Hebdige wrote. 'They draw attention to themselves. They are expression of impotence and a kind of power, the power to disfigure.'


But it is probably the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, in the catalogue for MoMA's celebrated show High & Low: Modern Art & Popular Culture, who has made the grandest pronouncements. Recent railway graffiti is, he insists, the 'maddest excesses of Barcelona modernists ornament' meets Disneyland.


For Gopnik, every piece represents 'modernism made into a folk culture. It is the expression of an independent group of makers who had set themselves off from their own society, and began a highly structured competition to one-up the last man... The subway writers [have] absorbed what had become by the late 70s the commonplaces of modernism as they had eated the entire culture...'.


Such sentiments suggest that spraycan graffiti has been the most Photo Tom Gascoigne. accomplished visual language of the 20th century's fin de siecle. Yet this is hard to swallow if you've actually looked at much of it. Those highly appealing decorations of screaming colours, intertwining letters and hypnotically gaudy forms are the exception, not the rule.

For every talented writer there are a dozen mediocre crews coating walls with 1970s Oldstyle bloated letters, not to mention innumerable scribblers who deface all possible surfaces with illegible marker pen scrawls.


The uncomfortable truth is that much graffiti is a drab, ugly mess. Little of it jumps above the level of wannabe Science Fiction illustration or Schoolboy Surrealism which has been jazzed up with shiners, drop shadows, 3D effects, scrolls and other rudimentary signwriting tricks.


Why is graffiti still so artistically undeveloped? Because the upcoming writer is locked in a situation in which the forms and conventions of his craft are so established that they obstruct creativity. Dull uniformity is enforced, with writers of mediocre ability seeing it as their duty to obliterate works that stray from a narrow path - for a brotherhood of self-styled non-conformists, most graffitists are vigilantly conformist.


Many teen writers also have no higher aspiration than to produce provincial copies of famous New York pieces (often by 'T-Kid' and 'Skeme'), some even borrowing the names of their Brooklyn idols. The cultural cringe undeniably prevails in graffiti circles.


Given that mimicry occurs so widely, it is no surprise that real innovation is reviled. This is where the graffiti subculture differs most from the art scene. Unlike artists, the average 'new school' graffitist has no respect for masters of the discipline, and will habitually spray his or her own hamfisted efforts over works that are either too technically proficient, or stretch the parameters of the genre.


Indeed, one crew, the infamous CTSA (City Transits Slashing Art), has for over a decade exclusively defaced major pieces by overpainting them with the ineptly sprayed tags 'Womble', 'D-Man', 'Joker', 'Barbie', 'Gumby', 'Spit' and 'Penguin' spiced with obscenities and swastikas.


Teenage writers may deplore CTSA, but most of them nowadays copy its behaviour whenever they target a wall. Innovative pieces are destined for rapid erasure - no wonder graffiti has been unable to change and evolve.

Art of the Canyons

Spraycan graffiti exists in a peculiar state of contradiction. Most writers want their idiom to be publicly recognised as an art form, but the same writers hold it back by censoring the talented few who buck the rules.


Add this to the facts that graffiti is illegal, that most of it is hidden in those inaccessible urban canyons and caves, and that the subculture is dominated by immature youths, and it is not remarkable that dealers, curators and critics have been slow to respond to the movement. They just do not get to see strong, mature work.


Still, anyone who is prepared to spend a few hours clambering over rusty fences and sneaking along railway lines is sure to be rewarded. Seasoned writers such as 'Demote', 'Tame', 'Puzzle', 'Duel', 'Sheam', 'Diddle', 'Paris', 'Duke', 'Bob' and 'Castle' have generated works of visible talent, skill and imaginative flair.


It is surely just a question of time before considered research into graffiti commences, and its contribution to Australia's visual culture is appreciated across the broader
art scene.

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