Guerrilla painters in Melbourne’s Hosier Lane expose our hypocritical ideas about street art | Art and design

On Saturday evening, a balaclava-clad group descended on Melbourne’s famed Hosier Lane carrying fire extinguishers and weed sprayers filled with paint. In a few minutes of havoc, they obliterated a significant portion of the existing murals for which the area is known.

Footage of the incident spread rapidly and many people were quick to decry what they saw as the desecration of a beloved Melbourne landmark. On Monday, the lord mayor of Melbourne, Sally Capp tweeted about the event, simultaneously acknowledging that the work in the lane was “temporary, ephemeral and forever changing”, while also asserting that the action of the group was “not in keeping with the spirit of Hosier Lane”. A Victoria Police spokesperson said they’d launched an investigation into what they called “vandalism of artwork” describing it as an “attack on the street art … that forms the fabric of the city of Melbourne”.

Aside from the irony of a police investigation into the application of graffiti over graffiti-style murals, it raises the question as to whether or not we’re comfortable ceding the decision of which forms of artwork have cultural worth to Victoria Police (for the record, I’m definitely not). While I don’t think the destruction of the work in Hosier Lane is appalling, Victoria Police waxing lyrical about the cultural fabric of the city while historically pursuing jail time for graffiti offenders is.

Much of the conversation around the perception of so-called vandalism in Melbourne is centred on a dichotomy between “street art” and “graffiti”. In this view, street art has cultural sanction and graffiti is criminal. It’s worth noting here that much of Hosier Lane is painted regularly without the permission of the building’s owners – and therefore illegally – regardless of the content of the work. A tag is no more or less illegal than a full-colour mural if both are applied without a property owner’s consent.

Where the distinction between graffiti and street art should be drawn is in the intention behind the work. Street art aims to engage the viewer in its immediate proximity, which is why so many murals feature instantly recognisable tropes. Among them, pop culture references, anthropomorphic animals and recognisable portraiture (one of the pieces covered in Hosier was a realistic mural of US musician, Lizzo).

Graffiti, on the other hand, exists to serve an insular audience of those who are versed in its stylistic history and lore. As teenaged graffiti writer Skeme observes in Style WarsTony Silver and Henry Chalfant’s 1983 documentary about the birth of hip-hop – “l don’t care about nobody else seeing it … It’s for me and other graffiti writers.”

This closed-fist tradition is, in part, why graffiti has evolved into a culture in and of itself, complete with a rich history, distinct aesthetic styles and a language that’s understood by its practitioners globally. By way of contrast, street art is a byproduct of the wider culture of the city that houses it – it cannot stand apart or distinct from the city because its effectiveness is defined by mass appeal. In the case of Melbourne, this is a culture of endless suburban sprawl, rapidly rising housing costs (it’s not uncommon to see people experiencing homelessness sleeping in the doorways of Hosier Lane), and the banal monotony of more than 184,000 Instagram posts tagged #hosierlane.

The group spraying over graffiti art in Melbourne’s Hosier Lane. Photograph: Twitter/@SimoLove

In this context, the erasure of a glossy tourist trap via the obliteration of made-for-social-media murals is an inherently radical reclamation of public space. Particularly in a city that has actively commodified this environment and uses it as a means to promote the cultural identity of Melbourne as a tourist destination for those wanting to experience “creative ambience”.

Modernist painter Jackson Pollock was engaged conceptually with paint’s capacity to express dynamism and movement. When it’s most effective, graffiti functions in a similar manner. Each line of paint records the kinetic energy that’s transferred from hand to surface. Within this framing, the recent events at Hosier Lane can be recast as a dramatic intervention-based piece of coordinated performance art – far more dynamic and interesting than another mural of Lizzo. Particularly one that decorates the exterior wall of a retail shop that’s unironically called “Culture Kings”.

It’s worth considering, too, that the NGV International is currently exhibiting a summer blockbuster retrospective of the work of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. While these late artists’ contributions to culture are venerated now, both engaged in forms of vandalism throughout their creative careers: Basquiat in the form of prosaic observations painted in the street under the SAMO moniker he shared with Al Diaz, and Haring in the ephemeral subway drawings that resulted in his arrest on numerous occasions.

As visitors to the NGV – many of them tourists undoubtedly coming from the nearby Hosier Lane – enter the exhibition, they’re greeted with screens showing footage of both artists at work in the streets. While these videos are historic documentations of vandalism, it’s the context of a museum – of course – that defines them as art.

Sean Irving is a writer, connoisseur of vandalism and semi-professional opinion-haver from Melbourne, Australia. Previously, he was editor of Acclaim magazine

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