Political censorship and an ice-cream truck: 140 street artists take over Melbourne warehouse | Art and design

“Watch out, there’s a bit of wet paint going on here,” warns Can’t Do Tomorrow’s founder and co-curator, Kent Johnston, as he shows me around the warehouse. Artists on ladders are painting on the walls around us, as wires hang from the ceiling. A scissor lift is beeping in the background.

Two weeks from when we meet, the space will be transformed: the event, which opens today, is a festival of street art stretching across three floors of a giant old building in Melbourne’s inner-west suburb of Kensington.

The scale is ambitious. More than 140 artists are involved, including headliner Shepard Fairey – the US artist behind Barack Obama’s Hope poster – as well as Australian artist Callum Preston, French artist Lucy Lucy, and Badiucao, the ChineseAustralian political cartoonist who has been at the centre of several recent censorship spats. There’s music events, a custom-built print store and a talks program curated by the Los Angeles screen director and curator Aaron Rose (Beautiful Losers).

Even the transport authorities got involved: in collaboration with Southern Shorthaul Railroad, a freight train becomes what the organisers call “one of the largest moving outdoor galleries in Australia”, with artists including Merda, Sirum 1 and Kab 101 taking over the 22 carriages which will be roving through Victoria, with sporadic stops in the warehouse.

Artist George Rose’s work in Can’t Do Tomorrow. Photograph: Michaela Dutková

Michael Peck’s work in Can’t Do Tomorrow

Michael Peck’s work in Can’t Do Tomorrow. Photograph: Michaela Dutková

Street art festivals require big spaces and walls that can be transformed – for the most part, they take place in buildings that are about to be demolished, or renovated: “They get one shot and they’re out,” Johnston says.

But reprieved from immediate demolition by a negotiated lease with its property developers, Johnston and artistic director Zoe Paulsen have the Kensington place for four years. This 10-day festival is just their first venture, which aims, in Paulsen’s words, to give street culture “the recognition it deserves”.

Paulsen’s comprehensive program brings together some of the leading names in Australian street art across thousands of square metres of exhibition space.

Work by Ruskidd

Work by Ruskidd. Photograph: Michaela Dutková

Once Preston saw the warehouse – “just how epic and big that space was” – he seized the opportunity to wheel in his own ice-cream truck. “I guess it’s almost like an unintentional collaboration; I want to work with an existing object.”

He came across the 1976 Bedford Mr Whippy van while walking late at night with his wife and two friends. “We saw it in this big old shed and my friend said, ‘I guess we’re buying this, then!’”

The truck oozes the kind of feel-good retro sentimentality that Preston, a prominent figure in the Melbourne street art scene, has become known for.

The scene is often thought to be masculine, marked by more than its fair share of exclusion, but Can’t Do Tomorrow has a pleasing amount of diversity on display, with large pieces from noted female artists including Georgia Rose and Lucy Lucy.

Lucy Lucy’s work in particular is a breath of fresh air in what can sometimes be a convention-bound genre. Her graceful work combines a feminist sensibility with the kind of crisp expressiveness that has made street art such a popular movement post-millennium.

Lucy Lucy

‘We are making space for ourselves,’ says artist Lucy Lucy, of the burgeoning female street art scene. Photograph: Shannyn Higgins

“I wanted to paint something about the bushfires,” she says. “The lady I painted, there are very graphic flames, very stylised lines, but she is celebrating or worshipping a little sprout … you gotta be positive, you know?”

Originally from Paris, Lucy Lucy has been in Melbourne for nearly a decade, drawn here by the internationally renowned street art scene. She says often, while she’s out painting, people will stop to ask if she knows the names of other artists featured around them. “It’s quite incredible … people take ownership, it’s their streets as well.”

Lucy name checks Georgia Rose and ELLE – “she’s pretty big in America” – as leading practitioners of a burgeoning female scene in Melbourne.

“There is a group of women street artists who are painting so many amazing things and are really pushing it,” she enthuses. “We are really doing something big and interesting and bold and making space for ourselves.”

Can’t Do Tomorrow is also a celebration of street art’s political roots – not just in capitalist streetscapes where property rights are considered sacrosanct, but in more repressive societies.

Badiucao is one of the most active artists working in that long tradition. After his last exhibition in Hong Kong was banned by authorities there, Badiucao is bringing Made in Hong Kong, Banned in China to Melbourne for its first proper showing.

Badiucao brought work that was censored in China to Can’t Do Tomorrow

‘The installation pulls no punches’: Badiucao brought work that was censored in China to Can’t Do Tomorrow. Photograph: Michaela Dutková

Badiucao’s work in Can’t Do Tomorrow

Badiucao’s work in Can’t Do Tomorrow. Photograph: Michaela Dutková

The installation pulls no punches. Overtly political, it features graphic representations of torture apparatus, including the notorious “torture chair” favoured by Chinese authorities.

“I do believe there is a social responsibility for artists,” Badiucao says over a phone call which he requested be encrypted for his security. “As an artist, we have certain powers. Our work will influence people’s emotions. We have platforms like galleries, festivals, art critique. When people and artists do not shine a light on the most urgent issues, I feel it’s a waste of time, I feel it’s too selfish.

“When some artists will insist that, you know, ‘art is for the sake of art’ – I feel this is bullshit. This is simply denying the very responsibility of being an artist.”

Can’t Do Tomorrow runs until 29 February at The Facility, 2R Chelmsford Street, Kensington, Melbourne

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