Culture //

Conversations with Strangers

George Campbell and Toni Whitcombe examine the art that surrounds us.

A subcultural introduction

As you drive through the streets of Sydney, you’ll notice brief flashes of spray paint across walls and buildings. Sometimes, there won’t be any colour, merely unassuming black scribbles stretched over impossible-to-reach parts of the highway. Other times, it’ll be a meticulously painted alley with neon pink letters 6ft high and not a speck of paint out of place. But, if you look hard enough, you’ll start to see some familiar patterns, shapes, and names appear, like easter eggs for the avid admirer. These are the basics of the graffiti subculture that has gripped the world since written language was invented.

Graffiti is a subculture that heavily impacts our cultural fabric and creates a rich tapestry of voices and beliefs often ignored and neglected by those in positions of authority. Because it’s seen as ugly or as vandalism, it is usually dismissed as an illegitimate form of expression, constantly at threat of being removed. But that’s all part of the fun. Graffiti propounds the idea that anyone can have a voice in our cultural landscape. It rejects the status quo of artistic intent. It contradicts the notion that art has to have a purpose, as well as the idea that only authorities have the power to record history and leave behind remnants of our current culture.

There are three fundamental forms of graffiti art that anyone walking through the urban landscape can identify: Simple Tags, Elevated Pieces, Posters and Stickers. Each has its own unique impact on society.

Images: Aries tag and piece in the Western Distributor and on King St, Newtown. Captured by George Campbell

Tags represent a public voice in the urban landscape. They challenge the idea that the only voices that should be remembered in history are those recorded in historical records and academic documents. The whole idea of tagging is essentially just leaving your signature in as many places as possible for other people to see. It almost becomes a game, trying to find the most outlandish and visible spot to tag. You start to see the same names and tags popping up everywhere (Pork, away, flora, nardis, busta, ratal, gasp, lanke, dolce, soul, sour, etc.). Tagging shows the spread of individuals across the city, and highlights the interlinking paths of individuals. Tags can act as an artistic footprint, allowing the viewer to physically follow the same route as the artist. You can walk up Parramatta road, following the same tag all the way to Marrickville, and then come across another tag you’ve seen before which will take you all the way back to Uni. It also shows how the built environment shapes the lives of individuals, with certain buildings like bridges and other highly visible public structures being key targets for tagging.

Then we move onto elevated pieces. These pieces are typically more complex than tags, with a variety of colours, much larger letters, and an assembly of fonts being used. They are typically more “artistic” and challenge the ideas around the purpose and nature of art. Large scale pieces that use multiple colours are often meticulously planned out, down to the precise strokes needed to create a letter. This is an art form in itself, following the same principles as tagging but on a more developed and complex scale. Subsequently, this subculture heavily impacts our cultural fabric and creates a rich tapestry of voices and beliefs that are often neglected by those in positions of authority. 

Image: Gasp piece in Glebe. Captured by George Campbell

I think that it doesn’t even necessarily need any meaning. At the end of the day, many people engage in graffiti just because it’s a fun and risky activity. It attracts people because of the hectic adrenaline rush. The beauty of something like graffiti is that the whole world is your canvas and you can do whatever you want with it. If you want to project your voice and your opinions somewhere for everyone to see, you can. If you want to show off your artistic skills in a way that would rarely be recognised in a traditional setting (like a gallery), you can. If you just want to do it because it’s fun and you get a rush, you can. Graffiti art is a medium that takes on whatever purpose the user gives it, and that’s what makes it such an alluring subculture.

Image: Unknown tag in Paddington. Captured by George Campbell

Wiping Away Exteriors

I wearily yank my headphones out for the third day in a row, only just remembering that I have yet again forgotten to charge them before work. As my bus wades through King St’s Wednesday morning traffic, my eyes instinctively take me window shopping. This is when I spot the first of many wheat-pasted posters in Newtown, perched amongst signs advertising sales on clothing, shoes and various accessories. 

A crow, foretelling the inevitable death of capitalism, stands over a call to “EAT THE RICH!”

A bothered passerby stops to retort: “Some of these people were probably rich. Try to offer respect to your ancestors…” and hurriedly scrawls a family tree to assist them in their explanation to the street artist. 

Another individual walks past, blots out “rich”, and transforms the statement into: “Some of these people were probably POOR.” 

A final stranger plucks a red marker out of their bag to cover the family tree with “FASCISTS!!!” 

Image: Wheatpasted poster in Newtown. Captured by Toni Whitcombe

Together, these interactions demonstrate that by providing both artists and audience members with a sanctuary where they can temporarily become no one and anyone, graffiti art facilitates intimacy between strangers who will never identify one another and may never converse with each other again. 

The ability to detach oneself from who you are in your everyday life can be highly rewarding — individuals engaging with graffiti art can plunge into the activity of re-imagining themselves and what the world could become if they were unimpeded by harmful perceptions and expectations that others weaponise against them, such as the endless characterisation of graffiti art as a destructive act. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, it must be deterred as it “[endangers] human lives, [increases] fear of crime among the old and the underprivileged… and [generally lowers] the quality of life in our communities.”

Image: Wall in Camperdown Memorial Park. Captured by Toni Whitcombe

However, a brief glimpse into our current laws (or lack thereof) surrounding the protection of queer people shows that the Australian Government is merely concerned with an image of freedom rather than actual quality of life.

For example, in New South Wales we have no legislation in place which bans conversion practices. Unlike the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill, Scott Morrison has dismissed conversion therapy as “….ultimately a matter for the states” to prohibit and has propounded that the federal government “should focus on things we actually have control over.” 

When living under a government that paints over visible signs of human suffering and respects private property more than the wellbeing of its people, it is hard to know how to respond. It is hard to remember that our streets are art galleries and our communities are curators. We decide which artworks stay (and are put back up after police remove them), just as we have the power to collectively decide which artworks (and political values) will be taken down. 

Image: Wheatpasted posters along King St and Enmore Rd. Captured by Toni Whitcombe

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