The pretty, realist images, often described as “aerosol art” in an attempt to distance them from unauthorised street art and graffiti, are marked by a kind of same-ness, driven by what is most photographable and most appealing to mass consumption. A lot of pretty women grace the walls of Hosier Lane. They show off the ability of the artist to create representative work, and when photographed and shared on social media, serve to further their careers and reputations. They look a lot like the images used in marketing campaigns everywhere. They grab our attention, we admire the skill of the artist, but they don’t have a lot to add to discussions around art and the social condition.
Nor do they present any great challenge to the law, our social systems or the status quo. By declaring that they support street art and condemn “graffiti” – the definition of which ultimately hinging on whether the work is “unwanted” – Melbourne City Council makes a value judgement that suits its own agenda, co-opts a degree of artistic enthusiasm and skill for its own purposes in furthering tourism, and throws to the wayside many artists who contribute to the same culture, with arguably more important things to communicate.
Not since artist Adrian Doyle painted nearby Rutledge Lane blue has there been anything nearly so interesting take place there. Importantly, that piece was authorised by Melbourne City Council, in contrast to the weekend’s fire extinguisher piece, but served a similar function in critiquing the nature of art, street art, the question of value or our relationships to public space. Doing a similar thing without authorisation is a more powerful critique of the co-option of street art and the market-centric politics that inform much of our public policy around street art.
I realise I’m in the minority when I say that I love the overlapping layers of tags on vacant buildings near my home and that I think unauthorised street art is one of the most compelling signs of democratic action. Public space is something we all have to live with; whereas a tiny minority have the authority to dictate how it should appear.
The process of tolerating, even encouraging, some art in public spaces but then calling on the force of the law when it doesn’t fit the particular sensibilities of a property owner or title holder just demonstrates how fickle the City of Melbourne’s support for street art culture is. As for the latest iteration of Hosier Lane, bloody marvellous Melbourne!
Erin Buckley is a Melbourne-based lawyer and academic who occasionally moonlights as an artist.