The Street Art Debate: Sydney Versus The World

By Kathryn Adams

Street art is a powerful realm for expression that many cities of the world have recently accepted. It only takes a train ride through Germany to understand its increasing presence in this modern world.

While we used to learn about our predecessors through wall-carvings and ancient ruins, we now transfer messages between cultures and generations through street art and graffiti, which represent the temporal, fleeting way of life we call modernity.

Aerosol cans become the storytelling medium of our present, chronicling political turmoils, popular culture and the myriad of people that live together.

So why is something so powerful and so useful criminalised in Sydney?

Does zero tolerance of graffiti by the City of Sydney Council really achieve anything?

From what we can see, it simply increases the inner frustrations of an already frustrated youth culture, and creates unappealing vandalism and crime where there wasn’t crime before.

It is interesting to compare the benefits of legal graffiti zones and high tolerance to Sydney City and its harsh crackdown. 

Street art of the world

In Western Europe, with its rich cultural heritage and dramatic historical events, street art and graffiti is used to express political views anonymously. It provides average citizens whose voices are often unheard, with a medium to peacefully vent their frustrations or beliefs.

The remains of the Berlin Wall epitomises the use of street art as political expression. Each panel contains some kind of past or present political expression, and no expression is ever overshadowed by anyone else’s. Everyone has a space to promote their point of view in front of millions of people every year. 

Venice Beach in Los Angeles is another example of a successful street art zone. Permits have allowed artists to create murals around the busy walkways, using politically-charged artworks to increase cultural tourism to the area. On the weekends, inexperienced youth artists who come looking for a place of expression are informally mentored on the skills and techniques of established artists. 

These youth learn what it means to respect someone else’s space and to share their art in a legal yet satisfying way. Frustration and the need for rebellion becomes obsolete.

Melbourne’s urban scrawl 

In our own country, Melbourne has led by example, not only nationally but internationally as well.

The City of Melbourne conducted research, which found, unsurprisingly, that most people do not like illegal tagging. Many people however, do appreciate the political pieces and murals that come from street art in locations where permission is granted.

The Council responded to the views of the community with their Graffiti Management PlanThe Plan distinguishes between the need to remove unwanted graffiti in illegal zones, and permitting street art if property owners are willing.

Consequently, a positive relationship was formed between Melbourne City Council and graffiti artists. The Council has helped to shift street art and graffiti from a negative paradigm to a positive one, where the artists are not seen as trouble-making vandals, but opinionated individuals. 

A recent example of this was when Hosier Lane was lit up with an overpowering mural in remembrance of Jill Meagher. This artwork was “beautiful and captured the Melbourne’s community’s sentiment and mood in this mournful period”, according to Hosier Lane website’s journalist.

In return for the Council’s tolerance, the artists respect the rights they have been given and bask in national and international fame. Tourists roam Hosier Lane and its surrounds daily, always with a camera in hand and a willingness to embark in conversations with the artists. 

Blue Mountains street art

The Blue Mountains, a region west of Sydney, has also recently adopted a positive, decriminalisation approach to street art and graffiti. As a low crime area, the region’s biggest concern is vandalism. The following approach exemplifies how a community can band together with its council and aim to make a difference purely for the good of its people.

In 2011, its success was recognised by a western Sydney community sector award and made into a book, bringing fame and recognition to the artists who made it work.

The Mountains Youth Service Team (MYST), a not-for-profit project, provided an outlet for youth to express their inner turmoil and the political viewpoints they often feel go unheard.

Artworks can be seen all over the city of the Blue Mountains, on toilet blocks, bridges, walkways and train stations. It creates an atmosphere far from the hostile one felt when members of the nearby western Sydney community wake up to graffiti on their back fences, left by frustrated youth pushed to publicise their work illegally. According to Jarrod Wheatley however, the BMSAC has come back successfully “only because the Mountains community accepted the project”. 

Sydney’s frustrating no-graffiti policy

In stark contrast to the Blue Mountains and Melbourne, the city of Sydney’s zero tolerance approach simply frustrates the members of its community.

Phibs”, one of Sydney’s most famous graffiti artists, who has gone from wanted criminal to being featured in art galleries, disagrees with the government’s approach. In comparison to Melbourne, he believes Sydney’s underground and illegal graffiti, plastered all over public buildings and houses, is “symptomatic of artistic youths starved of an outlet for their work”.
He strongly believes that “legal walls will reduce the criminal element, allowing a safe avenue to produce high quality art”.

This safe avenue has been supplied in cities all over the world and even in our own country. Most notably, the BMSAC has provided an outlet for frustrated and unrecognised youth, in a western Sydney region notorious for juvenile crimes and unappealing graffiti.

It is only a question of when Sydney City will recognise that art is a central part of society and the expression of frustrated young street artists is worthy. 


This article was originally published part of Vibewire’s 2013 serial issue, SPACE FOR THE ARTS. 


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