New York in the 1970’s was radically different to the Big Apple we know and love today. The unexpected decline that began a decade earlier had reached its nadir. Regular strikes pushed the economy closer and closer to bankruptcy, yet the men at the top continued to indulge in spending. The rest of America had given the city up as a lost cause.
Crime was rife in its streets. Those who usually got to work via the subway chose to walk instead; the trains were not only unreliable, but dangerous as well. Murders and muggings were a part of everyday life - who could stop the offenders if the police were corrupt as well?
The people lived with an attitude of resentment and cynicism. Some took refuge in alcohol. Some took refuge in drugs. Others took refuge in graffiti.
Tagging first entered the scene via the New York subway. Train carriages and abandoned buildings became the hubs of vandalism. Suburban gangs caught on to the new trend, using tagging as a form of territorial marking. At first, tags were simple: unruly, black scrawls that were optimised for speed, not visual appeal. The realisation hit home that to stand out, to show off, taggers had to do more.
And so, the graffiti “throw-up” was born. An elaborate version of a tag, “throw-ups” combined bright, contrasting colours with big, blocked lettering.
The graffiti movement (as it was called) spread through America like wildfire, spawning a number of different styles: stencil, slap-up, bomb, and piece are a few among the many. Artists began to take advantage of this new medium, and elaborate spray paintings soon replaced tags. Soon the movement took the world by storm, and quickly reached Australia. By the 1990’s Melbourne was recognised around the world as a street art capital.
Today, a short stroll through the CBD’s alleyways would take one past a multitude of colourful graffiti pieces. Take the famous Hosier Lane, for example. It was part of an ingenious government project, one that legalised graffiti in specific areas, in an attempt to lift the bland atmosphere, and provide graffiti artists with a chance to spray while still abiding with the law.
Many prominent international street artists have contributed work to Melbourne’s streets. Perhaps the most renowned of the group is Bansky, an England-based artist best known for his satirical stencil art and politically directed activism. Though he had a couple of pieces around the city, none remain today: they were removed because they were deemed vandalism as opposed to street art.
Banksy is known for his contempt of the government in labelling graffiti as vandalism. Although many of his works are visually similar to tagging, they often display an important underlying message. He aspires for graffiti to become an instrument for communication, for activism, for protest - and he’s not the only one. But where do we draw the line? The debate on what defines street art from vandalism has raged on for decades.
Should laws be stricter? Should we legalise it altogether?
The great problem that the government is faced with is a circle of death. Its similar to the “should we make alcohol illegal?” question - it will inevitably lead to more people breaking the law, more people in prison, more people desperate for alcohol. And so it continues.
Regardless of the laws that restrict graffiti, artists will continue to spray. Their desire for personal expression will prevail. Over the years it has become widely accepted in modern society. Street artists are now being seen as antiheroes rather than criminals. Some are looked up to as actual artists. Does that make graffiti right, though? I think it’s up to the individual to decide.