High time for heritage street art

7 August 2012

In this opinion piece Justin Trendall, chair of printmedia at the Sydney College of the Arts, welcomes the City of Sydney's recent initiative to create a register of significant works of street art, including graffiti.

Several months ago a sub-standard work of art appeared on the walls of my apartment block. I was irritated. Especially as it was accompanied by the whine of skateboard wheels and some drunken shouting at 2am. As an artist and lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes for a good work of art. Too much time, probably.

The graffiti sprayed on my wall didn't impress me. The colour was wrong, the design nondescript and the calligraphic execution clumsy. For me it was one more example of an aspiring artist going into exhibition mode without realising they hadn't fully mastered their chosen medium, or quite worked out what they wanted to say.

But when it comes down to it, most arguments about graffiti aren't really about its artistic merit or otherwise. At the heart of the debate about street art are questions about who owns public space and how we collectively regulate it. My irritation at the tagging of my apartment block had less to do with the inferior quality of the art than my belief that tagging homes without their inhabitant's permission isn't right. And I'm pretty sure a majority of people feel the same way.

At the heart of the debate about street art are questions about who owns public space and how we collectively regulate it, writes Justin Trendall.
At the heart of the debate about street art are questions about who owns public space and how we collectively regulate it, writes Justin Trendall.

Which is why those behind the City of Sydney's plan to create a register of important street art (as a first step towards future heritage listing) must have expected a mixed response to their initiative. It's easy to understand how some people might view the idea as a gesture of surrender. Isn't this the same council that spends so much time and money cleaning up graffiti?

Personally, I like the idea. Why? It's an initiative that shakes the debate up a little and gets people thinking about street art in a fresh light. Street art has developed in interesting ways over the past decade, but the public debate has lagged behind. Sure, it might seem a bit odd to have heritage ambitions for something as intentionally ephemeral as street art - but the word 'heritage' is being asked to cover a lot of different things these days.

I like this initiative because its shifts the debate in a more positive direction. It's a gesture that acknowledges the idealism, ambition and effort hidden behind many works of street art. As an artist I'm biased. Looking around the walls of the inner city I see so much creative energy on display I can't help feeling something good going on; that this is a cultural phenomenon on its way to somewhere.

Which brings me to the main reason I like this idea of creating a register. Let's face it, street art is getting old. It's now a cultural phenomenon replete with its own history, its own heroes and its own mainstream profile. Look at the amount of press the 'accidental' removal of a Banksy stencil received. It's a global movement that, after 30 years, is showing no sign of slowing down or going away.

To be sure, it's an area still fraught with contradictions. It might well be true (as opponents claim) that a majority of today's street art is still of the illegal variety. And most of it is about nothing more than marking territory. But there's no doubt something is slowly shifting in the culture. In the inner city it's the legal sites that are setting the tone, those spectacular large scale pieces that result from ad hoc private agreements between street artists and local businesses, home owners and councils.

Alongside this consolidation process, centred around the growth of these semi-permanent 'legitimate' murals, the inner city has also witnessed a spectacular resurgence of the subgenre. Over the past decade stenciling, wheat-pasting, stickers, and guerilla knitting --forms of street art more closely associated with social activism and poetic wit than with claiming territory -- have emerged.

Mixed together in the crowded confines of inner city suburbs these different genres of street art, legal and illegal, minor and major, are beginning to make their own collective sense. The original impulse to simply leave your own mark in a public space has grown and spread to become an elaborate tapestry of different ideas and artistic styles. It is this sense of something happening spontaneously in public space that has attracted the attention of urban planners worldwide. Trying to engage with the ongoing evolution of street art is starting to make more sense than attempting its eradication.

The question of street art's legitimacy has always been closely connected to the larger problems of modern urban space itself. Despite the best planning intentions and a wealth of architectural sophistication, modern cities still seem strangely disheveled; admixtures of different architectural styles, advertising hoardings, abandoned buildings and new construction sites. Once the crowd dies away they can often appear slightly bleak environments lacking in human warmth. Street artists have always been quick to use this as an excuse for their transgressions.

It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see a potential fit between these two long term problems: between the illegal and unruly exuberance of street art and the personality bypass many city spaces seem to suffer from. There have been many attempts to fix these problems before. Why not try something new?

Watch an interview with Justin Trendall discussing significant works of street art in Sydney in this Sydney Morning Herald video.

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