Over the last few years, much has been made of graffiti’s rise as a critically accepted movement with real mainstream popularity. The likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey have long since grown from underground heroes into genuine pop-culture icons, to the extent that Banksy recently directed an opening credits sequence for The Simpsons; meanwhile, traditional art collectors embrace what is becoming an increasingly profitable street-art market.
This past September saw Armadale’s Metro Gallery achieve something of a local high-water mark. Their On The Wall exhibition featured some of the world’s best-known street artists (the ubiquitous Bansky and Fairey included) and marked the first time that originals by certain artists had ever been shown in Australia. But while the show opened to unprecedented hype, the reaction within the street-level community was less than uniformly enthusiastic. Amongst this crowd, there is a palpable feeling that as the general public jumps on the bandwagon and collectors scramble to find the “next Banksy”, a disparity is growing between popular success and genuine community credibility.
“I went to ‘Melbourne’s most significant street-art exhibition’ the other night and nearly vomited,” says Bailer, a member of Melbourne’s ID crew. “A lot of the most successful ‘street artists’ have done hardly anything in the street – it boggles my mind. Just because it looks street doesn’t mean it’s [street] art.”
While the chance to make money from their passion isn’t scoffed at, artists like Bailer worry that the greed which inevitably piggybacks onto the creativity of others risks creating an environment whereby graffiti artists are rewarded more for self-promotion than for hard work and innovation. In a movement dependent on radical, counter-culture ideals for its lifeblood, this poses a real problem.
“It’s good that there is the opportunity to make a buck from your art, but it’s not your art that you’re selling,” Bailer argues. “It’s your name. It seems that these days any average cunt [can] spend six months sticking up posters then bam! Certified, cutting edge, next big thing, trendy haircut, expensive paintings: street artist!”
According to many active artists, the critical recognition currently bestowed on street art through mainstream commercial galleries tends to overlook the fact that the graffiti scene extends well beyond stylistic considerations alone. Graffiti is outlaw art. Apart from the odd commissioned wall, street art remains illegal. This outsider mentality has nurtured a full-blown culture, with its own expectations, pressures, norms and values. Another local mainstay, Dirtee, has no doubt: “[Graff] definitely attracts a certain element, certain characteristics,” he says. “A lot of people think they build a rep by violence,” agrees fellow ID member, Snuf. “This a big thing in the graff scene.”
Bailer agrees wholeheartedly. For many, graffiti is a “full contact sport,” he says. It’s about “whose dick is bigger? I’m up more than you. That’s my spot. I’ll take it back. You capped my piece? I’ll slash your work. I’ll cut your face.”
For these artists, who have spent dozens of years building their credibility in the scene, the popularly gentrified portrayal of the graffiti culture insults by failing to convey what they feel is its true identity. For the first time, recognition provided from outside the scene itself risks eclipsing the medium’s tradition.
“Writers can now do a couple of panels, some walls, a little bit of bombing and slap it on the net,” says Ling, another prominent local artist. “Do that enough and suddenly everyone is saying they're smashing everything and that they're a king.”
While Snuf concedes that growing access to wider forms of promotion through mainstream channels was always likely to lead to such an outcome, he nonetheless laments that it’s “frustrating to see people who really know nothing about the whole scene and have no emotional attachment to it exploit it”. For many, mainstream exposure has come with a high price. “It has, in my mind,” concludes Ling, “diluted what is required to achieve genuine respect in the graff scene.”
Bailer is typically less diplomatic. For him, despite their best intentions, many who “champion the cause are usually fucking clueless to the scene. In the words of my friend Mayo, they are the butchers, we are the meat.”