Melbourne – aka ‘Burn City’ – is internationally renowned for its street art and this new book by Lou Chamberlin explores artwork across the city by both international and local artists including Adnate and Rone. The square, hard-cover book is arranged thematically with The Face, Social Issues and Abstraction among the themes. The final chapter, Same Wall New Paint, highlights the ephemeral nature that is street art by documenting the evolving artworks appearing and disappearing on the same over several years. We chatted to Lou Chamberlin about what makes good street art and Australia’s emerging hotspots.
You’re an artist and arts educator yourself. Can you tell me about your artistic practice?
I had a very happy career teaching art to high school students. I loved their enthusiasm and their willingness to learn. I knew that to maintain my own arts practice at the same time was nigh on impossible, but I’ve taken it on with gusto now that I’m no longer in the classroom. I paint and draw every day and love the creative discipline
You’re previously written books on street art, also focusing on Melbourne, but also Australia more broadly and the international scene. What has driven you to document street art in this way?
Living in Melbourne and seeing the wonderful colour on the previously grey walls of the city first piqued my interest. After spending years visiting galleries so that I knew what was ‘happening’ in the world of art. I realized that there was so much happening for free, out in the streets. It’s all so democratic and joyful! It wasn’t difficult to swap commercial gallery visits for street art ‘missions’.
Street art is ephemeral in nature. Is there an element of publishing these books simply to capture art in its time and place?
That’s one element – capturing the ephemeral quality of the art. But it’s more than that. It’s also a celebration of the creativity and skill of so many artists. They used to work on the streets anonymously, but now most artists openly acknowledge their identity. Some also exhibit in galleries but most simply add another dimension to the bland walls of our cities and neighbourhoods.
What makes good street art? Is it a medium you’ve explored yourself?
For me good street art speaks on a personal or cultural level. It touches us somehow, either by resonating with our idea of beauty or by encouraging us to think or question our values. There’s an enormous amount of scope here!.
Yes, I have played with a few ideas for walls, but currently I’m making art that is more personal than public.
What drew you to street art in the first place?
One day, it just seemed to be there. A critical mass was reached and the new images on the walls invaded my consciousness. It was almost a ‘catch your breath’ moment. That street versus gallery revelation.
Aside from Melbourne, can you tell me about some of Australia’s other emerging street art hot-spots?
Artists seem to gravitate to Melbourne because it’s such an active scene, but they also travel to festivals and events outside cities. Juddy Roller Studios has organized and curated a number of events, such as the Wall to Wall Festival in Benalla. There are a number of enormous silos painted in regional areas around the country, including the Silo Art Trail that stretches across northern Victoria, and silos in South Australia and Western Australia. In Queensland, Brisbane, and especially Fortitude Valley, is home to some terrific artists and their colourful walls. And there are some absolute gems in Toowoomba.
It’s a controversial medium. Our city has a zero tolerance policy to graffiti and comes down hard on illegal art. If you were driving policy change in this area, how would you do it? How would you balance the whole tagging / graffiti issue, with other forms of street art? Are there cities in the world which do this really well?
That’s an enormously difficult question and unfortunately I don’t have an answer. The divide between graffiti and street art is very fluid and ill-defined, but very real for all of that. It even exists on the street, where taggers deface street art murals. It’s difficult to know how to support one while avoiding the other. Melbourne hasn’t solved the problem, either at a local government level or a personal level between the artists – some walls last only a matter of days before being defaced. The best locations I’ve seen for respect are in Scandinavia, especially Norway. Murals remain pristine, only at the mercy of the elements, and tagging just isn’t a problem. Cities with street art festivals seem to be the most energetic in attracting artists and local support from residents, businesses, and councils and at the same time not encouraging taggers. Perhaps the answer is hosting more festivals – encouragement rather than punishment.
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‘Burn City’ is out 1 December via Hardie Grant Travel and retails for $29.99.