Legalise the 'art of the underclass'

November 25, 2009

As reported in Green Left Weekly previously, the ALP New South Wales government has tabled new anti-graffiti laws. The proposed law will punish children caught with spray-paint cans without a "legitimate reason" with up to six months jail.

But rarely do politicians mention legal graffiti walls.

A Google search reveals that the greater Hunter region is home to about 20 art galleries. However, the region is home to only two legal graffiti walls: the south Newcastle beach wall and a small wall at Wallsend in the city's west.

Sydney, which is home to roughly 10 times the population of Newcastle, has a similar ratio: a Google search reveals about 100 art galleries in the greater Sydney area.

Yet the city is home to just ten legal graffiti walls.

Graffiti is such a popular art form that its "epidemic" scale supposedly warrants new police powers and Orwellian surveillance networks.

However, designating certain walls as legal spaces for artists to practise their art free from fear of jail and huge fines is off the menu. Why? Is there a shortage of walls?

Paintings which come in frames, abstract art and sculpture apparently all warrant the presence of galleries; soccer, netball and cricket players are provided with designated spaces for their sport; so why is graffiti, an art form so popular it can be seen on walls in any big city on the planet, not worthy of legal walls?

It's because graffiti is the art of the underclass. To give it legitimacy is to concede that graffiti is art, not vandalism; and that those who practise it are people, not criminals.

Demonising graffiti artists is like demonising refugees. It seeks to divert attention from more serious matters: like global warming; a poor public transport system; the decaying of the public education and healthcare systems; or the privatisation of electricity.

The south Newcastle beach wall employs artists to keep the space tidy, to give workshops and familiarise new users with "the agreement" (rules). Artists who respect the agreement are provided with free paint; those who don't can be banned from using the wall and denied free paint.

But calls for more legal walls have fallen on deaf ears. The local council can't seem to comprehend that the south Newcastle beach site is overloaded; that it is the only legal option for many artists of various skill levels, and that as a result pieces are often painted over and a culture of respect for the best works is hard to establish.

Hopefully one day we will live in cities where the walls are adorned by colourful graffiti art; and this art will be seen as an asset, not something to be ashamed of. Melbourne's laneways have started taking on this character.

In the meantime, graffiti artists must endure the ridiculous chest-beating of politicians and police who think they can somehow keep every blank surface in the state blank — as if that were something to be proud of.

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