Newcastle City Council voted on March 16 to close down the South Newcastle Beach legal graffiti wall. This is Newcastle's sole legal graffiti wall. The only vote against the motion was from Greens councillor Michael Osborne.
The three ALP councillors at the meeting jumped on the anti-graffiti, moral-hysteria bandwagon being led by Liberal councillor Brad Luke. On ABC radio the morning after the vote, Luke said he would also like to see the skate park adjacent to the wall removed and that he believed the area was "an ugly stain on our foreshore".
Funnily enough, the announcement comes as construction of a large block of apartments, by the developer Mirvac, nears completion. The apartments are 200 metres from the graffiti wall.
Newcastle Resistance screened the classic 1982 graffiti and hip-hop film Wild Style two days after the council's announcement. The screening had been planned for weeks and aimed to give an introduction to hip-hop and graffiti culture.
In Newcastle at the moment, it seems any cranky letter writer who wants to call graffiti "mindless vandalism" and make patronising suggestions that artists "graffiti their own homes" automatically have their letters published in the Newcastle Herald.
The Herald has waged a campaign against graffiti since 2008, when Newcastle MP Jodi McKay and Lord Mayor John Tate began calling for the skate part and graffiti wall to be shut down.
Their first push to close the skate park and wall coincided with Mirvac starting work on the apartments. A community campaign successfully stopped the closure. It is now needed again to save the legal graffiti wall.
The film screening took on new meaning when we heard news of the decision to shut the wall. Several artists turned up, as well as supporters of the skate park and wall. The film was followed by a discussion about how to wage a campaign to ensure graffiti artists still have legal spaces to practise their art.
Several people raised the "gentrification" of the east end of Newcastle — the plan to turn it into a "retirement village" or "pensioner city" for "financially comfortable people". People noted that efforts to shut down nightclubs and cut the train line were part of this broader gentrification agenda.
Well-known music and paint seller George Patsan is closing his Hunter Street shop Patsan Dance Music Specialists due to constant harassment from authorities — also because state laws allowing police to fine people $2000 for carrying aerosol paint cans have basically cut his trade in paint in half.
The discussion after the screening also raised the difference between Newcastle and some other cities. In Melbourne, which seems slightly more culturally enlightened, graffiti is viewed as an asset to the city, with tours being offered of its rich, colourful, art-filled alleyways.
For now, the anti-graffiti zealots on council have had their way. They will proceed to spend vast amounts of money and labour ensuring any graffitied wall is rapidly returned to a proud and inspiring shade of beige.
And they may well have a bit of work on their hands, having just shut down the only legal wall. Perhaps at some point it will dawn on the council that graffiti is part of any modern city and should be embraced and respected.
The provision of sufficient legal graffiti spaces, and youth workers to run them, is key to creating an environment where artists feel respected and valued by the community, rather than being made scapegoats for — or distractions from — other infinitely more serious problems.