Melbourne’s street art history is mysterious, with New York roots and a variety of works that break both sides of the law.
The 1980s – the birth of street art in Melbourne
Street art finds its roots in graffiti, a hardcore underground movement that arrived in Melbourne in 1983. While local graffiti writers aimed to show their style and dedication through the volume and difficulty of their unsolicited public work, it also had a fun and political side – often expressed in a massive way.
Perhaps the most famous local example is New Yorker Keith Haring’s 1984 mural at Collingwood Technical College in Collingwood (now the Collingwood Arts Precinct). This reflected Melbourne’s growing appetite for vibrant public commissions, such as Mirka Mora’s underrated mosaic masterpiece in the St Kilda Rd concourse at Flinders St Station in the CBD, lining the outside of Clocks restaurant.
The 1990s – Street Art is innovative
A grander look had emerged in street art by the 1990s as lettering was fused with conventional illustrative art techniques. A collaborative project by Prahran Station yielded a groundbreaking artwork called The Style Machine by Duel, Mars and Pest: a three-story mural featuring an environmental message depicting the city as a nuclear apocalypse, as well as lettering that changes style as it passes through a conveyor belt is guided. The area has since grown into a series of apartment blocks. At the same time, writers such as Puzle and Merda renewed the art form of writing, with the recent Puzle artwork ‘Letters of Relevance’ on Evans Lane in the CBD showing just how far letter design has come.
Launched in 1996, the famous Citylights project merged the ephemeral with the enduring by installing lightboxes that were free to view throughout the day in various locations – one of which was quickly becoming the nation’s street art mecca, Hosier Lane. Citylights attracted international heavyweights such as Los Angeles’ Shepherd Fairey, whose recognizable work adorns a wall of Colonel Tan’s restaurant at Revolver Nightclub, and Paris-based Space Invader, who decorated Melbourne with several pixel-tile mosaics, some of which survive, below others on Princes Bridge northeast corner.
The 2000s – the birth of Banksy and stencil art
In the 2000s, a unique cast of flashy characters emerged across the city. Artists like Phibs and Reka populated Melbourne with a cast of counterculture creatures. Phib’s 2015 mural of a psychedelic bird is on the corner of Perry Street and Smith Street in Collingwood, but Reka’s paste-ups from that period have all but disappeared due to the fragility of the paper.
As characters expanded the popularity of street art, innovative materials were introduced — like fire hydrants blasting up several stories of paint used by artists like Ash Keating, whose recent 2021 Chinatown Response Painting features fiery splashes of yellow and red the walls of a building spray empty lot at 138 Little Bourke St, CBD – currently the location of Darkfield’s immersive shipping containers.
Stencils boomed, influenced by the cultural juggernaut Banksy. Melbourne became the stencil capital of the world, in part due to Prism’s now-defunct stencilrevolution.com forum, which acted as an international marketplace, and art collectives such as Blender Studios and the Everfresh Crew. Artists like Meek used stencils to spread political and anti-capitalist messages, eschewing the macho bravado of graffiti culture.
Street art has also spawned institutionally recognized visual artists, like Stanislava Pinchuk (aka Miso), who cut her teeth in Melbourne’s back streets, then was collected by NGV and the Louvre, and now works on data-generated war commentary. But graffiti writers like Jisoe still maintained an anti-authoritarian worldview that championed illegal tags, as shown in Eddie Martin’s cult documentary, which highlighted the tensions in the life of a graffiti purist.
The 2010s – from the street to the gallery
In 2010, the National Gallery of Australia held its own exhibition that cemented street art into the cultural canon along with space invaders. Questioning whether street artists were vandals or avant-garde, the show traced the transition from street art to fine art galleries. These included figures like Aeon – now Tom Gerrard – whose mustachioed faces populate public spaces on both sides of the river. His latest mural graces the corner of Barry Street and Chapel Street in South Yarra.
Mic Porter’s career was similar. Its hysterical characters tower over train tracks while gallery works sell out due to high private demand. A true historical example of Mic Porter’s heads, on an unusually small scale, can be found on the roadside on the east flank of St Kilda Cricket Ground.
The 2020s – street art today
In recent years, with the rise of social media, street art has enjoyed mainstream acclaim and is now considered a benchmark of urban beauty. Humor has a newfound currency, and Lushsux’s vociferous face changes – say, The Rock’s face on Shrek’s head – are everywhere. But in a scene once male-dominated, artists from diverse backgrounds populate today’s roster.
George Goodnow (aka Goodie) fills the corner of Tattersalls Ln and Lonsdale St in the CBD with a contemplative work, Bending Brick, which brings a peppy and dreamy softness to the otherwise somber corner. Aurora Campbell’s pink and red suspension of provocative hands gives Ella Laneway the feel of an international design capital, transforming the mall’s dated red highlights into a setting for her commentary on evanescence.
Melbourne’s street art scene is taking over more public walls than ever, but the distinction between street art and graffiti is still hotly debated. No matter which side you take, curiosity and ephemeral beauty are at the core of all street art. Here in Melbourne we are fortunate to have it all.
RECOMMENDED: Find the best street art in Melbourne here.