Exploring Melbourne's Street Art Scene

You'll get to know a whole other side of Melbourne on a tour of its street art scene

Blender Studios’ street art tours offer a different perspective of Melbourne. Picture / Supplied

There’s a Louis Vuitton purse just sitting on the windowsill on a busy Melbourne street but anyone attempting to make off with it might struggle.

Artist Will Coles, who created the tempting concrete “fake” is known for his super-glued street art sculptures of TVs, hamburgers and other consumer goods — items many are happy to use then throw out (although you might think twice before tossing an LV purse.) We’re midway down Hosier Lane in Melbourne, metres from the door of the MoVida tapas restaurant.

Someone has sprayed ‘F*** off’ over the door but the owner thinks it’s great, says David Russell, a photographer and former street artist (and self-confessed vandal) who grew up tagging and decorating some of these streets.

As one of the guides working the Blender Studios’ Melbourne Street Art Tours, David gives an insight into a side of Melbourne well away from the glossy shopping malls and art galleries for which the city is celebrated.

There are pockets of Melbourne where street art isn’t just tolerated, but encouraged, thanks to willing local businesses. Hosier Lane is one. On this sunny Melbourne afternoon, it’s heaving with visitors, iPhones at the ready, keen to capture everything from the Aboriginal face to the lone artist spraying his moniker on the wall, a fine mist of red filling the air.

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David loves that there are no red ropes or security guards on hand to protect the art. It’s open to the elements, not to mention the creative whims of other artists, and the attitudes of the disenfranchised.

It explains why he’s not entirely against a piece of real vandalism — although who’s to define what that really means? — when he spots a lone tag on the side of a bank. “I love tags. To me, the banks are the ones defacing the city.”

Alongside the cruder tags around Melbourne are large-scale artworks and community messages, arguably far less anti-establishment than the city’s founding artists, but no less popular. These days, the world’s top street artists can make up to $1000 a day on commissions.

Rather than painting over some of the less desirable graffiti, the council will pay a top tier street artist like DV8 or Heesco to create an artwork; their work commands such respect people tend not to tag over them.

David concedes the street art is “prettier” than it was in the early 80s when he was part of a collective known as the Frantic City Bombers. Back then the Melbourne scene was all about “exposing the ugly issues: the plight of refugees, war, politics . . . It’s the most revolutionary art movement since Cubism.”

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That’s not to say you won’t find politically motivated street art around Melbourne today. It doesn’t take long before we spot a painting of a refugee with the word ‘Welcome’ written above it, part of a social movement started in the street art world to hit back at racism.

Then there’s Lushsux’s searing take on narcissism: a huge replica of the infamous Instagram selfie of Emily Ratajkowski and Kim “Kartrashian” as David calls her, their bare breasts obscured by black markings. Whether you call it feminism or slut-shaming, there’s no doubting the street art scene is largely dominated by men.

David estimates just 10 per cent of the street art community are female. Not far behind Hosier Lane, an Asian woman is spray-painting as a small crowd gathers. She’s the only female street artist we spot during the two-hour tour.

As we progress through the busy Melbourne streets, our tour turns from the street art to the city’s history. David points out that the wide streets were created to accommodate the cars, trams and horse-drawn carts in the 1930s.

Next we pass through the art deco Manchester Unity Building with its elegant mosaic tiles and the first escalator in Melbourne, its lift featuring its original wood panelling. Just around the corner is Melbourne’s smallest coffee shop, and around the corner from that, one of Melbourne’s 90-plus laneways that have been around for 100 years.

Finally we wind up in Blender Lane, home to the street tour’s organisers, the Blender Studios. The tour ends with a much-needed refreshment stop for drinks and nibbles — and a chat with founder Adrian Doyle.

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In 2000, aged 22, Adrian set the space up as an artists’ hub which soon become the intellectual heart of the early Melbourne street art scene. These days its 14 open studios are still used by working artists whose work is displayed throughout: there are paintings everywhere, workbenches cluttered with detritus, sculptures and screen prints in progress.

The studio still feels underground but the Blender Studios were instrumental in helping street art to go mainstream and commercial. In 2004, the National Gallery of Australia acquired a large selection of stencil work for its paper collection. Several of the studio’s alumni — Roh Singh, Anthony Lister, Louisa Jenkinson — have gone on to international acclaim in the contemporary art scene. The tour helps keep the studios open.

Tomorrow another group of visitors will get an insider’s perspective of Melbourne’s street art scene, a world they might have otherwise have only glimpsed down an alleyway.

• Rebecca Barry Hill flew to Melbourne on Virgin Australia and was a guest of QT Melbourne.

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