COLUMN: Melbourne street art is a unifying agent for people in the city


Some may regard it as an indication of a pending criminal invasion, while others regard it as an art form. Nevertheless, graffiti reflects the artistic essence of Melbourne.

Despite the State of Victoria’s zero-tolerance policy toward defacement of property, graffiti seamlessly melds into the urban district. The presence of graffiti is neither indicative of class nor violence. Murals appear less than 100 feet from both a homeless shelter on Smith Street and an Hermés store on Collins Street. Rather, the individual pieces, though lacking cohesion at first glance, meld together to give Melbourne its vibrancy. A casual stroll down the streets turn into masterful explosions of colors, imagery and sometimes, oddity.

The street life of Melbourne encompasses several parts of the city’s experience. The city is known worldwide for its livability. The place is a mass gathering of contrarians, expressing its art in a variety of mediums. The most common art form is graffiti, and images on corridors are usually large-scale, imaginative murals that captivate passersby immediately.

Though the main streets receive the highest scrutiny from law officials, leaving them free from wall art, the graffitied alleyways keep the vitality alive. The distinct role that graffiti plays in characterizing the city makes it an attraction, especially for visitors. One heavily impacted space, Hosier Lane, changes almost monthly as artists scramble to showcase their work to a new batch of onlookers.

The street art reflects the accepted eccentricities of the public; it follows the anything goes attitude of the city that celebrates its hidden gems and livability. The murals of Mike and Sully from Monster’s Inc. are located not far from a tapas eatery that similarly incorporates the street art in its interior as well as in its fusion food. Several cafes on pedestrian streets maintain the graffiti elements in the shop, incorporating tags and throw-ups — quick graffiti art — on tables and walls and music to reflect the chaotic, yet organized, nature of the urban art.

Nowadays, a common trend in the street art scene is yarn-bombing — the use of yarn to cover objects in public space. Trees, tram signs and poles blocking off the entrance to facilities are victim to the knitters who impressively create perfectly sized cozies for infrastructure.

The murals and freestyle pieces in corridors create new forms of public space. Cafes and brasseries respond to the artwork, setting up chairs and table service at the street center. The process occurs in almost every laneway, creating a socially constructed public space where people can experience the artwork while enjoying a coffee with friends. There is almost a Parisian-like culture of people-watching, but in Melbourne the culture revolves around experiencing the vitality of art that takes form in a variety of ways in the street.

Street art fuses seamlessly with those who walk the street itself. Melbourne is a city of experimentation in several realms, fashion being one of them. Platform shoes — even Converse —  layering of clothing and sometimes the occasional Hello Kitty ensemble can be seen in the city. Denim on denim and wild piercings are all acceptable, as the then-fringe brings in the new fad in the city. Individualism and originality are what are truly in style.

Street performers breathe life into the art walks. The predominant form of expression is music, ranging from a man singing “Jolene” at a major intersection —  Swanston and Bourke Street —  or a revived multi-colored punk couple sitting at the corner of a laneway, with seven inches of graffiti on the walls, asking for money claiming they are “too ugly to prostitute.” In front of the state library, a drifter with a kazoo the size of a python holds a music battle with a young student who decided that strumming chords on the guitar was too conventional; he flips the guitar on its back and settles in creating a dual-instrument harmony.

The streets are truly a place where the city comes to life. The multiplicity of languages buzzing through the air, the electrical wiring lining the sky in CBD gives a small jolt when trams hit an intersection and the occasional vagabond trumps down the street demanding attention. The city is highly walkable, but the free tram zone helps alleviate what would be almost uncountable foot traffic as over 4 million dwell in the city.

Architecture across the city expresses cutting-edge identities; buildings with common facades oozing green slime, skyscrapers with windows alternating between primary colors and carbon conscious office buildings covered in rainbow pixels, are all commonplace elements. Through designing buildings, architects join the street artists in painting the landscape of the streets. Though high-rises are primarily concentrated in and around the CBD, the eccentric characteristics of design travel throughout the districts.

The street is where a life in Melbourne is truly lived.

Nika Shahery is a junior majoring in international relations and planning, policy and development. Her column, “Aussie Adventure,” runs every Thursday.