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Criminalising Capital? Anti-graffiti initiatives in Victoria

June 29, 2012

In a recent poll conducted by renowned travel publisher, Lonely Planet, Melbourne’s street art was voted Australia’s top tourist attraction. The City of Melbourne agrees that street art is “…highly valued by many members of the community as well as visitors to the city” and “has become an attraction for local and overseas visitors”. In official discourse there have been attempts to differentiate street art from graffiti; street art is said to refer to sanctioned work, “larger and more artistic” styles, whereas the term graffiti often refers to unsanctioned work that is regarded as less artistic. However, the boundaries between street art and graffiti are difficult if not impossible to locate. Works that are afforded legitimacy are often completed by graffiti artists using skills learnt through illicit practices, and graffiti can be granted legitimacy in official and popular discourse. Interestingly, at a 2010 press conference discussing the accidental erasure of a stencil by famous graffiti artist ‘Banksy’, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle suggested the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ graffiti was not legal, but aesthetic, as there were instances when “it is not an approved site, but it is a recognised work that we should do everything we can to try and protect”.

While the state recognises the cultural (and economic) value of street art (and somewhat unofficially graffiti), in attempts to curb graffiti practices the Graffiti Prevention Act 2007 was introduced in 2008. Certainly the pre-emptive elements of the legislation – the reversal of the burden of proof and presumption of innocence – has enabled policing and prosecution of graffiti, but has it changed the nature of street art and graffiti in Victoria? Anecdotal evidence indicates that a fear of being caught has not curbed graffiti practices but that instead of completing ‘larger and more artistic’ works graffitists are more likely to practice ‘quick’ forms of graffiti, in particular tagging. Similarly, photographic studies conducted since 2008 affirm a decline in stickers, ‘pieces’, stencils and sculptural styles of graffiti. Setting aside personal perceptions of graffiti, it is worth considering how anti-graffiti initiatives might have impacted on graffiti/street art as a commodity.

Bridget Harris

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