Books

Melbourne Street Art From the Artists’ Point of View

Street|Studio: The Place of Street Art in Melbourne, by Alison Young, Ghostpatrol and Miso, Thames & Hudson, 2010

Alison Young is a lawyer and a professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia, but don’t let that intimidate you. She has also extensively covered the Australian street art world, writing and teaching on the “intersection of law, crime and culture.” In Street|Studio: The Place of Street Art in Melbourne, Young works with street artists Ghostpatrol, Miso (Stanislava Pinchuk), and designer Timba Smits to create a book that documents the culture of street art in that Australian metropolis. From introductory essays to photo spreads to in-depth interviews with artists about their work and the role of street art, Street|Studio covers everything you’d want to know about a city’s scene in a way that few other street art compendiums manage to accomplish. Beyond its excellent good looks, this is a surprisingly informative volume.

Artist and writer Miso kicks off Street|Studio and positions the book in an investigative role, interrogating the boundary between street art and fine art, the context of the street and the context of the gallery. “Street art could be said to be the first distinct artistic movement of the 21st century,” Miso writes, and in a way, this is true, street art does represent the most coherent “style” or “school” of today. But within this broad category of “street art” there are a range of conflicting definitions and expectations. Miso, along with Young and her fellow authors, are working from the artists’ perspective to determine what street art means in Melbourne. This sets Young’s book apart from other street art collections, Wooster Collective and Taschen’s Trespass prominent among them, that fail to present an adequate context for or critical perspective on the work they publish.

Al Stark's artist page in Street|Studio

In her own essay, “Art on the Threshold,” Young traces a history of street art in Melbourne that stays firmly grounded in a careful analysis of the past. Young doesn’t separate the idea of “street art” from the city’s history of graffiti, wall-painted slogans or even architectural growth, and it is this awareness of a greater background that gives the book its intellectual heft. It’s not that street art just appeared in Melbourne overnight, Young explains, instead, it was an evolution from earlier ideas of tagging that developed into a citywide interest in stencils as the dominant street art form of choice. Young depicts this growth, citing artist Vexta’s Stencil Revolution website, as well as See-Saw events in which street artists traded work and street art gallery spaces like Early Space as keystones of the Melbourne street art scene. It’s a fascinating inside view into a community that would have remained closed to us otherwise.

Young then continues on to Melbourne street art’s move into galleries and museums. This “legitimization,” she points out, doesn’t mean that all street art now existed in legalized spaces. The scene was now diffused across venues and spaces, ranging from public tags to private commissions and everything in between. This diversity becomes apparent with Street|Studio‘s series of artist interviews that follows the initial essays. The interviews provide an excellent chance to get a visual cross section of Melbourne’s artists, but the questions posed by the writers are probing. What does it mean to be a street artist here? How does your work tread the line between fine art and street art?

Ghostpatrol's artist profile in Street|Studio

I guarantee you will not know all of the names present here. I was particularly impressed by Niels Oeltjen’s engagement with traditional patterns and his ability to weave the abstract into the figurative. Tom Civil’s work tends toward the political and he adopts corporate and governmental iconography to critique those same bodies. Ash Keating’s sprays of paint look like waves crashing over the walls they occupy. Miso and Ghostpatrol, contributors to the book, also get their own profile pages. Ghostpatrol’s twee sensibility and quiet draftsmanship really appeals to me, while Miso’s old babushkas and paper cut outs look a little too much like Swoon for me, though granted it has a definite art nouveau touch.

Street|Studio‘s greatest value lays in its intellectual engagement with ideas of street art and its on-the-ground reporting of how artists think of their own work. I could have used more essays like Young’s, texts that provide a historically-grounded analytical approach to Melbourne’s street art. But the book is nonetheless a fascinating trip through a city’s visual culture in a slickly produced and beautifully printed package. Alison Young also writes at her blog, Images to Live By. Be sure to check it out for more reporting from Melbourne’s art scene.

Street|Studio: The Place of Street Art in Melbourne is available through Amazon.

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