MELBOURNE, Australia — Empty cans, bits of plastic, wire, and wood are common sights in city streets. Some of it is very familiar, like the bottle cap embedded in the tarmac out the front of my neighbor’s house that has been there for years. Graffiti, wheat-pasting, and stencils are a common sights in the inner city streets in Melbourne, Australia. Then one day I walked into a little street in Melbourne’s inner city suburb of Fitzroy and saw the two combined staring at me — street art sculpture made of junk with the tag: Junky Projects.
Since then I have been seeing these faces with increasing regularity. They look like the street art equivalent of Dada sculptures or those of the post-war San Francisco sculptor, Art Grant. Made of drink cans, bottle caps, tin cans, tape measures, a leather glove, a leather belts, plastic straps, plastic lids, plastic bottles, and scraps of wood that had all been found on the streets. The only new materials used are the nails.
Sometimes they are looking down from poles, other times they are hidden away in alleyways, mixing in with other bits of street art; bottle cap eyes stare out from the space between buildings. The faces appear friendly but worn. Parts of them might rust but they don’t decay and the accumulating, anthropomorphized junk haunts the city.
Junky Projects was a game changer for visual tagging, tagging by using an image rather than text, both in the media and the meaning. But the Junky Projects aren’t adding aerosol spray paint to the street, the rubbish comes from the street and it is being returned to the street transformed and “up-cycled.” In common with other forms of tagging the junk men form linear trails marking where the artist has travelled. The visual tag becomes a logo that identifies the artist but Junky Projects builds his brands recognition recycling other branded items. There is an aspect of naming and shaming the companies that produce stuff that litter the streets by nailing it up again.
There is always a mystery with street art as to who the person is behind the name and the art. The first appearance of the junk faces in Fitzroy, a suburb with a known connection to heroin lead some people to imagine that Junky Projects was a female heroin addict. Junky Projects couldn’t be more different, a large ebullient man with no history of opiate addiction but a penchant for novelty sunglasses and a degree in graphic design.
“Once that I got on to the Junky Projects thing and realized that I was actually using a lot of the skills that I’d learnt at university doing graphic design — all this branding and all of this marketing. I’m put my guerrilla marketing out there and getting people to recognize the brand, becoming familiar with the brand and then become loyal to the brand but it is for good instead of evil,” Junky Projects told me. “It is not where I’m trying to sell people shit, it is getting them used to the idea that garbage is not a good thing. There is so much of it. I’m trying to get some good out of it.”
“I guess that I realized after awhile that as a graphic designer you are sort of part of the problem rather than the solution, you are part of the evil forces that’s working to sell people shit that they don’t need, sell people chewing gum in new cans because it was a better way to have them,” he said.
We had been talking about the chewing gum tins that he was using in some of his figures. “We are inventing new and improved ways to create more garbage everyday.”
It is hard to create art with a political message about the environment and consumerism that actually engages people before they get the message. But Junky Projects engages all types of people from the hardcore graffiti artists, to educators, and little kids. His junk pieces invite discussion about garbage, consumerism, and recycling, so much so that a photo of one of his street works was included in this year’s New South Wales Higher School Certificate art exam. The statement with the image read:
“… analyse the ways in which the artworks represent and comment on the world.”
The work also appeal to younger kids, and I’ve heard of the tale of one newly arrived family whose children felt less alienated by their new home as a result of these “junk bugs,” as they called them, around the streets.
“I know that I’m hardly a dent in it but it is not about how much garbage that I turn into art; it is about the number of minds that I turn from this consumer bullshit, the amount of people that I convince to not being so wasteful,” he said.