Time Out Sydney

Graffiti: is it art? Is it vandalism? Time Out takes a journey through the inner west to discover Sydney's spray-can songlines

There's an invisible line that cuts through Sydney's inner west: a border  unmarked by maps. It's a hot zone of seething energy where two great tides smash together and whose epicentre can be found in Newtown. This district of coffee grottoes, struggling shops and paint-peeling clubs marks the fizzing seam in which the old blue-collar inner city meets the middle classes and the suburbs.

It's here that you'll find a collision of all the disparate traditions that make up one of the planet's oldest art forms - graffiti. To walk the backstreets and alleys that slither out of Newtown and into Erskineville and St Peters is to hurl yourself through an explosion of creative mayhem that's unrivalled in any other part of the state. If you don't know what you're looking at, it can seem as if you're being dragged through a nasty soup of tags, slogans and cartoon grotesques that, at any moment, might come alive and rob your socks at knifepoint. Which is, perhaps, why it's best to do the tour with local luminary, passionate apologist and all-round graffiti-genius Chris Tamm.

It starts, inevitably, in an alleyway. Round the back of an old theatre there's an official notice that screams ‘WARNING: Protected by Yates Security' and features a picture of an angry dragon doing ‘fierce face' at approaching attackers. The wall around the sign, though, is a mocking carnival of jagged tags, crazy eyeballs and indefinable spray-can mushes. There's also a cloud with a face on it that's been cut from paper and carefully glued to the bricks over the top of the fire escape door. Where was Mr Yates and his attack-dragon when that happened?

"That's called a paste-up," says 39-year-old Tamm, noting my interest. "They're becoming more and more popular. There's about ten guys in Sydney that do these giant A0-size characters all around the city."

As you might imagine, the ‘paste-up' people are traditionally born of the suburban middle classes and don't get too much respect from the working-class purists who stick to aerosol ‘writing', which can take the form of anything from tags to those huge multicoloured, bulging legends that look like Elton John's glasses but come straight from the very un-Eltonesque streets of New York circa 1982.

"People who are into writing don't like paste-ups because there's not a lot of risk involved," he says. "Someone who spends $1,000 on paint and does it in public puts themselves at more risk, so they'd disrespect someone into these. It's not about art, for them, it's about risk."

The popularity of this type of spray-can graffiti can be traced back to a very specific time, place and person. His name is Taki183 and, in the very early 1970s, he was a foot courier in New York City. At the time, graffiti was an obscure phenomenon, used by political activists to whinge about naughty governments and drug gangs to mark territory. Taki, though, did it simply because he liked seeing his name all over the place. Not only did he tag streets but - vitally - he concentrated on the city's subway system, whose trains rattled through the five boroughs, shouting his strange name at hundreds of thousands of mystified citizens daily.

Despite the fact something similar was happening in Philadelphia at the end of the 1960s, it was Taki who was responsible for the calamity of aerosol scrawls that was soon to descend upon western world, when The New York Times tracked him down and published an interview called ‘Taki183 Spawns Pen Pals'. Within a year, a pox of tags had descended upon Manhattan. It was to prove immediately and internationally infectious.

Like all the best ideas, though, this one wasn't American - they just made it shallow, self-aggrandising and annoying. Graffiti itself is as old as written history. Humans mark their emergence from the kingdom of the animals into their unique sphere of self-aware thinking by the arrival, 40,000 years ago, of paintings on cave walls. One of the earliest known illegal scrawlings, however, can be found on a wall in the destroyed Roman city of Pompeii. It's a penis. Elsewhere in the ruins are preserved political slogans, declarations of love and literary quotes.

"I think, at its best, graffiti is altruistic," says Tamm as we turn into a mossy causeway of garage doors and kaleidoscopic murals. "It's about making a place look better."

"What does that say?" I ask, pointing to a tag that looks like it's accurately charted the death throes of a poisoned fly.

He looks at it for a moment.

"I can't actually say," he says. "To be honest, I think a lot of tagging is like a dog urinating. People just walk around drunk with a marker pen. According to criminology reports, most taggers are 18 and stop as soon as they're old enough to get in serious trouble. But there are people in Sydney who are in their forties who have been tagging since the 1980s. There are graffiti grandparents out there who encourage their kids to do it. But that aside, I do see some really nice tags sometimes and I do appreciate them more and more. If they're done well, the idea is that it's one simple, elegant line that looks effortless. It's like Japanese calligraphy. But, of course, for some people it's just about coverage and quantity."

We wander into the park. Whereas my eyes scan over the beautiful old walls and see merely a blizzard of rage, Tamm immediately spots something ridiculous, charming and strangely brilliant attached to the bricks, mere inches from the gutter. It's a felt elephant wearing a tutu with huge boggly eyes. Then, nailed to a lamppost, an owl made out of old rusty cans.

"That's by Junky," Tamm says, indicating the tin bird. "He's not from Sydney. There's a lot of work around here by people who aren't local - Germans, Japanese, people from interstate. That can cause problems. For a lot of people it's very local, and they don't like the idea of people coming from elsewhere and graffing up the area."

Tamm goes on to say that belonging to the graffiti community is like "being a member of a secret society. We're like the freemasons of the new millennium. To some people it is just about conflict, though. These different style tribes," he says, motioning to the fuzzy elephant, some writing and a painting of a large cartoonish female, "they don't see eye to eye. A lot of graffiti is very political. It's about feuding with each other. People fight and struggle for territory. There's plenty of walls in Sydney, but people will fight over the same spots again and again and again."

This city, he says, is dominated by a particularly old-school ‘style tribe'. "Sydney is especially into traditional 80s graffiti, which is the writing. They'd consider themselves purists," he says, adding, "It's much more boysy here than Melbourne, where there's more female artists."

The cartoons are called ‘character art'; the bulbous letters, ‘pieces' (short for ‘masterpiece'); and the simpler unfilled-in words ‘throw ups', not because they're psychically reminiscent of pavement vomit, but because they don't take much time.

"That would take probably four or five seconds," he says, pointing to an illegible splat that's been excreted in a shade of dismal blue onto the noble antique wall, "whereas a piece might take hours and hundreds of dollars."

We stand and look at the wall in silence for a moment. I read some of the graffiti out loud.

"Sluts 4 Life," I say. "Luke Hates Ginger."

There's a silence.

"Yes," he says. "Aesthetically, I don't like the look of this wall. But as a place where people can voice their opinions, I think that's a good thing."

We leave the park and enter a grim boulevard of locked garages, rusted drains and fugitive sofas, past lots of stencils that Tamm recognises, having been a popular stencil artist himself for over 20 years. Known as ‘Konsumterra', his interest in graffiti comes from a source that's generally less well acknowledged by the public. Hip hop and punk are, of course, one psychology divided by two cultures, so it's no surprise that the latter also has a rich tradition of illegal public art. The 1970s punks, though, were less interested in territorial fisticuffs and becoming celebrities in their own ghetto, and more with political subversion.

"I did political, hoax posters for ten years," he says. "Mildly subversive nonsense or parodies of ads. I did some very targeted political things against specific candidates. It was character assassination, really."

Most recently, Tamm's been spraying stencils of ibises in Egyptian hieroglyphic style, partly influenced by his degree in archaeological relief art but mostly as a response to Marrickville council's current Ibis Management Programme, about which he's passionately anti.

And then, we see something spectacular: a 15-metre long refutation of all those that might dismiss graffitists merely as talentless, property-value slaying spray-goblins. It stretches the entire length of a long wooden fence and features three words rendered in purposefully illegible ‘wild style' text (it looks like SMISH SMIK RORCH) between which are angels floating on sunbursting clouds, the virgin Mary cradling her baby martyr and what could be Moses, Jesus or even God himself poring over some portentous-looking leather-bound books. The whole piece has the effect of making this dreary street, which is eroded with the soul-blanching-rot of inner-city neglect, into something marvellous, sparkling and dramatically unforgettable. The very fact that persons unknown have spent so much time planning and designing and risking arrest, simply to express their clearly formidable talent in this trackside shithole, truly refreshes the heart.

"And don't forget the cost," Tamm tells me. "I've seen drains that go for two kilometres of solid paint - there's got to be half-a-million dollars worth of it in some."

And then, of course, there are the risks. In NSW it's possible to get a fine of $2,000 for a single offence, with the police even using special computer software that matches your work with others they've photographed. Chris also has acquaintances who've been physically harmed in their pursuit of what he calls "the extreme sport of the art world".

"I've known people who've fallen and put themselves in comas. I know someone who's been impaled on a fence. I also know people who've become mentally ill from inhaling too much paint."

Last year, in a storm drain near Maroubra Beach, two graffitists in their twenties died when flash flood waters washed them down the concrete tunnel and pinned them to the iron bars of the outlet. Tamm says that people like to paint in places like that because they can do so "unmolested". "Plus," he adds, "where can you go nowadays that doesn't cost money? You go down a drain." There are still memorial tags from friends more than 18 months later.

The last stop of our tour, May Lane in St Peters, features some thrilling spurts of inspiration by some of Australia's most revered artists and if you want to pay pilgrimage to just one site in the city, this should be it. There are vast and vastly impressive friezes by internationally renowned graffitists including Hiro from Japan and Mr Cartoon from the States (whose day job is tattooist to the stars and has inked Eminem, Snoop Dog and Mike Tyson amongst others). There are also pieces by magnificently talented Aussies such as Phibs, Teaser, Vexta, Debs and Kill Pixie.

"Some guys knock Kill Pixie because he's made it big and kind of disappeared," Chris says. "I don't really care. But then, I would probably take the people who don't stop doing it more seriously."

I ask Tamm why he thinks graffiti has proved so eternally popular. Adjusting his white hoodie around his shoulders, he replies, "A lot of people, if they work in a grocery store or something, don't get any social recognition for what they do in life. But if you're into graffiti you can get it. You don't even have to be the best. You just have to be prolific and then everyone knows who you are."

Chris Tamm's two-hour guided graffiti tour departs from St Peters Station by appointment, $100 per group or $12 per person (minimum of $100 for a booking). Email konsumterra@gmail.com for more information.

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Updated on 15 May 2015.

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