Kings Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti

The argument of graffiti and vandalism is a tough one – with potential to divide the artist, the press, the taxpayer, the property owner, the law makers and breakers.
Kings Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti
When our editor opened the package from Melbourne University Publishing containing Kings Way - The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti: Melbourne 1983-93, my eyes lit up and my arms reached out with gimme-gimme hands. I have loved street art and hip hop culture since I was in primary school. I remember growing up in the inner city 'burbs and seeing the box heads beginning to appear on walls around Prahran - amongst the earlier scrawls of names, declarations of love, war, whatever - in the very early 80’s. I remember seeing Breakdance at the movies with a bunch of friends and being in awe of the clothing, music and battles. I remember schoolyard performances of KISS songs being replaced with cardboard mats and breaking battles. So it was a natural progression that in high school I (and many others) would become fascinated with graffiti culture. This was the mid 80’s and being a young teenager was dangerous and exciting. The wishy-washy Breakfast Club fashion styles were being replaced with edgier subcultures; goths, punks, skinheads, rudeboys and girls - anything that broke a boundary. Underage clubs were happening every weekend in Melbourne and music was changing rapidly – with an incredible selection from the likes of The Specials, The Cure, Joy Division and New Order (amongst many others). Rap songs had began to make their way into our lives, Beastie Boys, Cameo, Ice T, Run DMC, Public Enemy. This wasn’t music you’d hear on the radio, it filtered to us through films, friends, clubs and record stores. There were no mobile phones and mainstream Internet use was some years away. Kids would meet before, during and after school at train stations. This was our network, our social life and a place to express individuality, explore creativity in fashion, style and art. The weekends weren’t any different – we needed trains to get around and the network around Melbourne allowed young people across our diverse range of suburbs to socialise. The crews around Melbourne knew and respected each other by tags and acronyms representing all the active groups of artists. Melbourne was a far cry from New York, but by this time, hip hop culture had well and truly arrived. Walls around the train network were being pieced with relentless vigour. Trains were being tagged, bombed and pieced – daily. There were weekly articles in every newspaper about vandalism, train surfing, accidents and injuries. Positive recognition of the artistic merits of these works was (with the exception of some earlier commissioned pieces) restricted to peers of the artists. Some of the writers developed (almost) cult status – respected and admired for their talents. Added to this was the attraction of the danger element. This movement was not restricted to any particular class or upbringing - it was an explosion of expression which burst out of every urban corner of Melbourne. At the time the kids felt as though something special was happening, something important – but many were just going along for the ride – and besides, much of it was illegal. How could it ever be accepted? That was 20 years ago, but this era in Melbourne had a huge impact on the way I view youth culture, my music tastes and my appreciation and love of art and creativity. I don't condone the illegal or destructive nature of much of the activity, but I do appreciate it for what it was and is (in part at least) - an art movement. The argument of graffiti and vandalism is a tough one – with potential to divide the artist, the press, the taxpayer, the property owner, the law makers and breakers. The beauty of Kings Way - The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti 1983-93 is that it makes no excuses - it simply explains an urban subculture and art movement that existed and that continues to influence artists around the world. It visually documents hundreds of pieces that were created during this period and offers a voice to the writers who were active at the time. For many who weren’t there in person, in the same age demographic, or involved in the scene, this book (like any well documented book on an art style or period) offers an insight into the inspiration, lifestyle, works, methods, tools and influences on graffiti in Melbourne during this 10-year timeframe. It has taken some time for graffiti to be accepted as an art form by the mainstream (if in fact that has happened). As with many other art styles– the true appreciation is understood in retrospect. For those who now believe in the beauty and creativity of this means of expression – Kings Way reads like the bible, explaining the origins of the movement, the key players and their relationships with one another. You are then taken on a three-part visual style journey (Walls, Bomin’ and Panels) through over 1200 images of graffiti at key locations (legal and illegal) around Melbourne during the time. The reader is briefly introduced to the history of Melbourne, then into the 80’s, the youth culture of the time, the influence of music, dance and the street art of New York City. This rolls into a section called The Writing Scene which for many will be like reading a foreign family tree. For those who already understand the subculture, or who will visually recognise many of the pieces displayed in the book, this section painstakingly pays homage to the individual writers and provides intricate detail of the relationships between the artists and their crews. Throughout the first part: Walls - works are explored and discussed via descriptions and quotations collated from the original writers who reminisce and explain each piece. It is through these snippets that we can begin to understand the cultural influences on each artist and intricacy and development of writing styles. The brief second part: Bomin' (The Art of Tagging) will be the most difficult to stomach for many readers - but it is necessary to the depiction of the illegality and resulting intensity of the movement which was bursting out all over the city. The third part: Panels continues the extensive photographic commentary - complete which technical explanation of the yards and the train carriages in use. For the graffiti artists active at the time, the Melbourne train network offered an instant gallery on which to display their art – to be judged and criticised by their friends, their competition and the entire city. Illegal pieces were often created at night - and once a panel was up on a train, there was no time to remove or perfect it before the entire creation went on show before thousands of the viewing public. One could argue that it is the most immediate, intimidating and rewarding ways for an artist to create and display their paintings. Photographing these works before they were removed or painted-over was often just as challenging, which is why Kings Way is such an incredible visual record. Anybody who travelled on the Melbourne train network during this era will instantly recognise at least some of the pieces. The book also explains the inception and nurturing of graffiti styles throughout the decade: technical, abstract and experimental - the development of which many readers would not have been aware of. Creative director and co-author: Duro Cubrilo and co-authors: Martin Harvey and Karl Stamer should be congratulated on this incredible document. The magnitude of research and collaboration that has gone into the creation of Kings Way is mind-boggling. All three grew up in the thick of the graf culture in the 80’s, but simply tracking down many of the original writers 20 years on must have been an awesome task. That they had the foresight to commence this project and the commitment to complete it (over ten years of work) is brilliant. Kings Way is one of the most comprehensive photographic books in print (anywhere) on the topic of graffiti. For anybody with a passion for street art, graphics, font style, calligraphy or just Melbourne’s gritty graffiti talent, Kings Way is a must-buy. Thanks to all those involved in this book – it will take pride of place on my shelf for many years to come. Kings Way: The Beginnings of Australian Graffiti Melbourne 1983-93 Duro Cubrilo Martin Harvey Karl Stamer Melbourne University Publishing

Emma Johnston

Wednesday 15 July, 2009

About the author

Emma Johnston is a complete nobody whose writing background consists of compiling lists of items for the weekly shop and scribbling notes to pass to mates in high school. She is a one-time 3d drafter, industrial designer, ski bum, cocktail waitress, bar manager, picker and packer and checkout chick. She now works at ArtsHub as a Business Analyst and occasionally gets tickets and free stuff in exchange for her opinions - which is great because she loves the sound of her own voice.