At the turn of the millennium, Melbourne saw an organic, spontaneous blossoming of street art. It manifested in stencils sprayed onto bluestone laneways, in massive paste-up murals adorning railway bridges, and ad-hoc street art happenings in dirty rubble-strewn city spaces.
Melbourne street artists became both subcultural heroes and public enemies – depending on who you asked. Despite the howls of protests from some, Melbourne's street art came to be one of the city's key cultural calling cards, duly named by Lonely Planet as among its top tourist attractions.
Then and Now, a new show opening on Friday in a derelict Collingwood warehouse space, showcases the work of three of Melbourne's early street art pioneers – Haha, Dlux and Sync – but also reveals where these artists have arrived at in 2014.
“Certainly there is an element of nostalgia in the show," says James Dodd (aka Dlux). “What we were doing back then seems a bit rudimentary now. There is a lot more money in it now. Perhaps our mindset was naive in the sense that it wasn't tainted by money, but we hope this show provides a catalyst and a context for those conversations to take place."
The show is divided into two large spaces – the "then" part of the show containing old-style stencil art, and the "now" section displaying more complex recent works. The three artists have collaborated on several large murals in which the canvasses are bursting with juxtaposed stencils of familiar pop culture faces making political statements such as "Abbott voters unwelcome here" and "Bomb me". These, along with a series of somewhat malevolent faces on old street signs, appear almost retro and staid in this context.
The most interesting work comes from the artists' newer creations. One of Haha's central motifs is Ned Kelly, and his Ned's Head triptych is now part of the National Gallery collection. Some of Haha's Kelly stencils are displayed here,displaying his mastery of the stencilling technique as well as the cultural allusion to the artist as outlaw.
Sync's new work sees him moving into a modernist, surrealist direction while still retaining a street art aesthetic. His work delivers an energy-packed, kaleidoscopic wonderland where street art and Daliesque motifs coexist.
Dlux's recent works attempt to capture the "scrawls" of tagging in both surburban and rural settings, incorporating them into often naturalistic landscape work. In one standout piece, a hammerhead shark swims into the deep blue with the darkness of the ocean illustrated by graffiti scrawls the artist collected up in Arnhem Land, where the shark is a totem animal.
Peppered with welcome nostalgia, Then and Now charts the evolution of the Melbourne street art scene into something able to transcend a purely commercial trajectory, demonstrating how it can connect on the broader canvasses of Australian cultural identity and our natural environment.
“This is very much a Melbourne thing, because Melbourne is where street art got its momentum in Australia,” says Dlux. “We hope this show will appeal to those who were around when we were first out there making this art, as well as bringing in a new generation. Certainly we wouldn't do this show in a commercial gallery. We wanted to maintain the connection to street art's political and punk roots.”
- Now and Then is at Second Story Studios, Melbourne